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Spanish Is NYC’s Second Language But Latino Political Power Sputters

A number of barriers contribute to the shortage of Latinos in the state legislature, including low voter turnout, difficulty fundraising, scandals and factions splintering the vote.

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A 7 train heads from Long Island City to Sunnyside in Queens, Jan. 31, 2022.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Since before Oscar García Rivera became the first Puerto Rican elected to the state Assembly in 1937, Latinos have struggled to establish a firm grip in New York politics. 

“We’re lacking in political muscle,” said Gerson Borrero, a veteran political analyst and former editor-in-chief of El Diario. “We have become puppets. We have become citizens of the system rather than the leaders.” 

Just 9% of state lawmakers have roots in Latin America, according to a tally by THE CITY. The 150-member Assembly has 13. The 63-seat Senate has six. 

Of those 19 elected officials with Latino heritage, all but two commute to Albany to work on behalf of constituencies in The Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens or Manhattan. 

Meanwhile, Latinos represent roughly 29% of the population across the five boroughs, but there has never been a single one elected to a citywide or statewide office.

A number of barriers contribute to the shortage of Latinos in the state legislature, including low voter turnout, weak messaging, difficulty fundraising and scandals, as well as district lines and factions splintering the vote, political analysts told THE CITY.     

“I believe that, sometimes, Latinos, we have been our own impediment to our growth,” said Eli Valentin, a political analyst and contributing columnist at Gotham Gazette.

One factor outside their control is the once in a decade redistricting process, which hasn’t favored Latinos as their numbers have risen across the state, noted Cesar Ruiz, a legal fellow and attorney at LatinoJustice PRLDEF, a civil rights advocacy nonprofit formerly known as the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund.

“We’ve seen representation not matching what the demographic growth is, particularly in New York City and outside, through the redistricting process,” Ruiz said. 

The already chaotic process is now partially in limbo, throwing everyone for a loop this particular election cycle.   

District lines have never favored Latinos and other communities of color, Ruiz said, noting that Spanish-speaking neighborhoods were splintered when Republicans drew lines following the 2010 Census, and this year when Democrats redrew the now-contested lines.  

“Both sets of state maps show an intention to favor what either the incumbent or the partisan interest is in these areas, as opposed to the growth that was driving the changes from 2010 to 2020,” he said.

Meanwhile, the City Council this session grew more diverse, with 15 Latinos in its 51 seats, or about 29%. 

Lieutenant governor candidates (l-r): Diana Reyna, Alison Esposito, Quanda Francis and Ana María Archila.

William Alatriste/New York City Council, Allison Esposito/Twitter, Quanda Francis Lt. Gubernatorial Committee/Facebook, Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

And Antonio Delgado, the new unelected lieutenant governor, says he identifies as “Afro-Latino” because of his African American and Cape Verdean heritage. But observers note the African country of Cape Verde, a former Portuguese colony consisting of a cluster of islands in the Atlantic Ocean, is not in Latin America, and Portugal is in Europe.   

The winner of the race for lieutenant governor between Delgado and two viable Latinas — Democrats Ana María Archila and Diana Reyna — would likely become the first person to identify as a Latino elected to a statewide office in New York. 

New Blood in Queens

The lack of representation in the statehouse means there’s history to be made.

In Queens, one of two Democratic candidates vying to succeed a retiring state lawmaker member could become the first Latino to represent parts of Long Island City, Maspeth, Ridgewood, Sunnyside and Woodside in the state Assembly. 

Two first-generation Americans, Juan Ardila and Johanna Carmona, are on the ballot for the June primary election for Assembly District 37, with its recently redrawn boundaries.

“It would be the honor of a lifetime,” Ardila told THE CITY. “I mean, I grew up in Maspeth so to be the first Latino to represent it is, you know, you can’t dream of those things.”

Assemblymember Catherine Nolan, who has held the seat for nearly four decades, announced in February — after Albany Democrats approved the new district lines — that she plans to retire at the end of this year. 

Queens Assembly District 37 candidates Johanna Carmona and Juan Ardila.

Courtesy of Carmona and Ardila Campaigns

As of now, the new district boundaries approved by state lawmakers in February continue to include parts of Long Island City, Maspeth, Ridgewood, Sunnyside and Woodside. But a sliver of Astoria, currently within the district, will be excluded. 

While the Assembly lines survived the first Republican-backed challenge, a second lawsuit filed last month aims to redraw them as well — but was shot down by a State Supreme Court judge on Wednesday.

The only other candidates in the AD37 race are Democrats Jim Magee and Brent O’Leary

Software engineer Huge Ma, also known as “Vax Daddy” because of his wildly popular vaccine appointment tracker, had announced a run for the seat last year, but dropped out in February when the new district boundaries excluded his residence in Astoria. (He still could have run but he would have had to move after taking office.)

‘Where Are the Leaders?’

Borrero, who ran the largest Spanish-language newspaper in New York City, contends Latinos find themselves in this political predicament because they haven’t cultivated younger generations to take the reins after they leave office — as the Irish and Italians did in past generations, and Black politicians are doing now, he says.

“The voters are there. Where are the leaders?” he asked.

When it comes to energizing voters, meanwhile,  Borrero noted only a few trailblazing exceptions, including Reps. Nydia Velázquez (D-Brooklyn/Queens/Manhattan), whom he initially helped get elected, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-The Bronx/Queens).

He also stated that political “power is taken, not given,” and works best when a group of people coalesce around a leader.

Ocasio-Cortez achieved the formidable goal in 2018, when she defeated Joe Crowley, an entrenched Democratic politician who had served in the House of Representatives since 1999 and was the head of the Queens Democratic Party. 

Similarly, state Assemblymember Jessica González-Rojas prevailed in 2020, when she defeated longtime incumbent Michael DenDekker in a Queens primary, becoming the first Latina to represent the district’s mostly immigrant neighborhoods of Jackson Heights and Woodside, where nearly 60% of the population is Latino. 

“When we’re not at the table, we’re on the menu,” González-Rojas said, citing the oft-repeated phrase to emphasize that many politicians don’t address certain concerns unless Latinos are in positions of power to advocate for solutions that work for their communities. 

Valentin said Latinos don’t receive enough support from the Democratic Party because other factions “feel threatened by the growing presence of Latinos, and what that would mean for political representation.” 

Latinos make up nearly a third of the city’s immigrant population, according to the U.S. Census American Community Survey in 2020. While about 28% are native and 26% are naturalized citizens, about 39% are foreign-born noncitizens. 

Former City Council Majority Leader Laurie Cumbo, now Cultural Affairs commissioner, came under fire last year when she opposed a bill to grant voting rights to legal noncitizens in local elections, noting that many Latinos voted for former President Donald Trump in 2020. She argued that immigrants could dilute the political power of Black Americans. 

A Brooklyn resident drops off an absentee ballot at the Barclays Center on the first day of early voting, Oct. 24, 2020.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Valentin conceded that some areas did see a surge in Latino Trump voters, but they were anomalies, he said, noting that Latinos are not a monolith yet historically vote Democratic. 

Other Latino politicians, including pioneering ones, have struggled to gain support because of self-inflicted wounds, Valentin noted. Some have participated in corruption schemes, while others are accused of serious violence.  

Take the case of Hiram Monserrate. 

Monserrate was a breakthrough figure when he was elected to the City Council in 2001, becoming the first Latino elected in Queens. He advanced from there to the state Senate, where he became an ally of now-Mayor Eric Adams.

But Monserrate crashed in a hard fall, after being convicted of assaulting his girlfriend and serving two years in prison for pocketing about $100,000 in public funds. 

Now free, he’s running for an Assembly seat, hoping to represent other Latino areas of Queens, including East Elmhurst and North Corona. 

“We all have incidents in our past that we’re not proud of,” Monserrate told THE CITY. “Every negative situation that any person has been involved with, we should look to learn from it and to grow from it and to make ourselves better.”

No Money, No Power

Raising enough money to support a viable political campaign can be another barrier to office, said González-Rojas. 

“You need access to deep pockets,” she said. “I personally had to quit my job in order to really run a serious race and be a contender.” 

Campaigns for citywide offices are eligible to receive public matching funds, she noted. 

But a similar program for state races won’t be available until the 2024 election. 

“You give me $10 as a City Council candidate, and I get $90 because of the 8-to-1 match,” she said. “In the state, you give me $10, I get $10. So the lack of equitable funding mechanisms to support a campaign is really a huge barrier.” 

Luis Miranda Jr., board chair of the Latino Victory Fund, a nonprofit helping to increase political representation across the country, said he wished campaigns were free, but the fact is, money and institutional support are essential to mounting a successful run, especially in non-Latino majority districts.

“You need to have a concerted effort to elect our people to office,” he said. “If not, we’ll end up with 8%, 9% in a state where we’re one out of every five neighbors.”  (Disclosure: Miranda is a member of THE CITY’s Board of Directors.) 

People register to vote during the 2019 Dominican Day Parade.

Courtesy of Dominicanos USA

Fundraising isn’t easy, agreed both Latinos running for Assembly District 37 in Queens. 

Carmona, 32, a longlife resident of Sunnyside who is the daughter of Colombian immigrants, said that jumping into a race is scary when you actually stop and ask yourself, “Where am I going to tap into support? Where can I raise money?” 

It isn’t as easy as just calling up some friends and asking for a donation. Laughing, she said some of hers might reply: “I can barely pay rent right now.” 

Ardila, 28, the son of a Cuban-Honduran mother and Colombian father, said he knows how much further money goes with matching funds, after organizing a failed campaign for a central Queens seat in the City Council last year. 

“You have to fight tooth and nail for every single dollar running,” he said. “Robust campaigns are very expensive. So you have to raise a lot of money. And I think the task of raising that kind of money is what stops people from even jumping in the first place.”

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