Both those who have worked with Serrano and those who criticize him say the representative of the 15th Congressional District, who’s retiring this year, has always worked behind the scenes.
This article originally appeared in Spanish.
Where many people found in Congressman José Serrano a representative who doesn’t chase the leading role or front-page headlines, and saw virtue in that, others saw a defect — they felt deals were not being made, that things weren’t moving forward fast enough.
Civil rights activist and Reverend Al Sharpton describes Serrano as a “thermometer leader,” unlike those he called “thunder,” who fall, make noise, and light things up. Serrano is another type of leader.
“He is not a dealmaker. He is not the type to make transactions. He is a thermostat that takes the temperature of the room,” Sharpton says on the phone.
A long-lasting thermostat that has measured the political temperature for the last 30 years in the halls of the House of Representatives, where Serrano arrived in 1990 to represent what was then the 18th District in the South Bronx. With 46 years of experience as a politician, 30 of them in the House, he became the longest-serving Latino representative in Congress before announcing that he would retire at the end of 2020.
After spending the first eight years of his life in Puerto Rico, Serrano’s parents moved to the South Bronx. Serrano’s father served in the United States Army during World War II and when he was discharged, he brought home a stack of Frank Sinatra records. Serrano listened to those records for hours.
“Little did I know, but those records were teaching me the language of the mainland, where my family would soon move. Listening to Sinatra, I learned to pronounce every word distinctly. He never swallowed a syllable. From him I learned rhythms, inflections, and the sounds of a language that was so different from the one I spoke everyday,” Serrano writes in “How I Learned English,” a book of essays about people who have learned English as a second or third language.
Sinatra is almost an obsession for Serrano. In 2008, he was one of the sponsors for the designation of a Frank Sinatra Day. It is even said that Serrano is the biggest Sinatra fan in the lower chamber: In addition to having all his films, records and 2,000 songs on his iPod, Serrano was the chief sponsor of the 1997 bill to grant a posthumous Congressional gold medal to the singer, and joined Sinatra’s children to present the crooner’s postage stamp in 2008.
Like his father, Serrano joined the army between 1964 and 1966, in the United States Army Medical Corps, and was taught very early about the difference between Puerto Ricans on the island and others like him, on the continent.
The first day that Serrano enlisted, he had just voted, and arrived a few minutes late at the induction center, where he met other Puerto Ricans from New York, Chicago, and the island. The soldier who came from the island told him that there was a big difference between the two. Serrano said there was no difference — both were Puerto Ricans.
“The big difference between you and me,” Serrano recalls being told, “is that you can vote for president. I can’t. The president can put me in the Army, but I can’t vote for him.” Serrano remembers thinking, how can you give your life for a president that you didn’t choose, that you didn’t vote for?
Shortly after leaving the Army in the 70s, he went from being a bank teller to a politician. According to Gerson Borrero, Serrano’s jump into local politics was mediated by Evelina López Antonetty, a civil rights activist and leader with the group United Bronx Parents.
In 1974, the seat representing the South Bronx in the state Assembly was available, and López Antonetty saw the young Serrano as the right candidate for the post. “She was always interested in promoting younger people,” Serrano told the Mott Haven Herald in 2011. “She saw something in me.”
Serrano, wearing a guayabera, later joined López Antonetty at the 1978 opening of “La Escuelita” in the Bronx, a previously abandoned building where United Bronx Parents had led a four month sit-in in order to secure the space as a community center.
From his early years, Serrano had already shown himself to be a diplomatic and measured politician.
“He is not a person who likes to generate discord,” Borrero says by phone. “He is a traditional politician, who seeks to win without creating a lot of waves. He is not a creator of problems. He does not get into trouble. He’s a thinker, more politically savvy than he is known for.”
Puerto Rico: New State or Independence?
Among those who advocate for Puerto Rican independence, Serrano’s political positions were, for a long time in his career, lukewarm. Just as many recognize the lawmaker as a discreet worker who moves more behind the scenes, that is precisely where others lodged their greatest criticisms of him — that he did not openly use his political position to advocate for independence.
“Serrano has evolved in this area,” says Carlos Vargas-Ramos, director for public policy, external and media relations, and development at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies.
“In my opinion [Serrano] was an autonomist, but at some point, he understood that based on this argument of ‘equality’ that statehood was going to give a better option,” says Vargas-Ramos, who believes Serrano changed his position in the last 10 to 15 years and became a “statehooder” or “annexationist” — a supporter of Puerto Rico becoming another state of the union.
Political commentator Borrero feels Serrano has always been on the side of making the island a new state, that is, an annexationist. When asked directly about it, Serrano said on the phone, “I support Puerto Rico becoming a state or independence.”
“That’s the only way to stop this,” he says. While he says, “I personally support statehood,” he sees both as a way out of a colonial status that is unfair and inequitable, in which people living on the island are not given the same protection as those living on the mainland.
On this point, where some find fault, others — like Paul Lipson, co-founder of The Point in the Bronx who worked for Serrano as chief of staff from 2004 to 2011 — see one of his legacies.
“Equitable treatment overseas,” Lipson framed it on the phone, arguing that Serrano promoted bills and encouraged legislation to provide equitable benefits. Wherever it said “in the United States,” Serrano asked to include “and the territories,” Lipson says.
That ability to recognize civil rights was also highlighted by activist Sharpton, who in 1997 campaigned to be mayor of New York and had Serrano’s political backing. By that time, Serrano had been a representative for seven years in the chamber, where he had arrived in 1990 after Rep. Robert Garcia was jailed for extortion in the Wedtech scandal, leaving the seat vacant.
Serrano ran for the free seat, got the support of David Dinkins and “most other prominent black new york politicians,” wrote the New Yorker on April 23, 1990. This ability to build coalitions with African American leaders, Serrano and Sharpton say, had begun in the 1970s, quietly and without scandal. By 1990, those relationships were bearing fruit in the South Bronx, where the majority of the population was Latino and African American.
Upon winning the campaign, four buses full of supporters went from New York to Washington to accompany Serrano and listen to his first speech as a representative, among them activist Jesse Jackson. “This is all yours,” Serrano told the crowd on the steps of the capitol that day.
Years later, the dispute over Puerto Rico’s future would be renewed. Between 1993 and 1994, Serrano served as dean of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and in his first year in the role, Puerto Rico voted in a plebiscite in favor of continuing the Commonwealth, bringing the vote for statehood very close (48 to 46 percent, respectively). The New York Times mentioned at the time that Serrano had not taken a position on the issue.
While pro-independence believers have criticized Serrano, they have also recognized and appreciated his contribution to bringing to light the FBI’s secret, decades-long campaign of surveillance and repression against Puerto Rico’s independence movement.
“This was an achievement in the defense of civil rights,” says Vargas-Ramos, who adds that these types of FBI investigations date back to the 1960s, and were done in both Puerto Rico and New York as part of the COINTELPRO program.
At the beginning of the 1990s, “I started asking the FBI when I could access that information,” Serrano says. “I asked all the FBI directors until they said, ‘I’m going to release them.’”
One of the three copies of the folders, with thousands of documents, went to the Puerto Rican Senate and another copy went to the Center for Puerto Rican Studies.
“We all knew that the Puerto Rican independence movement had been mistreated and New York had played an important role,” says Serrano.
A progressive in the shadows
“He is a progressive. Locally, for example, he advocated for environmental equity, access to clean parks, having trees, breathing clean air, having streets free of trash, reviving the Bronx River, and it’s no longer a dump,” says Samelys López, who was an intern in Serrano’s district office and then worked for more than three years for his son, New York State Senator José M. Serrano.
In 2007, a beaver was seen again in the Bronx River after more than 200 years, and was named “José,” after Serrano. More recently, on Dec. 16, there was a rare sighting of a bobcat in the Bronx River, “a sign of a healthier waterway,” headlined the Gothamist article about the incident. Serrano knew of the news within hours, and was happy to see that the river continues to heal.
As López ran to be Serrano’s successor last year, she recalls what she heard from those on the campaign trail about the district’s longtime representative. “People just remembered that [Serrano] was a unifier,” she says. “It didn’t matter if the person was African American, Latino, Muslim. And he helped a lot of people on immigration issues.”
On immigration, Serrano’s record shows he was the sponsor on 36 bills, though only one of these passed the House before it sank in the Senate.
“In a time the country moved to the right with Reagan and Bush, he remained on his principals, like a torch on the left, where he was sometimes alone,” Sharpton recalls.
Two moments where Serrano received the most attention was when Fidel Castro visited the Bronx in 1995, and then in 2005, when Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez sold oil at a 40 percent discount to heat Bronx residents.
While Serrano has advocated for allowing Cuba the freedom to run its own affairs without interference from the United States, here again, some wanted to see him more active in leading the way. However, Serrano remained behind the scenes, and even believed that a new relationship would begin following the advancements made by the Obama administration.
Where Serrano was seen to be much more active was in negotiations over the heating oil for Bronx and Harlem residents with Citgo, a company majority-owned by PDVSA, a state-owned company of the Venezuelan government. During the negotiations, Serrano spoke openly in the media and complained that U.S. oil companies had not responded to the call to provide oil for people in poverty.
Those who admire Serrano would have liked to see him that active and vociferous more often.
“Sometimes it’s frustrating to have such a reflective voice not as active in the media, but he is not like that,” says Federico A. de Jesus, who served on Obama’s transition team and worked with senators like Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, and Eliot Engel, where he got a chance to see Serrano operate behind the scenes.
There again, where some see Serrano as a timid progressive, others see a progressive who managed to establish relationships in the Democratic party and make an impact in the community.
After a 46-year political career, in 2019 Serrano announced his retirement when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. According to GovTrack, Serrano was the primary sponsor of nine bills that were enacted. Since the arrival of the pandemic, he has tried to take refuge so as not to expose himself to the virus.
Among the issues he wishes he’d been able to resolve is homelessness — “which is almost a contradiction that the richest country has that problem,” he says — and the fact that his district is still known as one of the poorest in the country. “Sometimes you take one step forward and two steps back,” he says. “The poorest districts are represented by people of color. I think if you look at the whole picture, you see that there is a better school, more Latino teachers and principals, more political representation.”
For nearly 20 years, Serrano has been among the leading proponents of the bill to establish a National Latino Museum at the Smithsonian Institution. While the bill was blocked two weeks ago by Republican Senator Mike Lee, it was included as part of the $900 billion spending bill that President Donald Trump signed on Sunday night. This time it will be known who helped lead it — and Serrano’s name won’t be left behind the scenes.