Is There a Latino Leadership Void in Queens?

From left, State Senator Jose Peralta, Assemblyman Francisco Moya and Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras during the Queens Dominican Parade last September. (Photo by Javier Castano via Queens Latino)

Despite having three Latino elected officials, Hispanics in Queens don’t have politicians or community leaders to turn to in difficult times or who can rally support for key Latino issues like affordable housing or school overcrowding, reports Queens Latino.  The article below was translated from English. 

Early in October, the police killed Noel Polanco, 22, while he was driving his car near LaGuardia Airport. Polanco, a 22-year-old Dominican who was a member of the U.S. National Guard, was unarmed.

The victim’s mother went to the Queens District Attorney’s office seeking justice and demanded an investigation. She also turned for help to Rev. Al Sharpton. But Polanco’s mother didn’t receive support from Queens politicians or the Latino leadership of the borough.

Her story reveals a lack of Latino leaders who can be spring into action in situations like hers. This void is also felt when the Latino community tries to organize itself to demand a solution to problems like school overcrowding and a lack of affordable housing. The current Latino leaders in Queens can’t bring people together.

“The community still hasn’t produced a César Chávez,” said Rubén Quiroz, director of Acción Latina, an organization that works to strengthen Latino communities by promoting and preserving cultural traditions and by encouraging meaningful civic engagement. According to Quiroz, this type of leadership is born out of necessity and the community hasn’t demonstrated such a need. Quiroz said the community “protests passively” but there isn’t a Latino leadership that questions the system and spurs the community to action.

Others point to politicians like Assemblyman Francisco Moya, Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras and State Senator José Peralta (who recently announced his candidacy for Queens Borough President) as evidence that there is a Latino leadership in Queens.

“I think they are working for the community,” said Oswaldo Guzmán, president of the Ecuadorian Civic Committee of New York.

Others see themselves as community leaders, like Jorge Hernández, president of the Committee of Fiestas Patrias Mexicanas. “I know that I have the ability to bring people together,” said Hernández. He said he is the leader of the Mexican community, but that in the overall Latino community, Sen. Peralta has the most power to unite Queens Latinos of all nationalities.

Guillermo Lozano, former president of the Colombian Civic Committee, said that Latinos in Queens don’t have a leader with enough charisma to unite the community, and that Latinos stick with others of the same nationality instead of coming together as Latin Americans.

“We need a leader who can communicate with Latinos from every country,” said Lozano. He believes the main problem is that when Latinos nominate a candidate for public office, other Hispanic candidates of different nationalities jump in the race as well; this division results in no one getting elected. Lozano suggested the Latino community nominate one candidate that people of all nationalities would support, a challenging task.

Quiroz thinks the voting dynamic isn’t very helpful. “The majority of people who call themselves political leaders are well-connected within the Democratic Party,” he said. In his opinion, politicians like Peralta, Ferreras and Moya will never truly step up to the plate to defend the Latino community because they don’t want to put their positions within the party at risk. “But they use the Latino community to further their political careers.”

“The underlying problem is one of organization,” explains Quiroz. “But apart from that, there are other problems when it comes to making decisions and actually taking action.” Quiroz said he has never seen Latino politicians take to the streets to demand better affordable housing and education for the Latino community. “The local Latino politicians limit themselves to participating in press conferences and making announcements.”

“The issue of leadership is debatable and needs to be re-interpreted,” said Arturo Ignacio Sánchez, a member of Community Board 3 and former professor at Cornell University. Sánchez described the challenges facing the Latino community as structural. If politicians who want to help the community are trying to get elected, they have to make certain concessions. “Once they’re in office,” he said, “they’ve already sold out.”

Sánchez explained that grassroots community organizations that existed during the civil rights movement in the 1960s, gained political power later on. Nowadays, politicians try to win elections without support from community organizations. Elected officials view politics as a career rather than a call to help their constituents. According to Sánchez, a lack of leadership isn’t the problem, rather a lack of community organization needed to bring about change.

The other problem that has appeared in recent months is the creation of PACs (political action committees) that receive unlimited donations to finance campaigns and agendas. Many nonprofit organizations are becoming heavily influenced by politics as they increasingly receive money from large corporations via their PACs. They hide their political intentions while asserting that they “work on behalf of the people and immigrants.” This type of leadership is insincere.

“It’s very difficult,” said David Glassberg, a former member of School Board 30. “First we need a group of people that understands the problems facing the community, and we also need someone who wants to face up to the mayor.”

Glassberg said that organizations like Make the Road New York do a good job at the grassroots level, but once they need public funding they fall into the game of politics. According to Glassberg, Mayor Bloomberg uses public and private funds to buy silence from community organizations when inconsistencies appear.

Glassberg said the reason why the family of Noel Polanco, the young man killed by the NYPD, didn’t turn to Latino organizations is because they didn’t have the leverage to bring people together, and the majority of the Latino community in Queens isn’t aware of them.

Some of the people interviewed for this article said Queens Latinos need new leadership that doesn’t require electoral victories to get established in the community. This new leadership must emerge from independent community organizations. More than a leader, Latinos need a united front to fight the political maneuvering and lack of honesty that threaten the community.

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