In February we linked to an opinion piece calling on Latino voters to ‘wake up and get involved.’ It focused on voting disparities between Latinos and the population at large and the fallout for Mexicans, Ecuadorians, Chileans, Argentinians and Colombians alike. Recently in Queens Latino, Percy D. Luján enlarged upon that theme with a piece exploring the failure of Latinos in Queens to unite as a solid political force. The piece is translated below.
The growth of the Latino community over the last few decades is no secret. However, Latinos in Queens are still lacking when it comes to leadership and political representation, and this hinders the community’s development.
According to the 2010 Census, the white population in Queens is bigger than the Latino population by 0.1 percent. [Census tables show that non-Hispanic whites make up 27.6 percent of the borough’s population, and Hispanics or Latinos make up 27.5 percent.] Next to whites, Latinos are the largest ethnic group in this borough, although they only have two representatives in the state legislature: Senator José Peralta and Assembly member Francisco P. Moya.
The Latino community is facing major challenges: economic instability, academic success, quality of life, unemployment, immigration status, and affordable housing.
The Latino community in Queens and in the United States has not managed to create a self-sustainable lifestyle. In general, we can’t take care of ourselves. We rely on the kindness of people with power and resources. We rely on the government. Latinos make up 30 percent of the borough’s population, but less than 1 percent of politicians represent us in Albany.
Jorge Hernández, president of the Committee for National Holidays of Mexico, commented on the rapid growth of the Mexican community in the last few years. Hernández explained that the Mexican community is young and has a strong presence.
“Nearly all of Roosevelt Avenue has become Mexican,” said Hernández.
The Mexican community is also young in terms of the age of its workers; some immigrants come to the U.S. with children, or they have children once they arrive. These children grow up surrounded by American culture and their parents’ link with Mexico becomes weaker. Hernández said that 80 percent of parents who raise children in the U.S. don’t return to Mexico.
Today, more than 50 million people with Latino heritage live in the United States, which means that they make up 16 percent of the U.S. population. That being said, only 32 of the legislators in the House of Representatives and the Senate are Latino. This means that only 6 percent of the U.S. Latino population is represented in the most powerful legislative body in the country.
What happened to the other 10 percent? According to the Pew Hispanic Center, in 2011 there were 21.3 million Latinos who were eligible to vote, but only 31.2 percent of them voted in 2010.
Not all Latinos vote for a Latino candidate, and it’s also not certain whether Latino politicians protect the interests of the community. The only certainty is that our communities must change in order to build leadership and seek a better future.
Undocumented Latinos can’t vote, but that’s no excuse to be passive in other areas of life, starting with education. Undocumented Latinos in New York state can vote and be elected to school boards. Latinos need to participate more in this arena.
Plácida Rodríguez, who works for Make the Road New York, a community organization that operates throughout the city, remarked on the declining state of our schools. Students in Queens are attending “overcrowded schools” and according to Rodríguez, this has been happening for more than 20 years.
Part of the problem is the lack of transparency when the Department of Education counts students in public schools. “They undercount students in schools that are overpopulated,” said Rodríguez. There are students studying in trailers, in the hallways, and according to Rodríguez, “even in the closets.” P.S. 19 is the most overcrowded school in the nation.
The consequences of overcrowded schools can be serious.
“In the long term, I think that less students will be graduating from college or high school,” said Rodríguez.
Without the proper attention, students feel isolated and unprotected. Make the Road New York organizes parents to demand the construction of new schools to reduce overcrowding, and to ensure transparency when the time comes for counting students.
“I believe that the future lies with the new generations,” said Guillermo Lozano, ex-president of the Colombian Civic Center of New York. Lozano spoke of the need to build a leader that can work with the Latino community. He also lamented the fact that the Colombian community in Queens doesn’t have a politician elected to office.
“We need a stronger spirit of cooperation,” said Lozano, and added that Colombian organizations have not worked together. He has faith that Colombians understand the electoral process and register to vote, but in order to collaborate they need a leader. However, it is more important for a leader to be honest than strong. In 2011, the CCC couldn’t organize the annual Colombian Independence Day celebration in Flushing Meadows Park because it was nearly $100,000 in debt. The CCC board of directors, of which Lozano was president, was accused of embezzling funds and poor administration.
It is time to think about uniting Latinos. We should stop being Mexicans, Ecuadorians, Chileans, Argentinians, or Colombians. In the United States, we are obliged to come together as one powerful force, with the Spanish language as our unifying element.
Yanna Henríquez, program coordinator at the Dominico-American Society, is critical of this aspect. According to Hernández, Dominicans “pay more attention to politics in the Dominican Republic than they do to politics in New York and the U.S.” Dominicans express a great love for their country and this is characteristic of other Latino groups as well.
We should not be blinded by love for our native countries. We have an obligation to the community and the city we belong to, which welcomed us, and which we continue to fight alongside in order to make progress.
Jorge Hernández accused the directors of the Queens Hispanic Parade of not uniting the community. He said that many directors who organized the parade are Colombian and have not made an effort to bring in representatives from other Latino communities. Nevertheless, these parades offer a diverse array of activities, which provide a social experiment in which any individual or group can develop. By observing these parades, it is also possible to understand how power operates in the Big Apple.
These parades not only display our cultural traditions, but they also make us stronger; they make us less vulnerable as a community.
“There are structural barriers against Latinos,” said Arturo Ignacio Sánchez, an ex-professor at Cornell University and a member of Community Board 3. “We’ve had to fight persistently in order to gain political power.”
Sánchez explained that when Assembly member Ivan C. Lafayette finished his term in office representing District 34 in Queens, the Democrats had the opportunity to elect a Latino candidate, who could represent that predominantly Latino neighborhood. However, they elected Assembly member Michael DenDekker. “They can get their own way because Latinos don’t mobilize politically,” said Sánchez.
This dynamic is a problem of the new urban renovation projects happening in the neighborhoods of Long Island City and Willlets Point, which the Latino representatives in Albany support. These renovation projects will bring offices, hotels, and restaurants to Queens; but they will also attract a population with more money and political power, which in turn will raise rent prices and shut down factories and small businesses. According to Sánchez, this is part of a process of gentrification in the area that will affect immigrant and low-income communities.
For Sánchez, it’s not enough to have Latino leaders in the legislature. “People seem to be content with electing Latinos, but they aren’t very progressive,” said Sánchez. “I’m very concerned that many of our elected officials, including Latinos, are not talking, or not talking enough, about the larger process of gentrification in this neighborhood.” Sánchez said they support an economic development model that is not consistent with the social needs of Latinos. “They are progressive in theory, but not in practice.”
Sánchez said that one indication of this social upheaval is the arrival of well-educated, affluent, white young adults in the neighborhood of Jackson Heights within the last few years. They have been appointed to community boards in the area and are promoting initiatives to improve the quality of life for the most affluent residents. Sánchez gave the example of the closure of 37th Road between 73rd and 74th Streets to create a pedestrian plaza, which has upset small business owners in the neighborhood, many of whom are Southeast Asian; they argue that their sales have decreased.
Alfredo Arrieta, president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Queens, which just held its annual Business Expo, said, “It’s time to change because the way we ran businesses 10 or 15 years ago no longer works.” Arrieta added that large American corporations can help Latinos to make progress.
Immigrants strive to strengthen their small businesses and in turn create new jobs for the community. Out of the city’s 140,000 small business owners, 48 percent are immigrants. They aren’t large corporations like Starbucks that take money away from the community. These businesses belong to the same residents living in the area, for which they are creating new jobs. Income earned by small businesses stays within the community. They develop it, they improve it, and the community thrives. Yanna Henríquez recommends organizing new business owners and giving them financial education so that they know how to make good decisions, and thereby preserve the community’s vitality.