By Madelyn Colon
CTLatinoNews.com Political Columnist
This week 12 Latino legislators joined Secretary of the State Denise Merrill at the Legislative Office Building in a demonstration of how Hispanic representation at the State Capital has reached historic levels. The event was proof that Latino political momentum is growing.
But how to take advantage of that momentum? In the past, history has proven that coalescing works best. These legislators, to be most effective, will have to develop a Latino agenda.
In the summer of 1969 hundreds of Puerto Ricans rioted in Clay Hill and Downtown Hartford to protest police brutality, racial profiling by whites, housing and education disparities and political disfranchisement. Following the riots, then Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico Jorge Luis Cordova Diaz visited the city and called for political mobilization instead because “it is the weight of our votes that will gain us respect.”
This is still the case. Latinos have emerged as a powerful voting bloc in the U.S. In Connecticut, according to election officials, 22,000 new Hispanic voters were registered in the first eight months of 2012 for a total of 157,000. By 2030, 40 million Hispanics will be eligible to vote in the U.S.
A must read for understanding Latino political power in Connecticut, more specifically Hartford, is Jose E. Cruz’s 1998 book (Temple University Press), Identity & Power, Puerto Rican Politics & the Challenge of Ethnicity. Cruz’s thesis that ethnic identity can be a powerful factor in building political power makes this book a primer on Puerto Rican political development and ethnic politics in Hartford from 1950 to 1993, and by extension, to other Latino communities across the country.
Cruz, an associate professor in American Politics at SUNY Albany, argues that ethnicity proved to be “a code that structured their entrance into mainstream society and access to political power … emphasis on the group” and that Puerto Ricans were able to make extraordinary gains in a relatively short historical period because they used their ethnicity and unique identity to define their needs, demand accountability from the political mainstream and develop their political muscle. Cruz argues that this and the steady increase in the demographic concentration of Puerto Ricans in Hartford facilitated ethnic political mobilization and “acted as a counterweight to the forces of poverty and marginality.”
Cruz also emphasizes the role of identity politics to forge political rights and not individual economic interests. There is a famous story about Maria Sanchez, the Puerto Rican convenience store owner who orchestrated Puerto Rican politics for more than three decades from her Clay Hill storefront. She once remarked upon becoming a state representative that she did not realize being one also entitled her to a salary.
Identity politics also played a huge role in the advancement of bi-lingual education. As Cruz noted” bilingual education in Hartford required Puerto Rican advocates; no one else really cared as much as those who were directly affected.”
The strategy of identity politics paid off. From the 1980s through the1990s, when Puerto Ricans comprised 27% of the population, they were able to appoint a deputy city manager, three members of the Hartford City Council, the city’s first Hispanic corporation counsel, the first Puerto Rican city council majority leader, director of the Redevelopment Agency and a member of the Board of Education. Identity politics also led to the creation of civic and cultural organizations to address Puerto Rican economic and policy issues, like the San Juan Center, La Casa de Puerto Rico, The Spanish American Center, the Hispanic Leadership Caucus, and the Puerto Rican Political Action Committee (PRPAC).
Cruz called it right. Ethnic identity equals political power and political muscle. We are not newcomers to the game or novices at it. Today, when the Latino experience can be effectively translated in both English and Spanish, the “Agenda Latina” can have a long reach.
By Madelyn Colon