“We’re no longer left out. It might take us a little longer to catch up, but we’re not left out.”
Local leaders and citizens of Boston’s Latino community met Saturday in the East Boston Social Club for the first annual Boston Latino Conference, a discussion of issues facing Latinos and possible solutions.
The half day conference was sponsored by East Boston Ecumenical Community Council (EBECC),Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA), Neighbors United for a Better East Boston (NUBE), ¿Oiste?, and SEIU615.
Much of the buzz surrounding the conference focused on the event’s keynote speaker, Councilman Daniel Valenzuela from Phoenix, Arizona. The councilman was chosen for his successful 2011 door-to-door grassroots campaign that saw a 480 percent increase in the Latino vote. What makes the feat even more impressive is that his predominantly Hispanic district always had the lowest voter turnout--a common trend around the nation.
“My goal is for people to leave here not with a grand idea but with a blueprint,” said Councilman Valenzuela before the Conference started. “What I’m speaking about is a proven method.”
Another out-of-state guest (from Philadelphia) was Rafael Collazo, Director of Political Campaigns for the National Council of La Raza.
“EBECC is an NCLR affiliate, so it’s important we support it’s efforts,” said Collazo. He added that “Massachusetts is very much a microcosm [of the national Latino community]. There are many second and third generation Latinos along with new immigrants … I think Mass. is an example of the challenges facing Latinos and also their potential.”
The audience filled in as the 9:30 start time approached. Some checked out the voter registration information supplied by the sponsoring organizations and MassVote. Many met with local leaders in attendance. In the end there were over 70 attendees.
Mayor Thomas Menino and local Councilman Felix Arroyo also had representatives at the conference. Ernani DeAraujo, representing the mayor, was happy to attend as both an East Boston native and the first Latino in his role of Community Coordinator.
Everyone took their seats as emcee and local journalist Marcela Garcia intoduced the first panel: Rafael Collazo; Dr. Maria Idalí Torres, Director of the Gaston Institute; and Alejandra St. Guillen, Executive Director of ¿Oiste?. The event was conducted mostly in Spanish, though English translation was provided.
Collazo spoke first, mixing Spanish and English when praising Valenzuela’s accomplishments in Phoenix, a national story, and crediting his story with changing the mentality of Arizona. He emphasized the need for Latinos to vote and earn representation.
“Who has the voice at, for example, a state level, a local level? It would be a shame to NOT raise the voice you have, the work you’ve done, to a civic level.”
Dr. Torres followed, leading a presentation of statistics regarding Boston Latinos according to Gaston Institute studies. Initial graphs explained population size and growth (Latinos grew by 28.7% from 200 to 2010), but later numbers emphasized the disparities facing the Latino community.
- Latinos make up 42% of Boston Public School students but have below average four-year graduation rates (57.4% for Latinos to 64.4% total) and higher dropout rates (18.5% to 15.1%). Dr. Torres adds that students in bilingual programs perform better than those in regular studies.
- 64.9% Latinos work in the service industy; they make less an hour than White and Black counterparts and slightly more than Asians.
- Fewer Latinos hold professional or management roles (18.7%) and typically earn less than White, Black, and Asian professionals.
- Latinos have the lowest homeownership rates at 13%—something Dr. Torres suggested is evidence of discrimination by banks. They also pay the cheapest rents—under $800 a month. Whites typically rent for over $1,300. This suggests Latinos are concentrated in poorer neighborhoods.
- 12.2% of Boston Latinos are uninsured—the highest rate around. African Americans have the second highest uninsured rate at 6.7%.
“If we’re not voting, we’re losing our voice,” says St. Guillen.
She also showed the power of voter turnout in predominantly Hispanic cities like Springfield, Lawrence, and Lynn. In the 2010 Scott Brown-Martha Coakley race, these cities saw a turnout of 7,000, 3,100 and 1,200 respectively. For the Deval Patrick-Charles Baker race months later, turnout in these towns increased by 70, 90, and 217 percent each due to a more mobilized Latino vote.
Frank Ramirez, Executive Director of EBECC, then introduced the keynote speaker who “represents a mostly Latino district that almost parallels what East Boston represents to us.”
Valenzuela took to the front of the crowd and delivered an engaging 30 minute speech, which was momentarily interrupted because Valenzuela only speaks English. “I’m the youngest of six, I always needed a translator,” he said smiling. After earpieces were given to those who needed translation, he continued his speech.
He explained where he comes from as a father, a fireman, and a husband and detailed the door-to-door campaign that resulted in the 480 percent increase—a number that received gasps and light applause. He also emphasized the power and virtue of the working class. Most importantly, he emphasized that he came from his community and leads as someone who’s seen both the best and worst of Phoenix.
Here’s a video of most of his speech—some choice quotes follow.
This district is 60 percent minority. I’m from these neighborhoods … I went to 13 different schools—not by choice … Some of the toughest neighborhoods Phoenix has to offer. Those experiences define me. Standing in that charity line year in and year out, and coming away so excited for that new football for Christmas… Knowing what it’s like to wait in line with my mother for that free bowl of oatmeal, seeing the look on my mother’s face and [consoling] her by telling her oatmeal is my favorite … Losing my older brother to AIDS, my mother to bone and breast cancer, my father to liver disease, and seeing drug infested neighborhoods … and never wanting to leave home and wanting to make it better—those are the experiences that make me the man I am …
I decided earlier on that my goal, our goal, is to make everyone in this district a voter. If we can do that, we can make everyone pay attention … I aligned myself with organizations I agree with … working class organizations—SEIU, CWA, Sheet Metal Workers, Unite Here, UFCW, and several business organziations as well. I also realized if we wanted to make a change, we have to start at the core—our youth. So I met with five students who also know what it’s like to get that free football, five kids who know what its like to stand in line for a free meal, who are also growing up in those crime-ridden neighborhoods, and I put my heart on the table and said. ‘If you agree with me … then this campaign is as much yours as mine; what are we gonna do with it? This campaign is not a campaign to win one seat … [but for] social behavioral change…’
It’s a three step process to empowerment: You have to get people registered to vote; you have to teach people the importance of that vote; and you have to get people to cast that vote, even if I have to drag you myself …
Each were met with challenges … Those who couldn’t vote because they were undocumented or a DREAM Act student, I especially wanted to work with … These are the people that stood to gain the most … I work with DREAM Act students who never had the opportunity to cast a vote in my election, yet they were responsible for hundreds of votes.
I remember walking door to door in one of the largest districts in the country … asking families, ‘Why are you not voting in the first place?’ … They feel disenfranchised. ‘Why should I vote for that poltiican who doesn’t care about me?’ We hear that excuse too often. If you vote, they’ll have to care … I explained that, though I may be the only candidate to ever knock on your door, if you follow through, if you vote, I will no be the last. Others will have to come back.
That Latino voter turnout, that reason I would lose, increased by 488 percent in this district … We worked in three other districts. Think of all the news you’ve heard of Arizona … in Phoenix, voter turnout for Latinos increased by 300 percent across the board.
Why can’t a kid with my backgound—or your background—why can’t that kid be good enough to serve and drive the community forward? …Who better understands our neighborhoods than me or you? Why can’t that agent of change come from East Phoenix, or from East Boston? I’m standing here, proof that it can. In fact, you are here as proof that it can…
We’re no longer left out. It might take us a little longer to catch up, but we’re not left out.”
After his speech, attendees split into four groups (led by sponsoring organization members) to discuss issues they were concerned about.
Common concerns included: Emphasis on community development; more communication between politicians, community agencies, and citizens; immigration reform; scholarships for students; more and less-expensive ESL programs; more elected Latino representatives.
The groups break up and return to their seats as Garcia introduces the second and final panel: Samuel Hurtado for education; Luisa Chew for jobs; Frank Soults for immigration; and Maria González Albuixech for health.
Hurtado, Executive Director of South Boston en Acción raised the issue of representation in the school system, and how teachers and administrators don’t reflect the 42 percent Latino student body. “Who do they [the administrators] have in mind? Only 10 percent of officials are Latinos.” Hurtado emphasizes the need for an agenda advocating representation in the school system, and mentions the need for parents to get involved with school councils.
Soults, MIRA’s Communications Director, reminded attendees of the political challenges facing undocumented immigrants—Senator Brown is against the DREAM Act; President Obama has a higher deportation rate in four years than President Bush did in eight; and ICE agents want permission for stricter enforcement. He also mentioned a proposed law earlier this year that would have required papers for vehicle registration (Governor Patrick vetoed it).
Chew, the Immigration Coordinator at EBECC, emphasized the need for Latinos to join and strengthen unions, fight for better salaries, and fight against workplace discrimination. The number of professional Latinos also needs to grow. “22 percent [of Mass. Latinos] work in construction. 26 percent work in service. Only seven percent hold professional positions.” She also mentioned Deferred Action, Obama’s executive order which let’s certain young undocumented immigrants “work and continue their education” for two years.
González, Director of Communications and Marketing for Health Care for All, focused on health insurance for Massachusetts Latinos. It’s mostly good news. “In 2004, one in four Hispanics had no insurance,” said González, but by 2010, 96 percent of documented Hispanics in Massachusetts had health insurance (note: number does not include Aliens with Special Status, who in 2010 were denied the sudsidized program due to budget cuts; this decision was reversed in a court case earlier this year). This growth is a result of 2006′s Commonwealth Care, aka RomneyCare, which reformed and expanded health care. It also inspired the Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare), which provided even more benefits than the 2006 law. González added another positive for Hispanic health: “Three in four Latinos now have a Primary Care Physician.”
Afterwards, the panelists answered a few questions, often promoting services their respective agencies offered. For example, Chew explained that EBECC offers after school programs to help students with homework and college and scholarship applications. Members of the audience, many from similar community organizations, also helped answer questions and facilitate discussion.
Though the conference ended a little late at 12:45PM, it felt too short. “I thought I would have more time to present,” Hurtado said after the conference, flipping through his extra notes. Frank Ramirez of EBECC claims next year’s conference will be a full day.
Feedback was positive, overall. “I thought it was good to have different sectors represented, different social service providers and leaders,” Collazo said. “It was a good cross-section.”
Despite some behind-the-scenes technical issues, Ramirez said the conference “went very well” and was particularly inspired and impressed with Councilman Valenzuela.
Ramirez predicts the conference will only grow and improve.
“We planted a seed,” he said. “This had to happen. And it had to happen in East Boston.”