Since the defeat of Fernando Ferrer in 2005, where he won the Democratic nomination convincingly (something Herman Badillo had never done) yet suffered a devastating loss to the incumbent Bloomberg, New York’s Latino political apparatus has been unable to identify a credible candidate for mayor, or even citywide office.
Much of this can be attributed to a few factors: a shift in the city’s demographics that have gradually eroded the power of Puerto Ricans, long the city’s dominant Latino group; a decline of the Bronx Democratic machine (meaning there are no Latino county leaders at this time); and the subsequent consolidation of power by Latino politicians to hold onto local offices and bases of support rather than developing broader appeal.
Since 2000, the percentage of Puerto Ricans in New York vis a vis the rest of the Latino groups has dropped considerably, even though they are still the largest group. Puerto Ricans dropped by 11.2 percent to a total population of 723,631, while Dominicans jumped 8.2 percent to 576,701 and the Mexican population increased 73.7 percent to 319,263.
The shifts partly reflect Puerto Ricans leaving the city either for local suburban areas or Central Florida or returning to Puerto Rico. In a way the recent history of New York’s Puerto Ricans is a varied saga of relatively isolated instances of upward mobility and periods of failure to succeed in the rapidly changing city economy, which since the 1970s has moved away from the industrial base that originally attracted Puerto Rican migration to a service- and finance-sector dominated economy.
A growing group, with big challenges
Dominicans, whose original migratory surge was fueled by political instability in the Dominican Republic, have had more success in reaching middle-class status in fewer generations—one little known reality about the Dominican influx is that its members were generally of a somewhat higher class and skill background than the Puerto Ricans of the Great Migration. While that meant more political assets for the Dominicans, they also face unique challenges. An obvious one is that unlike Puerto Ricans they don’t arrive as citizens. Another is skin color: Some Dominicans bear the complex burden of a darker hue, while others who are lighter have had a history of “passing” as Puerto Ricans to tap into that community’s network of jobs and services, which erodes Dominican identity.
Dominican players on New York’s political scene have also been perceived as being only interested in promoting special interests relating to their home country, notes City College sociology professor Silvio Tores-Saillant. He speaks of the suspicion placed on Dominicans for being “too Dominican” and the sometimes harmful phenomenon of bending over backwards to prove ethnic impartiality in a way that winds up hurting the community. In order to appear like someone who is not biased toward one’s own “minority” group, politicians, and sometimes even journalists, neglect their roots needlessly.
Despite those obstacles, a moment of political maturity seems to be approaching for New York’s Dominicans. Just this summer, a major flare-up involving perhaps the city’s most prominent Dominican politician, State Senator Adriano Espaillat, cast an entirely new light on the phenomenon and potential of Dominican political power in New York.
Espaillat’s bold decision to challenge U.S. Representative Charles Rangel for his seat this summer was not entirely an act of madness; in fact Rangel campaign manager Moisés Pérez called some of the factors that led him to run a “perfect storm.” Espaillat had been campaigning for several months to create a Dominican-friendly congressional seat, there was momentum from a recent election in the Dominican Republic—which always serves to encourage local civic participation among New York City Dominicans— and there was the fallout leftover from the scandals and House Ethics Committee “admonishment” Rangel endured in 2010.
Although Espaillat lost, the race was extremely tight, with indecision about the results lasting for several days and even prompting accusations of corrupt—or at least inefficient—behavior by the Board of Elections. Espaillat’s total came within 1,000 votes of Rangel’s. It was an important moment for Espaillat and the Dominican community, since the tally in some ways indicated a unified effort by the community to elect one of its own to nationwide office.
There was of course, some political fallout. Some observers felt Espaillat’s efforts had resulted in the creation of a rift between Dominicans and the Puerto Rican community, most of which apparently voted for Rangel in the East Harlem Puerto Rican base (an irony, considering long-voiced concerns by Puerto Ricans from the neighborhood that Rangel had been neglecting them in favor of Central Harlem’s African-American powers). Another negative byproduct of Espaillat’s candidacy was that he seemed to some to have engaged in a form of nationalism that disregarded the varied constituencies that still predominate in Upper Manhattan. Espaillat prioritized a bid as the first Dominican congressman, which Pérez felt was short-sighted.
“If the Dominican electorate does not embrace a broader agenda with African Americans and Puerto Ricans in particular, and an emerging Latino electorate as well that includes smaller pockets of other Latinos, and a growing pocket of Mexicans, it has no future, period,” says Pérez.
In September, when he was forced to run against fellow Dominican Guillermo Linares to retain his State Senate seat, Espaillat reached further into his nationalist strategy by suddenly expanding it to calls for pro-Latino solidarity when attacking his opponent. In one highly publicized incident, the Espaillat campaign circulated a flyer that accused Linares of being a “traitor to Latinos” for endorsing Rangel. The flyer, which most agreed was unnecessarily divisive, made little sense in a world where Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and other Latinos vote according to more than just nationality.
Ruben Diaz Jr, who endorsed Rangel, took issue with the tactic. “I don’t think there should be any room in politics for that type of literature. I supported Espaillat when he ran for borough president of Manhattan. There was a Puerto Rican named Margarita López who ran, but I supported Adriano. Would Adriano supporters call me a traitor for not supporting the Puerto Rican vs. the Dominican? Adriano supported Gustavo Rivera here in the Bronx for the State Senate, and Gustavo supported Adriano. Gustavo was being challenged by a Dominican, Manny Tavarez. Does that make Adriano now a traitor to his community when he went with the Puerto Rican versus the Dominican?”
A dispersed demographic
Meanwhile, Mexicans in New York, unlike in much of the rest of the country, have consistently been a minority among the general Latino population of the city. They are also distinct from the Mexican populations in other U.S. cities, like Houston and Los Angeles. The Mexican population of migrant workers is almost entirely from the southern city of Puebla (although there are growing numbers from the state of Michoacán, sometimes indigenous people who aren’t even fluent in Spanish, much less English).
In New York, Mexicans have settled In East Harlem, Sunset Park, various tracts of the Bronx and to a lesser extent in Queens. Many are undocumented, which lessens their political power in the short term, but a new generation of Mexicans born in New York City to migrant parents are beginning to grow into voting age.
“As far as the Mexicans in my district, in a generation we’re going to see this population explosion that has been happening in the last 10 to 15 years, [it] is going to lead to a whole host of people who are born citizens who will definitely enter into the political circles and will start being voting age and definitely have more of an impact on what’s happening,” says City Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, an East Harlem legislator of Puerto Rican descent.
But even as it is augmented by rising voter numbers, New York Mexicans’ political clout could be undercut by resentment from other Latino groups. It’s not unusual to hear even well-meaning community workers or non-profit administrators in East Harlem claim that Mexicans are now the majority Latino population in the neighborhood, even though Census figures show this is far from the truth. A big reason for this perception is that Mexicans are highly visible on commercial strips in the neighborhood, particularly 116th Street, and seek housing in privately owned tenements, since their undocumented status excludes them from the vast array of housing projects in the neighborhood, whose residents are overwhelmingly African American and Puerto Rican.
As documented by anthropologist Arlene Dávila in her book Barrio Dreams, Mexicans in New York also sometimes have gained the dubious distinction of being agents of gentrification of neighborhoods like Spanish Harlem/El Barrio. Mexicans are perceived as less threatening to newer middle-class gentrifiers, and Mexican restaurants attract more white customers than the area’s traditional Caribbean “comidas criollas” restaurants. As Mexican businesses make an area “safe” for white customers, the neighborhood also becomes viable for more affluent residents.
Unfortunately, after becoming unwitting protagonists of the first wave of gentrification that has relentlessly displaced poor African American and Puerto Rican residents of the neighborhood, the second wave of professionals and middle-class artists and entrepreneurs have exposed Mexicans living in tenements to abuse from landlords who are now motivated to force them out.
According to Dávila, Mexicans tend to lack client-patron relationships with politicians and other community leaders that can lend political power to a constituency. However, Both Mark-Viverito and Bronx Assemblyman Gustavo Rivera, who is also of Puerto Rican descent, have been involved in efforts to secure decent living wages and combat abuse of non-unionized car wash workers in their respective districts.
But when it comes to asserting its own power, Mexican New York lacks infrastructure. One of the main Mexican small business organizations, CECOMEX, has lost a considerable amount of credibility since its leader, Juan Cáceres, was sentenced to seven years in prison last year for raping his daughter. Few other Mexican organizations offer much visibility or reach—so far, there is no Mexican equivalent to the Aspira that nurtured Freddy Ferrer.
Still, this year saw the opening of the CUNY Institute for Mexican Studies at Lehman College in the Bronx. Headed by Professor Alyshia Gálvez, the center will provide support for research and community advocacy as well as an undergraduate major and graduate certificate program in Mexican and Mexican American Studies. While Mexicans are not considered to have a “core community” like Puerto Ricans do in East Harlem and Dominicans do in Washington Heights, this new center in the Bronx can have a strong institutional influence in perhaps developing a sense of one in that borough.