Latino vote, Latino power
Even though every politician wants the Latino vote, none of them seem too concerned with the actual problems facing the Latino community.
“There are more issues than just immigration. Health issues, education—the Latino community has higher dropout rates,” says Dr. Jorge Capetillo, Associate Professor of Sociology at UMass Boston. “We should be worried about that.”
As it now stands, Latinos have a 41 percent dropout rate, a 30 percent uninsured rate, and still no actual DREAM Act.
In response to issues like these, community agencies have organized the Boston Latino Conference. The half-day conference takes place at the East Boston Social Club on October 13, and is sponsored by East Boston Ecumenical Community Council, Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, Neighbors United for a Better East Boston, ¿Oiste?, and SEIU615, with speakers from the Gaston Institute and National Council of La Raza.
The conference focuses on Latino empowerment and involvement on local and national levels. For example ¿Oiste?, which undertakes many voter registration efforts, will show a presentation on Hispanic voting statistics.
“Right now, Latinos only make up six percent of eligible voters [in Mass],” says Alejandra St. Guillen, executive director of ¿Oiste?. “We have the chance to be more, and six percent can be all the difference.”
Which brings up the issue of representation: “Latinos make up close to 10 percent of the state, and yet that representation is limited,” says Dr. Capetillo.
Out of 200 State House seats, there are only four Hispanic reps and one Latina senator, says St. Guillen. Even in Boston, a minority-majority city, only two of nine district reps are people of color.
“Boston has been dominated by an Italian-Irish political machine for a long time,” says Dr. Capetillo. “We can’t just wait until the ethnic configuration changes.”
“We need to establish a Latino agenda that’s in the desk of every politician.” St. Guillen adds that, save election years, “the Latino community doesn’t receive a lot of attention.”
Luis Bravo, a prominent Spanish-language journalist and host of WNUR 1600’s Pulso a la Medianoche, recalls Mayor Menino’s indifference during the 2009 mayoral race.
After ignoring requests for an interview in Bravo’s East Boston newspaper—one of the few local Spanish papers around—he then skipped a candidates’ forum in East Boston, partly sponsored by Bravo’s Perfiles Publishing Group.
Menino attended a Newbury Street gala instead.
“The other candidates came … the mayor didn’t show up,” says Bravo. “The people asked ‘Why didn’t he come?’ There wasn’t any explanation.” The Herald and local papers ran stories on the mayor’s “empty seat.” Bravo’s paper was shut down soon after the event—and he won’t say whether the mayor was involved or not.
Still, Bravo maintains that the biggest challenge to the Latino vote isn’t incumbent politicians.
“What Latinos need to overcome is apathy,” he says. “If we don’t, we’ll end up in the same situation.”
Bravo adds that a distrust of politics is embedded in the culture, since many Latinos come from countries where government corruption is even more prevalent and deadlier.
Apathy and distrust can be defeated—just ask the conference’s keynote speaker, Councilman Daniel Valenzuela from Phoenix, Arizona. Valenzuela was a fireman who, like many in his district, thought negatively of elected officials, but one day decided to run for councilman. The odds were against him. His predominantly Latino district always had the lowest voter turnout.
“Latinos don’t vote,” he says, quoting popular opinion.
“I can’t change that the community is Latino, and I wouldn’t want to change that. But we can change, and did change, the voting records of Latinos.”
In 2011, Valenzuela and the student group “Team Awesome” knocked on every door in District 5, hearing every citizen’s concerns and frustrations and actively engaging the community. The results were incredible—the Latino vote in Valenzuela’s district increased by 480 percent.
In less than a year, Valenzuela advocated to hire 28 more firefighters, expanded public transit in West Phoenix, secured a new bus station, for his district, and helped broker a public-private agreement with a local college to fund enhanced policing for five years. His short career has been so successful that Obama’s Arizona campaign now occupies his headquarters.
“Other candidates ask how I’m able to do this. Here’s what I tell them. If you ask people to march ‘for me’ you might get three or four people. If you ask people to march ‘with me’ you might get 10.”
“Tell people you’re going to march ‘for them’—that’s how you get them.”
Valenzuela believes if empowerment could happen in Phoenix, with its poor reputation regarding Latinos, it can happen in Eastie.
“We always talked about the theory of empowerment, the theory of the vote. And that became a reality. The theory is proven.”
Note: Follow-up coverage of the event itself is available here.