Latinos in Queens: Much Diversity, Little Political Clout

Roosevelt Avenue is the epicenter of Latino life in Queens. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

Roosevelt Avenue is the epicenter of Latino life in Queens. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

For the Latino community throughout New York City, state government representation held up in the last primary election. In the case of Queens, it appears to have stalled.

While other boroughs introduced new Latino faces to the electorate, Queens did not.

After the Bronx, Queens has the second largest Hispanic population (613,750 or 28 percent) in New York, and Spanish is spoken in nearly one of every four households. Still, only one of the borough’s 14 council members is Latino, as well as two assembly members and one state senator.

According to Carlos Vargas Ramos, adjunct assistant professor of political science at Hunter College, this is attributable to several factors. “Many people are not citizens and, therefore, not registered to vote,” said Vargas Ramos, who is also a research associate at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies.

Just 12 years ago, Queens elected Puerto Rican Hiram Monserrate as its first Latino representative. Monserrate acted as council member, and later became senator for the 13th District, which includes Corona and Jackson Heights, among other neighborhoods. The politician’s career ended abruptly when he was found guilty of assault after a domestic violence incident and expelled from the State Senate.

Although Puerto Ricans continue to be the majority among Hispanics in Queens, they are spread out throughout the borough. Vargas Ramos says the political power achieved by Latinos in Queens cannot be compared with that obtained by the community in Brooklyn, where three council members, one senator and three assembly members are Hispanic.

“The first Puerto Ricans who came to New York settled in Brooklyn. They have been there longer,” said Vargas Ramos. “In Queens, immigrants started to arrive from Latin America and other areas after immigration laws were modified in 1965.”

It was in the ’60s that Assemblyman Francisco Moya’s parents arrived from Ecuador and settled in Queens. Ecuadoreans are the largest Latin American immigrant group in the borough. In 2010, Moya became the nation’s first elected official of Ecuadorean descent.

“All that matters is that we remain united,” said the assemblyman. “The community is much divided, and that weakens our political base.”

Moya said that the Democratic Party is working to get more Hispanic district leaders elected. The job, although unpaid, is “a springboard to higher positions,” added the politician.

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Still, Jessica Ramos, a Colombian trade union leader and ex-district leader for the 39th District – where Moya now serves – said that the Democratic Party “is not creating spaces for South Americans.”

Ramos says that she was rejected by the party after she supported Melissa Mark-Viverito’s candidacy for the City Council speaker instead of the Queens Democratic administration’s favorite, Daniel Garodnick (D-Manhattan). Ramos served 2 two-year terms until 2014. This year, she ran without the party’s support and lost to Dominican candidate Yanna Henríquez.

“It is almost impossible to win without the support of the machine,” said Ramos. “Francisco Moya had to lose five elections before he was able to get the seat.” She added that, when Moya finally won the 2010 primary against Hiram Monserrate, it was because the latter had been expelled from the senate after his domestic violence conviction.

The only Hispanic council member for Queens, Julissa Ferreras, who is Dominican, admitted that South Americans are underrepresented. “There is opportunity. It is difficult, but not impossible. But, yes, our representation still does not match our community.”

Ferreras represents the 21st District, the same one that elected Monserrate in 2002. Although it includes the Jackson Heights neighborhood, where many Colombians live and own several businesses, the group has no political representation.

According to political strategist Naila Caicedo, some fellow Colombians have run for office – such as entrepreneur Carlos Plaza, CEO of Publinet Solutions – but she points out that although there are several leaders, there is not much unity and “there is no one advising them” about politics.

“We fight among ourselves for the crumbs, and there is no vision to advance as a community,” said Caicedo.

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