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Opinion: Rhode Island's Latinos Transforming State Politics

Providence Mayor-elect Jorge Elorza celebraing his victory Photo: Providence Journal on election night.

Providence Mayor-elect Jorge Elorza celebraing his victory Photo: Providence Journal

By Domingo Morel
On Nov. 4, Latino candidates had an impressive showing in Rhode Island. The most prominent victories belonged to Secretary of State-elect Nellie Gorbea and Providence Mayor-elect Jorge Elorza. Gorbea, who is of Puerto Rican origin, made history by becoming the first Latina elected to statewide office in New England. Although Elorza will not be the first Latino mayor of Providence —that distinction belongs to Angel Taveras — he is the first Guatemalan American to become mayor of a capital city.
As impressive as Gorbea’s and Elorza’s individual victories were, their electoral success offers an opportunity to examine the growth of Latino politics in Rhode Island. To be clear, the very notion of “Latino” has been contested by some. As many observers have noted, “Latinos” are not composed of any single nationality, race, or political ideology.
Latinos are diverse. Political interests and behaviors vary among Mexicans in the Southwest, Cubans in Florida, and Puerto Ricans in the Northeast, for example. However, the political experience of Latinos in Rhode Island provides a counter-narrative to the “Latinos are too diverse to be considered a cohesive group” trope that has been advanced by some.
Decades ago, when the small but rapidly increasing Latino community in Rhode Island began to organize politically, leaders recognized the importance, indeed the need, to cultivate political mobilization utilizing the diversity of Rhode Island’s Latino community as a strength, not a weakness. In Rhode Island, where no single Latino subgroup has been large enough to dominate, the result has been the creation of a pan-ethnic Latino political identity unlike any other in the United States.
Leaders like Pablo Rodriguez, who is of Puerto Rican descent and who became the first president of the Rhode Island Latino Political Action Committee in 1998, worked alongside Colombians, Dominicans, Hondurans, Peruvians and others to employ the diversity contained within the state’s Latino community to sow seeds from which political empowerment can grow.
This pan-ethnic Latino identity set a tone for the coming decades of Latino political mobilization that blossomed on Election Day in Rhode Island. In addition to Gorbea and Elorza, other Latinos gained elective office throughout the state.
Shelby Maldonado became the first Guatemalan American state legislator in the history of Rhode Island. Sandra Cano and Carlos Tobon, both of Colombian origin, will represent their Pawtucket communities in the City Council and the General Assembly, respectively. These newcomers will be joining other Latino elected officials in communities throughout Rhode Island, including state Sen. Juan Pichardo, the first Dominican American state senator in the United States, state Rep. Grace Diaz, the first Dominican American woman to serve in a state legislature in the United States, and Central Falls Mayor James Diossa, who is of Colombian descent.
The growth and development of Latino political participation in Rhode Island is a model for ….
Domingo Morel is a visiting professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. He is also co-founder and co-chair of the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University and former president of the Rhode Island Latino Political Action Committee.
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