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Ready to rumba
As Latinos in Rhode Island gear up for further gains, the nation’s largest minority group is steadily wielding more political power
BY IAN DONNIS

IN SHARP CONTRAST to the recent launch of President George W. Bush’s high-stakes campaign fundraising, a decidedly grassroots political operation will come to Providence in the next few weeks: 50 high-school-age Latinos, clad in brightly colored T-shirts, will fan out through parts of Silver Lake and the South Side, seeking to transform fresh citizens into registered voters.

The registration campaign, sponsored by the Rhode Island Latino Civic Fund, with a $15,000 state Senate grant that followed tensions over legislative redistricting, is just one reflection of how Latino activists are promoting the message of participatory democracy. The civic fund hopes to cultivate additional voters by approaching other new citizens after monthly naturalization ceremonies at Bishop McVinney Auditorium. It wants to remedy the bad experiences of some Latino seniors with mail ballots by holding a series of ice cream socials at Providence high rises. The first 35 graduates of the civic fund’s Latina Leadership Institute, an effort to build organizational capacity for campaigns and other efforts, are due to graduate in August. And, as the game plan has it, Latino voting power will expand from the newfound bastions of last November.

Such efforts won’t come as a surprise for anyone who’s been keeping a close eye on Rhode Island politics. After years of steady growth and quiet organizing, 2002 marked a watershed in which Latino voters were heavily courted, Latino candidates made history, (like Juan Pichardo, who became the first Dominican-American state senator in the US, and Miguel Luna, whose election doubled the presence of Latinos on the Providence City Council), and the state’s Latino community, after toiling in relative obscurity, suddenly emerged as a significant political force. The evidence could be seen in those victories, like Myth York’s Democratic gubernatorial primary squeaker over Sheldon Whitehouse, and Providence Mayor David N. Cicilline’s resounding primary win, in which Latino voters proved decisive.

For all the progress, political representation doesn’t yet come close to approximating the presence of roughly 100,000 Latinos in Rhode Island — about 10 percent of the state’s population — up from 45,000 in 1990 and 20,000 in 1980. There are only three Hispanic members of the General Assembly — Pichardo, and Representatives Leon Tejada and Anastasia Williams, both Providence Democrats. And for all the enhanced political stature, Latinos in Rhode Island — a young (median age, 24) and heterogeneous group composed mostly of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Guatemalans, Colombians, and Mexico, are vexed by disproportionately high rates of poverty. Language barriers, competition with black candidates, a potential backlash against Latin nationalism, and rivalries based along national origin, although perhaps not as strong in the past, pose additional challenges.

This said, the gains of 2002 have engendered a sense of optimism, forward movement, and a belief that the passage of time and continued growth of the state’s Latino population — the fastest growing in New England — will yield further elective gains.

"We still have to deal with our share of skeptics and people who don’t understand how the system works," says Melba Depena, president of the Rhode Island Latino Civic Fund, and voting participation by Latinos has yet to match the high level in such places as the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. But generally, Depena says, there’s a positive sense of momentum. "The census numbers have conveyed a message," she says, and the national political parties are certainly paying attention.

DEPENA, 31, who works as executive assistant to the vice provost at the University of Rhode Island’s Providence campus, is a good example of the political maturation of the state’s Latino community. A Dominican native who came to Rhode Island at 13, she graduated from URI in 1992 and was part of a band of young activists who, unaware of efforts by their elders, "thought we could come to Providence and change the world." But after working in different capacities for an array of candidates — including York, Victor Capellan in 1998, Pichardo in 2000, Ricardo Patino (who became the first Latino city councilor in heavily Hispanic Central Falls), and Secretary of State Matt Brown — Depena has gained a fair share of political savvy. (She hastens to add that she isn’t interested in running for office.)

Similarly, the growing appreciation for the Rhode Island Latino Political Action Fund (the fundraising arm of the civic fund) could be seen when almost every statewide candidate of note — and hundreds of other people from a variety of backgrounds — came out for RILPAC’s festive spring 2002 tribute to Dr. Pablo Rodriguez at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Warwick. Rodriguez, one of the state’s most veteran Latino activists, deliciously delivered on the palpable sense of a political coming-out; bringing the ballroom to a hush by saying he was about to make a very important announcement — triggering visions of an incipient campaign — he then vowed to be the best husband and father he could be.

All this marks a dramatic change from the time 15 years ago, when the since-deceased Juanita Sanchez and just a few other individuals advocated politically on behalf of Latinos. "It was very difficult in those days," recalls Rodriguez. "Now, there are a number of people who are working on issues, some together, some completely separately. I think that’s a sign of a healthy community. Some people feel there should be a single group or a single representative, and I think that’s inaccurate."

Indeed, the growing vibrancy of Rhode Island’s Latino community is evident in any number of ways. Flourishing small businesses — bakeries, groceries, travel agencies, hair stylists, and the like — fill formerly vacant storefronts on Broad Street and Elmwood Avenue in Providence. Activists like Nellie Gorbea, Gonzalo Cuervo, and Patricia Martinez have landed prominent posts, respectively, in the Brown, Cicilline, and Carcieri administrations. And the predominant Anglo culture is paying a growing amount of attention — as seen by the copious selection of Hispanic foods at the new Shaw’s Supermarket in Eagle Square, for example, or the issuance last week by Attorney General Patrick Lynch’s office of a Spanish-language version of Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care.

The seriousness with which some members of the extended community view their civic responsibility can be seen in how Victor Cuenca, a 37-year-old Bolivian native, has abstemiously avoiding making political endorsements since starting his Spanish-language newspaper, Providence En Espanol, about four years ago. Other Spanish papers have tended to be irregular or fiercely partisan, so Cuenca’s faced a struggle for credibility when he launched it with his wife from their North Providence home. Now, though, Providence En Espanol boasts a payroll of 12, free weekly circulation of 25,000 copies at hundreds of locations, an office at a Seekonk, Massachusetts, industrial park, and after attracting a raft of campaign ads last fall, it’s flush with news content and ads from Nordstrom, Ocean State Job Lot, and Showcase Cinemas. Cuenca now feels his paper has gained enough authority that he plans to start making endorsements after its fifth anniversary. Similarly, the Spanish-language radio station, Poder 1110, was a vital channel of political debate last year, arguably offering the most robust flowering of community-based radio in the Providence market.

It’s these kind of developments that make observers sanguine about the outlook. Rodriguez, for example, says, "I think it’s tremendous — what’s happening and what’s going to happen. The success that we had in the last election is going to translate into more political participation and activism. You can already see a number of groups getting together and trying to get more involved in the political process, because they’ve seen that we can make a difference."

Such optimism seems more than justified. At a time when most Americans are disengaged from politics, the growing involvement of Latinos — the nation’s largest minority group, numbering almost 40 million — represents a healthy development for our civic culture. Voter registration efforts, like those sponsored by the Rhode Island Latino Civic Fund and Puerto Rico’s governor (see "A new effort to tap Latino voting power," News, This just in, May 9), are poised to spread the influence of Hispanic voting from such natural bases as Elmwood, Washington Park, and parts of the South Side.

As Pichardo says, "They can see now if they are persistent in their goal in terms of participating, whether they’re working in campaigns or they’re candidates themselves, they have some hope. And I think that the gains we have made over the past couple of years gives them that hope, and gives me the great hope that we are becoming part of the American system and the Rhode Island system — because we’re engaging and really being at the table when these decisions are being made."

Still, while greater political representation would seem to offer a lift to the entire community, it remains far more difficult to improve the lives of the many Latino have-nots — the poor, undocumented immigrants, and others subject to exploitation — than to win even a growing number of elections.

 

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Issue Date: June 27 - July 3, 2003
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