Salvadorans: the Largest Minority on Long Island

Mónica R. Martínez became the first Salvadoran to become a legislator in Suffolk County. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

Mónica R. Martínez is the first Salvadoran woman to become a legislator in Suffolk County. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

Four decades after Salvadorans began arriving on Long Island, they are gaining political empowerment.

Last September, Salvadoran Mónica R. Martínez beat legislator Rick Montano by a large margin (64-36 percent). Montano had occupied the seat for District 9 (which includes Brentwood, Central Islip and North Bay Shore) for a decade.

Martínez, 36, is the younger sister of Antonio Martínez, council member for the city of Babylon and the first Salvadoran elected to hold office in the state of New York.

“My parents had two jobs, and went to night school to learn English. Our only time together was at dinner,” said Ms. Martínez, who was a teacher for 10 years and later became assistant principal at the East Middle School in Brentwood.

The brother and sister, two of four siblings, came to the United States as children to reunite with their parents – a lumber salesman and a hygienist. The couple had emigrated from El Salvador and settled on Long Island in 1982, fleeing civil war.

“Mom left me with my grandmother for a year. The separation made my family hang on to very strong values, especially unity,” said the legislator.

Council member Antonio Martínez was 13 when he came to the U.S., and he soon enrolled in middle school in Lynbrook. After graduating from the State University of New York College at Oneonta, he stayed in Babylon and became a community organizer.

Martínez remembers his youth as an immigrant as a painful experience rife with discrimination. He points out that his community has had great achievements in spite of these conditions.

“Without losing our identity, Salvadorans quickly understood that civic participation was the only way to become integrated into the sociopolitical context of Long Island,” said the government official.

“We have seen a significant increase of Latinos as civil servants in the last decade, and Central American politicians are the latest addition to this process of integration.”

Central Islip District 6 Assembly member Phil Ramos, a Puerto Rican, pointed out that 12 Latinos hold elected seats on Long Island. He added that Salvadorans are one of the most influential communities in cities such as Brentwood and Central Islip.

“Salvadoran immigrants have made enormous contributions to our cities in a relatively short time,” he said.

Ramos added that Puerto Ricans came to Long Island in the 1920s, but it was not until 12 years ago that he was elected. He is the first Puerto Rican in office on the island.

Salvadoran heritage

The New York State Assembly unanimously named August 6 as Salvadoran-American Day after a proposal presented by Ramos. The day echoes the federal Salvadoran-American Day approved by the House of Representatives in 2006.

Ten years ago, Ramos also proposed to declare September 15 as Central American Day. The date marks the day when a coalition of Central American countries declared the region’s independence from Spain in 1821.

Held this year on August 10 in Hempstead, the Salvadoran-American Day Festival will attract thousands of Central Americans from Long Island and the metro area.

According to the latest census, Salvadorans are the largest minority on Long Island, with 99,495 residents, 22.5 percent of the island’s population.

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