Latina Circle co-founders Eneida Roman and Betty Francisco, with moderator Marcela García at yesterday’s event. FoundersWire Photos by Charlotte Emslie
By CHARLOTTE EMSLIE
BOSTON—This presidential campaign, with its rhetoric swirling around immigrants and minorities, is “awakening the sleeping giant of 56 million voices,” say Boston Latinos who gathered yesterday to discuss the importance of the Latino electorate.
The Latina Circle and Latino Victory Project co-sponsored an event at Mintz Levin, inviting members of the community to learn about the current state of Latino voting power and how it may affect this election.
“The silver lining of this horrible election is the shining of the spotlight on the Latino vote,” says event moderator Marcela García. “The Latino vote needs our help, they need champions. That’s true not only in elected government, but in municipal appointed positions as well.”
America’s Latino population at 56 million is one of the fastest growing demographics in the country. It’s also one of the most politically potent. Pew Research says this electorate will be the most diverse in U.S. history. Latinos are projected to make up an astounding voting bloc of 27 million out of 219 million eligible voters nationwide in the 2016 presidential election. In Boston, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Latino community comprises 17 percent of city dwellers—just below the U.S. average—and growing every year.
Now more than ever, the Latino electoral voice is gaining volume, however, as Latina Circle founding partner Eneida Roman puts it, the problem Latinos face is “increasing numbers without increasing representation.”
Increasing that representation is reliant upon organizations that give voice to and empower the Latino community. One of these organizations is the Latina Circle, a career network that champions and cultivates Latinas in leadership positions within industries of all kinds—politics, entrepreneurship, education, medicine—through mentorship and promotion.
Another is the Latino Victory Project, a political organization founded by actress Eva Longoria and businessman and activist Henry R. Muñoz III. The group empowers Latino presence in politics by supporting and electing Latino candidates running for office, mobilizing Latino voters in elections, and developing Latino investment into politics. A key subcomponent is the Latino Talent Initiative, which collaborated with the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda to create a talent database to draw upon and promote potential candidates.
The two central topics of discussion were: What makes the current political climate so critical for Latinos, and how can we improve Latino political representation? “The political landscape is frustrating,” says Latina Circle CEO and founder Betty Francisco. “The question is, how do we use our collective voices to assert influence?”
César Blanco (above left), state representative for Texas House District 76 and Latino Victory Project interim director, breaks down the determinants that make the Latino vote so powerful. “The presidential nominee needs 46 percent of the Latino vote,” he says. “After the Mitt Romney loss and subsequent campaign autopsy in 2012, we know that Latinos are the path to victory. That’s why there’s so much invested in Latino outreach in battleground states—Nevada, Colorado, Arizona. Pretty small states. The thing is, we need outreach everywhere, and at the smaller levels of government as well.”
Despite being such a large segment of the population, Latinos are currently grossly underrepresented in federal, state and local government. For example, only 28 of the 535 congressmen are Latino. On the state legislature scale, the National Conference of State Legislature reports that only 4 percent of state legislature seats belong to Latinos. The disparities are perhaps most glaring on the local scale, where Latino representation is lacking not only for elected representatives, but for government-appointed positions—cabinets, heads of departments, boards and commissions. Vanessa Calderón-Rosado, co-founder of the Greater Boston Latino Network, breaks down the depressing findings of the “Silent Crisis” research study commissioned by the GBLN in 2014. “It found that despite approximately 20 percent of Boston’s residents being Latino, the amount of executive positions appointed by Mayor Marty Walsh to Latinos was a mere 7 percent. Similarly, the heavily Latino city of Chelsea, Mass., has only 10 percent of Latino elected representatives, despite being 62 percent Latino.”
This representation deficit at the local level is arguably the most damaging. Both elected representatives and appointed officials wield significant power. As Calderón-Rosado points out, these are the people making critical decisions on policy and budgets that affect the day-to-day lives of their constituents. “If Latinos don’t have adequate representation, people in their own communities fighting for their interests, they’re not going to see equality in terms of policies that affect them,” she says.
This frustration with the lack of representation is what pushed Blanco to run for state representative in the first place. “Often the state governments aren’t providing what they’re promising. I watched Texas spend a billion dollars on border security. What if that money was invested toward education? I just felt there was poor representation of Latino interests, and no investment into our community.”
Current Latino and Latina representatives understand firsthand the inherent challenges facing them. Massachusetts Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, Suffolk’s Second District, shares her own difficulties of getting her foot in the door of state legislation. “My first run, I remember people telling me, ‘Oh, we’re not with you this time, but you should run again.’” Not to mention the skewed voter perception. “What makes the campaign trail so stressful is that you only get two minutes of voters’ attention, max, and so much of their judgment is based on appearance. There’s lots of, ‘Oh, well, I don’t know, you don’t look senatorial.’”
Another crucial reason we need better Latino representation: As Blanco points out, Latino millennials are one of the largest growing electorate demographics. “Every year, 800,000 Latinos become eligible to vote. Those are so many voices that need to be heard.”
Interestingly, more millennials are considering running for office than ever. Chelsea City Councillor Judith Garcia describes her experience. “I was 23 when I decided to run for City Council. I had never been interested in being an elected official, but after returning to my home community of Chelsea, I felt that I was needed.” As a member of not only the Latina community but the ever-growing millennial generation, Garcia’s representation is imperative. “Millennials are not only an incredibly strong economic force, they’re the new generation of leaders who should be at the table,” she says. “New politics should be representative of people. We need to spur those conversations.”
What are some methods of increasing Latino representation? Calderón-Rosado points to the solutions prescribed by the GBLN study. “First, name it. Give it a statement,” she says.
“Drawing attention to the problem—underrepresentation—is the first step to change,” she says. Second, consider a formal strategy for Latino recruitment into these positions. Third, draw the support of people already in the pipeline to grow in power, for example, supporting Latino members of Mayor Walsh’s administration to thrive and move up the ladder. The GBLN has been working with Walsh on improving these numbers, not only within his cabinet but in the rest of Boston’s municipal officials. Lastly, the building of coalitions with other groups of color is immensely important.
Chang-Diaz points to the work of the Black and Latino Caucus in the Massachusetts legislature. “We currently have 10 members, and while that’s not enough to really break down the door, we’ve been able to make some important strides.” One of these crucial strides has been tackling police violence targeting minority communities. “People become numb to the steady drumbeat of police violence,” Chang-Diaz says. “The Black and Latino Caucus proposes reform bills and keeps pressure on the governor, the House speaker, the rest of the state legislature. We call them out, saying, ‘Hey, you haven’t moved this bill forward and you need to.’ It’s not enough to just be sympathetic and talk about these shootings, we need the legislation.”
Garcia underscores the importance of connecting with voters on a personal level. “When I was running for City Council, the way I garnered support was first to ‘doorknock,’ to go around my community and listen to people’s needs. Then, I ran on those issues. I made them my message.” It’s important to maintain perspective with elections. “This isn’t Latin America, where voting is mandatory,” she says. “Voting here is emotional. People are only going to vote for you if they really care, if they’re interested in you. Otherwise they’re going to stay home.”
What’s even more critical, Garcia emphasizes, is the encouragement of youth in politics. “Teaching and instilling in little kids that they can run for office, that they can succeed there, is how we can affect change.” Agrees Blanco, “Latinos are inspired when they see fellow Latinos on ballots and in legislature.”
Blanco stresses the importance of taking initiative and being assertive. “As Latinos, we work against the machine,” he says. “You have to take power. No one’s going to give it to you. When I was running for state rep, I didn’t have labor money, I didn’t have SuperPAC money. I couldn’t be shy about asking. I went out and said, ‘I need money.’ ”
Blanco emphasizes the importance of, above all, passion. “I hit a point where I was frustrated with my state and the lack of community investment. If you care about changing your community, everything else will come. Passion and drive are everything.”