Latinos in Local Politics–Projecting the Unheard Voices of our Community

Written by Funto Omojola

On Tuesday October 24, La Voz, LASO, The Student Labor Dialogue, Bard CCE, and the 100 days initiative at Bard co-sponsored a panel event entitled Latinos in Local Politics. Moderated by co-founder and managing editor of La Voz, Mariel Fiori, the event hosted politicians and activists from around the area: Francena Amparo; Dutchess County Legislature, Giancarlo Llaverias; Candidate for Dutchess County Legislature, Monica Arias Miranda; President of Hispanic Coalition of NY, Kevindaryán Lujan; Candidate for Orange County Legislator and Judge William Sanchez from Rhinebeck. The aim of this event was not only to represent the voices of those whose are not always heard in the mainstream political dialogue, Latinos in this case, but also to tackle the important questions regarding the lack of Latino participation in civic life. As important as it was for the quests to highlight their pride in being Latino and their obligation to their diaspora, it was also essential for them to emphasize the fact that they are people in politics who just happen to be Latino and thus their political work is not to be hinged or contingent on their ethnic or racial identities.

Mariel Fiori began by presenting the stark realities of the current issues pressing the community, such as the fact that Hispanic voter turnout was 47 percent in comparison to the general 61 percent in the 2016 presidential election. In addition to this, she discussed the issues of increased deportation, ending the DACA program that has benefited over 800 young people, and building a border wall between the United States and Mexico. At the local level, these issues, either hotly debated or completely overlooked, are all crucial and significant points in discussing. In ending, she posed the following to each of the panelists: Please discuss your history of getting involved in local politics and what the advantages, disadvantages and responsibilities of being a Latino in local politics are.

Judge Sanchez answered this first by giving insight into his past as a young boy who immigrated to the United States from Puerto Rico, was raised in Manhattan, and used his bilingual ability to delve into work with youth and community development. It was not after his years as a police officer though, that he became aware of the needs of the community as he witnessed a lot of painful situations in relation to domestic and community violence. This was what sparked his interest in the judicial system and subsequently lead him to becoming the first Hispanic elected official in Dutchess County. Speaking to the difficulties that being a Latino in such a role comes with, he reassured the audience that at every level we all have an opportunity to truly make change. Despite the negative stereotypes and qualifications based on his history as well as his present; being an at risk youth and being a single parent, he said: “You just have to overcome that, you can’t let that kind of negativity affect your work and control your life because people will always try to knock you down but you have to focus on the people who support you–this is where you get your energy from.”

In the same accord, Mr. Lujan stressed the importance of having representatives that look like the community. This is why he places great value on the accent on his name, making a point to emphasize his identity as he ran for political positions. For him, it “became an issue of daring to dream” becoming interested in politics after he witnessed community injustices relating to trash collection in his grandmother’s neighborhood. Running on this single issue alone, he went door to door to get signatures but ultimately did not make it far on the ballot that cycle. From there he became even more emboldened to make changes in his community and has worked to find sustainable methods to empower youths and minorities in his political campaigns.

Both Francena Amparo and Giancarlo Llaverias discussed the importance of not letting past experiences determine future political aspirations. Elected to the Dutchess County legislature in 2011 and having served as the assistant minority leader since 2016, Amparo is a fierce champion of equality who became interested in politics at a young age as she lived in the Bronx. After the death of her younger brother to suicide, she became convinced that the system was failing her and her community, thus today, she prides herself on using her elected office to improve the lives of those in her community. As a gay Latino raised in the Bronx, with a father who was a convicted felon, she shared that she often thought she could not be elected into public office. Yet she found that even with difficult family histories and violent backgrounds; “Scars tell you where you’ve been but don’t dictate where you’re going. There are going to be people with money that will try to deter you but surround yourself with mentors that can teach you through it.” Similarly, Llaverias mirrored Amparo’s statement describing his past as tumultuous, seeing 23 of his friends die in one year due to drug addiction. This in part prompted his work as an activists in local and community non-profits, specifically looking at drug and addiction services and mental health. Speaking on being a Latino, he pointed to his long hair and beard and explained that although he does not look like your typical politician: “I am representative of the very people I see on the daily basis. We the community need to start running people of color, that’s simply the only way to fight this.”

Taking a more cautious approach, Monica Arias Miranda heeded students who sought to take part in political processes to be prepared for roadblocks and disappointing moments. As an appointed delegate at large for Barack Obama in 2008, and founder of the Hispanic Coalition for NY Incorporated in 2010, she decided to run in the 2012 primary candidate for NY state senate district 46 as an independent democrat. Although she was not successful, during her time campaigning, she learned about the needs of the district and learned more about the various political processes. She told the audience that there were those who told her to give up and even as she reached out to other elected leaders, they shunned her, telling her: “Who do you think you are and how dare you? You don’t have permission.” She admits that her views on politics are not so rosy, but shared that she thinks it is very important to be honest and transparent about these processes. Still, she believes that our elected leaders have the power to affect our lives because they control resources, agencies, process of distributing money and that, even issues that take place at the federal level, strongly affect us.  

On the topic of contentious issues, Mariel Fiori asked about representation in the panelists respective communities and how to navigate problems primarily pertaining to minority populations that can often be alienating to white voters. To this, Mr. Lujan alluded to the matter of having the city of Newark be a sanctuary state, given that a large proportion of that community is undocumented. Thus on this issue, although he is widely known as a Latino, because his community is very diverse, he runs as a young, bold, and energetic person who wants to seek change and represent all the people who don’t have their voices heard, not just Latinos. In this manner, he focuses on issues such as clean water, sustainable development of wages–issues he regards as human matters and not niche problems. Amparo shared a slightly different sentiment in relation to the devastating hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico. She was firm in her stance that although she was already connected to most white voters due to the honesty in the work that she does, the hurricanes were a clear reminder that racism is alive and well as many did not even know that Puerto Ricans were American citizens. She said: “If there was any a time people needed to know I was Puerto Rican, that was the time. How could I just sit here in elected office and stay quiet and wait for others to do something? I was not going to do that.” With this, she concluded that while she will continue to help her constituencies regardless of race, it is also her civic duty, as a representative of the Puerto Rican diaspora, to help these people that so many others neglect to.

The majority of the questions asked by student attendees surrounded issues of representation and potential engagement with the local community. In response to these questions, Judge Sanchez advised to those that want to get involved in politics not to feel like it is impossible do it because of a lack of monetary resources. He explained that it is possible to run with what one has and run grassroots campaigns. Llaverias encouraged students just to volunteer and intern with local electives, citing his own experience working and volunteering for Terry Gibson. In that process, he got to meet other local electives and network with other community members which was crucial for him. Amparo added that for those not comfortable knocking on doors, writing to local magazines was also a viable option. She urged students to bring up issues that are crucial to them and assured that elected officials and their staffs are constantly reading such editorial work.

Towards the end of the panel, an audience member asked a very important question regarding gender as a hindrance in political involvement. Directed to Miranda, the question was: “How much did the fact that you were a Latina woman running affect the lack of support that you received.” Miranda stressed the significance of this question by saying that we don’t have enough women in politics. She then cited an experience she had at the start of her career in which she asked a question to a local newspaper in regards to what they were doing to educate their reporters, so that they could better identify news about the Latino community. Those in attendance were shocked, believing she spoke out of turn. Local Latino leaders who invited her scolded her and in fact rebuked her for asking such a question–an experience she called typical for women, particularly minority women. She continued by discussing how harassment and intimidation are very real occurrences that women face daily in political spheres and that although she did not run exclusively as a Latina, she felt explicit differences in how she was treated in comparison to her male counterparts. In such issues of oppression within already oppressed minority groups, she gave the advice to stand strong in oneself and band with other mentors and members who could support and advice.

This event was crucial in building momentum regarding more active student participation and awareness of local politics. It was an opportunity to hear the voices of those who are often hidden behind louder, more privileged ones. This event should not be taken as a one-time, stand-alone occurrence, but should be used as an inspiration and motivation for future engagement and discourse. How are we showing up and stepping up to let our voices be heard? What are we doing to right the wrongs or fix the things we are unsatisfied with in our communities? For those of us who do not see people who look like us in civic roles, it is our jobs to stand up, represent, and demand our places, however best we know how. In this manner, holding our elected officials accountable, volunteering, writing, educating others, are all crucial steps in affecting change in our communities. Although political and activist work can be gritty and exhausting, they are viable and powerful ways to insert our voices into the grain of the dominant, white-male held systems that often oppress and silence.