‘Little Colombia’ Needs Representation

Colombian parade held last year on Northern Boulevard in Jackson Heights, Queens. (Photo via El Diario)

Colombian parade held last year on Northern Boulevard in Jackson Heights, Queens. (Photo via El Diario)

Since Colombians started arriving [in the Big Apple] in the 1960s, they have formed “Little Colombia” in Queens, but unlike Puerto Ricans, Dominicans or more recently, Mexicans and Ecuadoreans, they haven’t managed to be represented in city politics.

It is estimated that 1.5 million Colombians live in the tri-state area (New York, New Jersey and Connecticut). In New York City, the majority have settled in Jackson Heights, Elmhurst, and Corona. However, besides not having representatives in local and state government, in 2011, Colombians lost their most famous and well-attended event, the Colombian Independence Day festival in Flushing Meadows Park.

“Unfortunately, Colombians aren’t known for being united, and we should be,” said Adolfo Sánchez, president of the Colombian Civic Center (CCC). He indicated that too much regionalism among his countrymen and a “lack of funding” led to the cancellation of the event three years ago. [It hasn’t been held since.]

The regionalism “reflects what is happening over there [in Colombia], but little by little it’s getting weaker,” said Sánchez.

The organization that Sánchez runs, which this year celebrated its 36th anniversary, tries to help Colombians when they arrive in New York, in addition to promoting their culture and folklore.

Sánchez believes it is important to achieve unity “to build momentum and be able to place leaders in the state Assembly and the government to advocate for our community’s interests,” including the creation of quality jobs and good health care services.

This scenario has already become reality in New Jersey, where Colombians have become mayors of towns such as Hackensack and Dover.

“They benefit the community somewhat, but the towns are smaller,” said Sánchez. He refers to the restructuring process that the CCC is going through. “We need new blood,” he stressed.

Rafael Castelar, president and founder of the Colombian Cultural International Center (CCCI is its acronym in Spanish), has the same line of thinking. He came to New York in 1965 and was once part of the CCC.

“After the Colombian Day parade happens on July 27, we’ll hold several lectures on leadership,” said Castelar, who founded the parade in 2001.

The Colombian Independence Day celebrations exemplify the division that occurred in the community and the CCC.

CCCI is coordinating the parade, which will take place along Northern Boulevard; Mayor Bill de Blasio will attend.

Castelar has a long history of founding organizations such as the Friends Society of Colombia in 1967, two years after he emigrated, or the Parade of La Raza, today the Parade of Hispanidad [“the quality or character of being Latino”]. At age 67, he’s not about to throw in the towel; [rather, he’ll keep working] to strengthen his community, which he believes suffers from jealousy.

What is for sure is that Castelar receives heavy criticism for gaining power through various organizations and not living in the area.

Besides being the international president of CCCI, he also founded the Colombian Chamber of Commerce in New York, where he is an honorary president and has his business.

Leadership 

Activist Orlando Tobón doesn’t stop for a moment while helping clients at his office on Roosevelt Avenue, surrounded by posters from the Colombian Anti-Defamation League and Latino Repatriation. He stressed that various isolated Colombian groups need to work together in order to help [their] countrymen.

“We don’t have representation. Our politicians have made us look bad. Former state Sen. Hiram Monserrate is in prison for having stolen money from his supporters; City Council member Julissa Ferreras only comes to the neighborhood during election time,” lamented Tobón.

After [living] in New York for 40 years, Tobón has rolled up his sleeves and gotten involved in numerous social causes, both small and large, in order to help his people.

He emphasized that as long as “the older folks don’t let go of [their] supposed leadership [positions],” it will be difficult to change the [public’s] mood of indifference toward New York politics.

Indeed, different organizations are working hard to overcome the generation gap.

“It’s the small community groups that solve our problems,” said Tobón. The lack of cohesion is the most salient of these issues.

Entrepreneur and economist Zoilo Nieto recognizes the differences in the community and plays them down.

“These differences also exist in other communities, but we have to make progress so that ours becomes stronger, and [so we can] elect candidates to help us get organized,” he said.

Nieto, who ran to represent Colombians abroad – and didn’t win – in elections that were canceled due to alleged fraud, called on the Colombian government to provide greater financial support.

“We’re asking them to set aside $15 million for politics abroad,” explained Nieto, who founded the Zoni Language Centers.

Too much personalism

Veterans say it is possible to replace the old leadership, and that above all, it’s necessary, because people in Queens are already starting to feel the changes affecting the community.

Jackson Heights has been changing for several years now according to Arturo Ignacio Sánchez, professor of urban and regional planning at Columbia University. He reasoned that “fragmentation” and “personalism” have divided the community.

Sánchez underscored that the Colombian population is “the most ethnically diverse” [group] in Jackson Heights. This is “the new Lower East Side” he said, from the perspective of immigration.

For Sánchez, it’s more important to discuss “social formations” than the Latino community.  He explained that Spaniards, Peruvians, and Colombians [all go through] migratory processes, and that each group relies on their social, cultural, and racial capital.

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