The Changing Face of Latino Politics in New York

December 19, 2013


2266 October Hearing on Proposed Changes to City Council Districts. Photo by Taleen Dersdepanian/City Limits

Novelist Toni Morrison once referred to Bill Clinton—both for his style of campaigning and his comfort level in African American communities—as “America’s first black president.” One could say something similar about New York’s newly elected mayor, Bill de Blasio. Despite his non-Latino roots (unless one considers Italy to be the original Latino country), de Blasio may become known as New York’s first “Latino” mayor. The new mayor has an African-descended wife and two mixed-race children; he has strongly criticized wealth inequality in the city, and made erstwhile candidate Fernando Ferrer’s campaign discourse, “Tale of Two Cities,” his central campaign theme; he was once a fervent supporter of the Nicaraguan Sandinistas, and even spoke Spanish—haltingly—in his campaign ads.

But de Blasio is not Latino. In fact, his candidacy coincided with yet another election cycle in which not one serious Latino candidacy emerged. His only Latino competitors were the Reverend Erick Salgado, whose Democratic primary candidacy consisted of little more than ethnic cheerleading, and former Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrión, whose “moderate” third-party candidacy failed to attract a significant turnout. The lack of a serious Latino candidate for the second mayoral election in a row in a city that is about 30% Latino is either cause for concern, or simply an indication that the nature of Latino politics is changing, and that the key to an understanding of the potential for Latino political power in the city’s future lies in the ability to grasp those changes.

The Latino political presence in New York City politics is marked by a central contradiction: a fast-growing electorate (though not as fast-growing as in some other major U.S. cities) is being represented by an increasing number of elected officials, but it does not yet have the political clout that it deserves. There are several factors that can begin to explain this disparity. First, while the Latino population is growing, it is more dispersed than in the past, with various core communities like East Harlem, Williamsburg, and the Lower East Side, once identified as Latino political power bases, being severely undermined by gentrification. Second, past failures in creating coalitions with African Americans, and current inabilities to create similar alliances with a growing Asian population, have limited Latino political power’s efficacy. Third, the increasing diversity of Latino national, ethnic, and racial identities, as well as the increasing foothold of neoliberal “post-racial” tendencies on the part of some younger Latinos, has created new wrinkles regarding political ideology.

The transition of political power in New York’s Latino community is directly linked to the changes in the city’s Puerto Rican community. While still the majority Latino group in New York, the Puerto Rican population has fallen 11.2% since the 2000 census, while the Dominican population has increased by 8.2% and the Mexican community by a whopping 73.7%. The “vanishing” of Puerto Ricans from New York City indicates an outward migration that is related to both the success and failure of that group to achieve middle-class prosperity. Some have moved to the suburbs and other states, most notably to central Florida, while others have returned to Puerto Rico, which is currently facing a deep economic crisis.

The increase in the Dominican population has helped stabilize a community that has traditionally contained a higher-skilled immigrant workforce than that of the Puerto Rican community, and that has therefore been more successful at taking on the entrepreneurial role now celebrated by globalization ideology. Dominicans share this socioeconomic profile with more recent arrivals from South America like Colombians and Ecuadorans, who, unlike Dominicans, tend to be based in formerly white middle-class neighborhoods in Queens rather than the traditional Latino inner city bases in Manhattan and the Bronx. While the Mexican community is strongly ascendant, it faces challenges similar to, if not as severe as, those faced by Mexican immigrants in other parts of the country. Though immigration authorities do not pursue them as severely as they do in the southwest, their lack of citizenship status has inhibited their participation in civil society, and they are still seen as a population with a long way to go before acquiring significant political power.


Latino political power in New York has evolved significantly from its beginnings in the early twentieth century when working class Puerto Rican migrants and speculating boliteros backed left-wing Republicans like City Councilman Vito Marcantonio. In the 1960s a new political class emerged with the ascension of Bronx Borough President and later U.S. Representative Herman Badillo, who represented a classic liberal model of ethnic politics. But Badillo’s thrust toward empowering Puerto Ricans as melting pot ethnic strivers and his difficulty in creating an effective coalition with African Americans were important keys to his losses in two unsuccessful mayoral campaigns. In the 1980s and 1990s, Bronx Borough president Fernando Ferrer emerged as a new version of Badillo. He paid more attention to the problems of poverty and to working with African Americans, but despite his 2001 adoption of a “Tale of Two Cities” wealth-inequality discourse, he was still perceived as a middle-class striver, not entirely in touch with his roots, yet not quite white enough for white liberals.

The fading of this maturing class of liberal Democratic Puerto Ricans, which includes the still-in-office U.S. representatives José Serrano and Nydia Velásquez, reflected the shift in politics nationwide. Beginning in the 1980s, the Democratic acquiescence to Republican rhetoric that placed blame on poor minorities for higher rates of taxation and the struggling economy no longer favored the emergence of sixties-style Democrats that most appealed to New York Puerto Ricans. But rather than switch to a neo-conservative approach, the Latino political power base survived by consolidating in the form of several powerful families that used machine-style politics to stay in office.

This phenomenon is illustrated by the emergence of the “Four Families” of the Bronx, said to be the most powerful and influential constellation of Latino political power in New York. They are the Serranos (U.S. Representative José and State Senator José Jr.); the Díazes (State Senator Rubén Sr. and Bronx Borough President Rubén Jr.); the Arroyos (State Assemblywoman Carmen and City Council member María del Carmen); and the Riveras (State Assemblyman José and outgoing City Councilman Joel). This model, once predicated on the support of former State Assemblyman Roberto Ramírez as Bronx County Democratic leader, is showing signs of disintegration after several scandals that have damaged its reputation. José Rivera, for example, perceived to be the most powerful, has lost prestige as both his son Joel and daughter Noemi suffered electoral defeat in 2012 and 2013.

Indeed, a major problem affecting the stability of Latino political power in New York is the perception of perpetual scandal, which has besmirched the reputations of the Rivera (Noemi), Arroyo (María del Carmen), and Díaz (Rubén Sr.) families. Perhaps the most corrosive set of scandals emerged in 2009 around the “Four Amigos,” State Senators Pedro Espada Jr., Hiram Monserrate, Rubén Díaz Sr., and one non-Latino, Carl Kreuger. Ostensibly frustrated by the way the New York Democratic Party tends to marginalize Latino elected officials, the four made a backroom deal with Republican legislators to subvert the candidacy of African American State Senator Malcolm Smith as Senate majority leader, the first African American to be in position to take power after four decades of Republican control of the New York State legislature.

The Four Amigos’ maneuver only had the effect of delaying the inevitable and creating an even bigger rift in relations between African American and Latino elected officials. Since then, Espada Jr., Monserrate, and Kreuger have all been convicted in major scandals and served prison time. Espada was sentenced to five years in prison for embezzling from nonprofit health clinics he had founded; Monserrate pleaded guilty to improperly using public money to fund his campaign after having been ousted from the state Senate for assaulting his girlfriend; Krueger was sentenced to seven years for accepting more than $1 million in bribes. Only Díaz Sr. has escaped relatively unharmed and is still in control of a loyal bloc of socially conservative voters organized through his activities as a Pentecostal minister.


With the election of City Councilman Guillermo Linares and State Assembly-man Adriano Espaillat in the 1990s, the Dominican community in New York began to find its political voice. While their political careers reflected the liberal Democratic model of their Puerto Rican predecessors, the political terrain for New York’s Dominicans featured two major differences: first, citizenship status made problems faced by the undocumented a more central issue, and the fact that Dominicans were allowed to vote in their home country’s elections created unique campaign stances and opportunities. Second, while Puerto Ricans established themselves in several neighborhoods across the city, Dominicans have drawn their power and influence from a more centralized base in Washington Heights, despite some outflow to neighboring parts of the Bronx and New Jersey.

In 2012, Espaillat decided that Dominican political power in New York had matured, and that it was the right time for him to make a bold move to prove his point. He chose to challenge U.S. Representative Charles Rangel, plagued by his own scandal and perhaps the perception that at 82, he was losing effectiveness in Congress. A national election in the Dominican Republic that preceded the primary season as well as Espaillat’s drive to create a nationalistic fervor to elect the first Dominican representative to Congress gave him reasons to believe. But in his zeal to capitalize on growing Dominican pride, Espaillat seemed to stumble on the same mistakes that some of his Puerto Rican predecessors had made.

His campaign against Rangel made it difficult for him to engage in a coalition with African Americans going forward, since Rangel’s Harlem base was not exactly fading. In addition, many Manhattan and Bronx Puerto Rican politicos fell in line with Rangel, isolating Espaillat further. He lost the primary to Rangel in a very close vote, and then decided to run against fellow Dominican Guillermo Linares to hold onto his State Senate seat. During that campaign a pro-Espaillat flier was circulated that claimed that Linares was a traitor to Latinos—not just Dominicans—for previously having endorsed Rangel. Although Espaillat denied he was connected to the flier, he was perceived again as running an ethnic-specific, nationalist campaign that defied the logic of preserving the inter-ethnic coalitions that most agree are crucial to electoral success on a citywide level in New York.


If Bill de Blasio’s tenure as mayor of New York is at all successful, there will not be an opportunity for a Latino Democratic mayoral candidate until at least 2021, since a strong Democratic mayor will not face opposition from within his own party. However, this does not mean that new trends and developments in New York’s Latino politics will cease to rise to the surface. In fact, the city’s non-white majority can guarantee the emergence of many new alliances and political outcomes.

Two potential models of power consolidation for current and future Latino politicians are emerging. One is a modified form of the previous model of the progressive 1960s and 1970s, in which a candidate emerges from a power base centered in black and Latino poor and working class communities. The other is the emergence of a Latino candidate who subtly de-emphasizes ethnic identity to create more of an opportunity for a multi-ethnic or multi-issue candidacy while not abandoning ethnic appeals to voters entirely.

Bronx Borough President Rubén Díaz Jr. represents the former, using his base as chief executive of one of the poorest counties in the United States, as well as a majority black and Latino electorate, to potentially run for citywide office. Díaz Jr., who is darker skinned and vacillates between polished oratory and hiphop-laced street slang, does not have the problem that Badillo and Ferrer had of appearing disconnected from the streets. He also may be able to get away with absorbing some of his father’s political clout—Díaz Sr.’s impressive ability to deliver a religion-based electorate—while subtly distancing himself from his father´s conservative anti-gay views.

On the other hand there are figures like City Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, who has successfully held on to her seat for three terms, and is now mentioned as a candidate for council speaker, a position said to be the next most powerful after the mayoralty. She is proudly Puerto Rican, though having been born on the island and not in the city, she does not embody the traditional model of the Nuyorican politician. But she is also strongly identified with progressive issues and women’s rights. While in years past she was associated with the outgoing speaker and failed mayoral candidate Christine Quinn, Mark-Viverito smartly switched alliances to de Blasio during the campaign and has established herself as one of the city’s young progressive leaders. As her district in East Harlem continues to be overrun by gentrification, she seems positioned to appeal to both the dwindling Latino electorate and young white liberal newcomers.

Mark-Viverito and another promising young Latino elected official, Gustavo Rivera, who replaced the disgraced Pedro Espada Jr. as a state senator from the Bronx, both know the importance of appealing to the growing numbers of Mexicans in New York. They have both played visible roles in supporting the efforts of Mexican laborers to safely unionize. While the Mexican community is still lacking in political power because so much of it is undocumented and lacking in infrastructure and institutions, it is only a matter of time before a new educated generation of Mexicans born in New York begins to flex its muscle.  

In fact it’s getting rather predictable that when one asks a Latino politician when the United States will be ready for a Latino president or a Latino mayor of New York, they will say that the future president or mayor has already been born, and the likelihood is that he or she is Mexican. Because of the political clout demonstrated by Latinos in the last national election—they soundly defeated Republican candidacies because anti-immigrant policies offended them whether they were citizens or not—the potential for Mexican American candidacies is limitless. Even Illinois Representative Luis Gutiérrez, one of the most visible and vocal Puerto Rican politicians in the United States, has made immigration reform his bread and butter issue.

Perhaps on cue, the September primary election brought about the victory of the first Mexican American city councilman in New York history, Carlos Menchaca of Sunset Park, Brooklyn, who won the Democratic primary and ran unopposed in the general election in November. He is the son of immigrant parents from Mexico, and the Mexican constituency he now represents will present unique challenges. Unlike the traditional way New York ethnic politics is viewed, he will not be representing poor people trapped in a cycle of welfare dependency, nor working class folks trying to hold onto civil service jobs or fighting for pay raises. Menchaca will be representing, among the rest of Sunset Park’s changing demographic pool, a Mexican population that policy theorists and newspaper editorialists alike characterize as “entrepreneurial” (restaurant and small-business owners), or workers who have no civil rights and live in the shadows, hoping to avoid detection.

Another groundbreaking fact about Menchaca is that he is not only the first Mexican American elected official in New York, but that he is also openly gay. Along with Ritchie Torres, who defeated José García’s son Joel in the Bronx, Menchaca joins current city councilwoman Rosie Méndez, and former City Council members Margarita López and the late Antonio Pagán, in New York’s Latino pantheon of “out” elected officials. As is true with women candidates like Mark-Viverito, gender issues immediately introduce considerations of intersectionality in politics, muddying up the idea of strictly ethnic- or nationalist-based candidacies, and ushering the debate over Latino politics in New York into the future.

Still, there are many issues that Latinos face that are specific to their experience, and that can serve as organizing tools. They even fit in well with potential coalitions with other groups of people of color as well as gender-based minorities. In the end, everyone will need an advocate to stand against the grinding hegemonic power of real estate and banking interests that have put the city’s working and middle classes in a stranglehold. Latinos’ growing numbers seem to indicate that more significant power will result from Latino candidacies in the future, but these officials will not really be serving the people if they fail to devise a way to push back against the “one percent” and restore a sense of democracy to every citizen’s life.



Ed Morales is a freelance journalist and author of Living in Spanglish (St. Martin’s Press). He teaches at Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race. 



Read the rest of NACLA's Winter 2013 issue: "Latino New York"



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