On this gray September morning permeated by a somewhat cooler humid breeze that passes for fall these days, Bronx Borough President Rubén Diaz, Jr. is striding into the Forest Houses Community Center in the South Bronx, entourage in tow, adjusting cufflinks and discussing the Yankees. Waiting for him inside are a small group of neighborhood residents, community leaders, a few Hispanic clergy, and members of the Crows Motorcycle Club. Diaz, who grew up in the Soundview section of the Bronx and hung with peers from the Bronxdale Projects, once home to Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, steps assuredly into the circle that awaits him, looking like he is in his element.
"We all saw, the city saw, the nation saw, what happened to four-year-old little Lloyd," he says solemnly, referring to the July shooting death of Lloyd Morgan ironically following a basketball tournament in Forest Houses in honor of a teenage girl who was murdered in 2010. "Many of us were there at the funeral of little Lloyd in Harlem. But we come back here today, perhaps not with a lot of fanfare, to say that over the last three years my office has been doing the Peace in our Streets Initiative, and we're going to start it again right here, where we need healing and prayer."
Diaz Jr was at the Forest Houses to resume "Operation Gun Stop," a drive he has been engaged in since he was elected as beep in 2009 to urge residents of high- violence areas to give the police department tips that will lead to the seizure of illegal guns and, by extension, make the neighborhood safer. The information, which can be phoned in with guarantees of anonymity, can earn residents a $1,000 reward if an arrest is made in connection with the tip.
The Operation Gun Stop program, in the absence of increased cameras for surveillance of project playgrounds, is one of Diaz's favorites. Despite being the son of City Councilman Reverend Ruben Diaz Sr., who among other decidedly conservative positions is strongly for Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly's Stop and Frisk program, Ruben Jr. has long been concerned with both the destruction gun violence brings to communities like this, and the damage indiscriminate racial profiling can bring. After all, he began his political life as an organizer for the family of Amadou Diallo, famously gunned down when NYPD officers mistook his wallet for a gun.
Playing the streetwise Bronx politico, Diaz Jr tries to balance the need for law enforcement with the skepticism of people aggrieved by the way it is sometimes carried out. "People ask me Ruben, isn't this snitching? I don't want to get involved with snitching," he admitted. "It's not snitching. Snitching is something that needs to be redefined. Snitching means that if I do something bad and I get caught, in order for me to get off the hook I tell the police so that they can get you. Snitching does not mean that if I'm a law-abiding citizen and if something bad happens to me or my community, if I know who the bad person is if I call on that person. That should not be snitching. That is called being a good community resident and making sure that the community is safe."
Diaz Jr. is supremely confident in the connection he's making. "I think we're all in agreement on that point," he says, as the circle, led by Bishop Angelo Rosario of the Bronx Clergy Task Force applauds loudly. The gathering is about to break into small groups and fan out into the buildings surrounding the community center, and Diaz Jr. is all smiles. He is heading to make the rounds of project hallways that smell strongly of rice and beans, sancocho, perníl asado, and the doors that open for him as he knocks politely, patiently, will be opening for a familiar face.
Who will it be?
"You can't make that stuff up," says Fernando Ferrer, speaking of Diaz Jr. later during an interview in his office at the government relations firm Mercury Public Affairs, where he is co-chairman, years removed from his three attempts to become New York's first Latino mayor. "You can't fake it. I've seen people try … I've seen Puerto Ricans try. When you come from the hood, you're either comfortable there or not. And people can smell it a mile away."
While most of the people I spoke to feel Diaz has a long way to go if he hopes to gain citywide office—he has hinted at running for either public advocate or comptroller in 2013—he is generally viewed as a candidate with a future. He has even been mentioned as a possibility for mayor, perhaps the Latino most likely to break the barrier that Ferrer failed to surmount by tens of thousands of votes, and tens of millions of dollars of campaign funds short of in 2005.
Just two months after Diaz held court in the Forest Houses, his predecessor in borough hall, Adolfo Carrión, announced that he was likely to run for mayor—though the lifelong Democrat and former Obama administration member plans to run as a Republican. Carrión's party-switch gambit has generated instant buzz, introducing a new element into a campaign season already jolted by the impact of Hurricane Sandy.
Whether or not Carrión's bid gains traction, whenever (if ever) Diaz throws his hat in the mayoral ring, their potential, or lack of it, frames a question: Why hasn't New York ever elected a Latino mayor? The question reverberates hauntingly, sadly for Latinos of my generation, who lived through the emergence of two Bronx borough presidents, Herman Badillo and Ferrer, and a concomitant population explosion that in the late 1990s caused demographers to proclaim Latinos as the country's largest minority. The community now numbers over 2.3 million, or 29 percent of the total population, an ever-growing percentage. If Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez could find a home on the tip of everyone's tongue, it should be inevitable for that kind of star power to translate into political power. Shouldn't it?
For Latinos, who began coming to New York in significant numbers in the late 19th century on the eve of the Spanish-American War when intellectuals from Caribbean islands like Puerto Rico and Cuba came here to devise strategies for what would come after Spain was defeated (the current flags of both islands were designed in New York), ethnic succession once held promise. Latinos secured jobs in the garment district and moved into many of the neighborhoods that in the past had housed immigrants who rose from the working class to garner increased power in the political apparatus that ran New York. I still remember that in one of my old grade school report cards, back when ethnic succession was still a working assumption, my Irish-American teacher commenting that I could become mayor of New York if I wanted to.
Identity vs. impact
Today, Latinos have attained a share of political power, with two of the city's 13 seats in Congress, one of the five borough presidencies, 11 City Council members, and a number of state assembly and senate seats. But what many observers agree on is that despite the ever-expanding number of Latino electeds in the city, we seem further and further away from the possibility of a Latino mayor. "We have a good number of elected officials but the illusion of empowerment is rapidly dying," says Angelo Falcón, founder and president of the National Institute of Latino Policy.
Many observers agree that these Latino electoral gains have not been matched by a broader measure of real-world success for their people. Latinos in New York still suffer from the highest poverty rate of any large group, still represent a disproportionate share of those arrested and incarcerated, still graduate from high school and pass tests in elementary school at a lower rate. Perhaps most important, while there are signs of recent progress, Latino citizens have a history of low voter participation. There is a lot of talk of fragmentation of power, or lack of communication between leaders and an inability to develop a citywide agenda. Instead, there is a growing number of elected officials whose numbers do not add up to increased political power for the Latino community.
"I remember when we wanted to get more Latino cops but now the largest number of Latinos working for the city happen to be working for the police department," says Falcón, "and what do we have, stop and frisk? So the idea that somehow having more Latinos in there to change the culture of the police department obviously didn't happen."
So, what difference would it make if there were a Latino mayor or not? Some of the benefit would have to do with direct political power, although as we have seen from Obama, a chief executive does not necessarily guarantee a strong commitment to the racial/ethnic group he/she comes from. But at least symbolically, there is a kind of empowerment that would come from a Latino mayor that would go far not only with Latino citizens from the poor to the privileged, a kind of social capital that would also mean a lot to a growing young Latino population.
Certainly the mayoral successes of African American figures like David Dinkins, Harold Washington (in Chicago) and Willie Brown (in San Francisco) at least temporarily uplifted their communities, and Barack Obama, even though he has carefully avoided being a "black" president, has also been a game-changer.
Today, New York Latinos can only look wistfully at LA's Antonio Villaraigosa, and reflect on the intersection of historical failures and current challenges that have prevented the kind of political arrival that your community only achieves when the person in City Hall looks and talks like you.
This is the first in a five-part series. To read part two, please click here.