Latino Political Influencers: The Inside Game


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Juan Figueroa

By Wayne Jebian

They are called “influencers” because they stand close enough to power to whisper in its ear. Sometimes, even in a democracy, getting things done depends on learning the game, so we rely on insiders — those within the walls of the inner sanctum — to be our eyes and ears, and sometimes our voices. This week, three insiders share their stories with CTLatinoNews. Individually and collectively, they all acknowledge their background influences their work inside those walls.
Trailblazer Juan Figueroa has seen Connecticut’s Latinos come a long way in terms of political representation, although he is acutely aware that the number of Latinos in positions of leadership is still low in proportion to the community’s share of the
population. Fernando Marroquin uses the skill of a surgeon to stitch shared values into political currency, forging a common identity and united action from a culturally diverse Latino population. Samia Hernandez shows us the way forward, using both the mass media and personal connections to touch people’s lives from one end of the state to the other.
Juan Figueroa: Trailblazer
Former state Rep. Juan A. Figueroa was almost a household name in 2010 when he sought the Democratic nomination for governor, a first for any Latino in this state. However, for much of his career, he has been the quintessentially quiet “influencer” behind the headlines. For example, the roll-out of the Affordable Health Care Act in Connecticut has been a huge story for ages now, yet few people know that as former president of the Universal Healthcare Foundation, Figueroa worked for a decade to make health coverage for uninsured and under-insured state residents a reality.
Today, he is working shoulder-to-shoulder with Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra as his acting chief of staff, having rolled up his sleeves for the project of rebooting city government. He is leading a quiet revolution at City Hall, an overhaul that will allow the mayor and City Council to better tackle Hartford’s biggest issues.
“Jan. 1st will mark the halfway point of the mayor’s four-year term,” Figueroa explained. “By the end of this year, the mayor will have a new team in place, which will include a new chief operating officer, human resources, public works and finance directors. These will all be new department heads.”
“In addition, we’re reorganizing the mayor’s office and putting a lot of time and effort into the relationship with the City Council,” Figueroa continued. “It is an opportunity to work with the mayor in helping him rebuild his administration in order that he can get to some very important issues: job creation/economic development, public safety and education.”
Even as he has dug his hands into the biggest changes in the City of Hartford, Juan A. Figueroa keeps his eye on the No. 1 political shift in the state of Connecticut, which is the rapid growth of the Latino presence.
“The influx of Latino immigrants is the biggest factor contributing to the huge changes in the demographics of Connecticut,” he said. “Who is spending entrepreneurial energy and capital in small businesses in our urban areas in particular? Immigrants. Park Street in Hartford, Fair Haven in New Haven, and their equivalents in Bridgeport, Waterbury, Willimantic, New Britain, Meriden, New London, Danbury, Stamford, Norwalk. Latino immigrants are the economic backbone to these cities and in the process they are redefining what it means to be a Nutmegger. Connecticut, con Salsa.”
“What is true also is that our political power is yet not commensurate with what those numbers represent. When I was in the Legislature, there were three Latino state representatives. Today, there are 10 state reps and we recently elected two Latino state senators for the first time. There is no question that we have made progress but, we still have a ways to go in fully realizing our political and economic power.  And the answer to further tapping that power: Latino youth.”
Samaia Hernandez: Serious Ambition
Samaia Hernandez
Samaia Hernandez already has print and radio experience under her belt, so it seems only a matter of time before we are all watching Hernandez on TV news. But she is in no hurry to make this move, because she is just hitting her stride at her current job: press secretary for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
Hernandez’s position fits the serious-mindedness of someone who has won two first-place awards from the Society of Professional Journalists. She leans toward the likes of CNN or PBS and away from the prospect of standing out in ice storms just to be on TV. Besides, she is from Southern California.
“I haven’t done this long enough to have been in the governor’s office for a hurricane or snow-mageddon,” she says with an edge of relief. “I am not a fan of the winter.”
“I was born in Texas, I grew up in California; I’ve lived in New York, and now, Connecticut. My father was Mexican-American; my mother is African-American,” she rattles off. Hernandez attended a performing arts magnet school in the Los Angeles Unified School system, then attended University of California at Santa Barbara.
After working at advertising firms in L.A. and New York, the journalism bug, with which she had been originally bitten in college, became a fever.
“I had all along wanted to do journalism. While at UCSB, I interned at Hispanic Business Magazine. I wrote for the school paper, that sort of thing .. .passed up a scholarship to go to the University of Miami for broadcast journalism,” she said. Santa Barbara did not have a journalism major, so Hernandez majored in comparative literature.
For two years, she worked at the Record-Journal of Meriden, covering news in Wallingford,starting in 2008. After New York and California, the culture shock was intense. “When I grew up, I went to what had to be one of the most diverse schools ever,” she said. In contrast, Connecticut is still on a learning curve when it comes to integrating the multitude of cultures that are putting down roots in this state.
On the upside, she noted that Connecticut can boast a level of civic engagement that is unrivaled in California:
“There is a very engaged community here. Everyone cares about what happens in government here. Everyone volunteers in some capacity here. Everyone is involved in their community.”
After the Record-Journal, she did freelance production work at NBC Connecticut, then spent a year at the breaking news desk of the Hartford Courant before moving on to WNPR, the public radio station. While producing “Where We Live” with John Dankosky, she was tapped by the governor’s office.
“This was a big jump in the sense that I hadn’t been looking for a job in state government,” she said.
Does the fact that the governor’s office picked her for the job symbolize the Malloy administration’s commitment to diversity in hiring?
“If you look at agency appointments, judges, across the board, I think he has definitely brought greater diversity to the state,” she said.
Will picking Samaia Hernandez better enable the governor to reach out to ethnic communities?
“It’s not necessarily an ethnic thing, but more of a platform thing. I have worked in print and digital and broadcast, so I think its about using different platforms to reach different groups. Young Latinos in this state are on Facebook. We have to do what we can to reach out to people where they are.”
But she acknowledges that reaching people where they live goes way beyond the media.
“Also, it means getting out there, getting in the communities and being on the ground in Connecticut’s cities,” she said.
When Hernandez talks about this human connection, you know it’s not just warm-and fuzzy catch-phrases. For the past three years, she has been mentoring a young (Puerto Rican) teen through Nutmeg Big Brothers and Big Sisters.
“It’s a relationship that benefits us both,” she said, noting that in spite of their different backgrounds, they find common ground as Latinas: “We’re very similar. I’ve grown close to her family and spent a Thanksgiving with them once.”
Fernando Marroquin: Overachiever
Fernando Marroquin
“Renaissance man” is the first phrase that comes to mind to describe this youthful-looking deputy chief of staff and communications director for the City of New Britain. He was a surgeon before coming to the United States from Guatemala in 2010; however, he always had a passion for politics. Had the timing been different, he might have gone into business, but the economy was poor when he first arrived in Connecticut.
He was unable to practice medicine and faced years of re-credentialing before he could pick up a scalpel. The job market was tough, and the demand for a non-practicing surgeon pretty weak.
“It was very hard to find a job with all my credentials; no one wanted to hire me,” he said. However, in 2011, the political organizing group Grassroots Strategies Inc. needed a bilingual community organizer to work with the Working Families party.
“They were looking for someone who could talk English and Spanish and liked politics, and I’ve always liked politics,” he said. “In my country, I was the president of the student council. I was always very involved in my university and my local government in Guatemala.” And then there’s the fact that he is just a dissertation shy of a docgtorate in sociology and political science.
The rest, as they say, is history. On that job, he met Hartford City Council member Luis Cotto.
“He gave me the opportunity to be part of the city council in Hartford as his executive assistant,” Marroquin said. After Cotto resigned, Marroquin stayed on to work for Joel Cruz, Jr. “I was there for a year and something. Then this opportunity came up, and I took it.”
When asked if there are things that have translated from practicing medicine to politics, Marroquin thought for a few moments and then said, “At the basic core, it’s about trying to help people. That’s why most of us become doctors. We try to help people in a specific way, and the social and political sciences allow you to do that as well, in a different scenario, obviously. But I think trying to help people have a better community, a better sense of what we can all achieve together — it’s what drives me.”
Pushing medical metaphor to the breaking point, CTLatinoNews asked if he could draw a parallel between the human body and a city:
“It’s interesting. I haven’t thought about it like that,” he said. “It depends … you control your own body, but you cannot control the whole aspect of the city. You can’t control the City Council, for example. It’s a huge part of the city, and they’re their own body.”
“All of us can influence other human beings with our own personal experiences,” he said when asked about what it meant to be an influencer. “Sharing your personal experience from a different point of view sometimes gives someone else a different perspective. As a Latino, and as a Latino who was not born and raised in the United States, I have a different perspective. I am an out-of-the-box thinker because I think in a different box. So I think that having that different perspective allows us to have a broader view of the situation.”
Being from Guatemala has put Marroquin in a pretty small subgroup, but that doesn’t make him feel like an outsider. He finds meaning in a shared Latino identity, an acceptance of Latinos in Connecticut as being part of a very diverse group that comes together over the common interest of advancing its political and cultural influence. “We share a lot of what the stereotype of what Latino is, and in a lot of good ways,” he said. “We all love our families; we have strong family ties. We love to have a good time. We love to be close and personal, and create a support group of people that you can go to whenever you feel necessary. We all share that, but Latinos are more than salsa.”
“Being Latino allows you to identify with others that share the same ideas, and we also do that with our language,” he continued. “For me, to be able to speak Spanish with someone whom I have never met and who has lived in a totally different country, creates a special bond. It is an icebreaker that can be one of our most powerful strengths, and it should be used to our advantage. I want to encourage everyone who identifies as Latino to communicate with other Latinos in Spanish whenever possible. It can be a great opportunity to create relationships, it can be an opportunity to keep our culture –regardless of the country of origin — alive and intact in the society that we live in, and it can give us the opportunity to reaffirm the strength of our numbers.”
“One of the things that I have also noticed is that we are OK with the label. That gives us strength. When you say ‘Latino’, it doesn’t matter whether you’re Mexican … I’m Guatemalan … most of the people here are Puerto Rican. In Hartford, we have a large Peruvian population, and New Britain has a large Peruvian population, too. If someone says, ‘Latinos’ We can all be part of that big group, and the strength in numbers in that huge group can take us to different places, and it’s a matter of getting all of us on the same page, in getting all of us to fight for the same issues, and we can be an even stronger force than we already are.”