30 years of Somos: Has it worked?

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One truly doesn't know what people are capable of. If you give them time – in this case, three decades – you could be pleasantly surprised, or you could be disheartened.

The theme for the 2017 Somos el Futuro conference in Albany is: “A Legacy of Nourishing and Empowering Future Generations.” Really? What about hoy? After 30 years of the founding of Somos and New York state Assembly and Senate Puerto Rican/Hispanic Task Force, I ask: Has it worked?

Without going too deep, I can tell you that I bore witness – yes, I’m that viejo – back in the 1980s, when seven puertorriqueños in the state Legislature – Assembly members Angelo Del Toro of East Harlem, Héctor Díaz, José Rivera and José Serrano of the Bronx and Brooklyn’s Victor Robles, and state Sens. Olga Méndez of East Harlem and Israel Ruiz Jr. of the Bronx – were determined to convince their colegas in the Capitol and the power brokers within their own party that they were more than just tokens, beggars and annoying stepchildren in the state’s political system. Every one of them was, after all, a card-carrying member of the Democratic Party, serving not only their constituents and his or her own personal ambitions, but also the future of Latinos in New York. These Puerto Rican pioneros in elective office knew then that someday there would be other Latinos elected in the Empire State.

Those New York Puerto Rican lawmakers no longer found it satisfactory just to be the elected representatives of their downstate districts. The seven políticos knew what was needed. Respeto from the ruling elite in government was a shared goal.

RELATED: The road to Somos.

Yet not everyone took them seriously back then. (Some would argue that even today Latinos aren’t given equal treatment and respect.) Though dynamic freethinking leaders within their own communities, on a statewide level they were – and still are – for the most part unwaveringly loyal Democrats who placidly went along without expecting or getting much in the way of rewards. They traditionally waited their turn, despite the fact that their party’s largely unappreciative hierarchy excluded them from leadership positions in the state Democratic Committee. It still does.

It’s always nice to be liked, as most of our politicos are. What’s lacking is the elusive respeto and fear of our political muscle.

During that time, however, even as most state officials brushed off the rise of Puerto Rican power as insignificant, there was a willingness among savvier political leaders to at least listen to the clamor of these budding discontents. People like then-Assembly Speaker Stanley Fink and, to a lesser degree, Gov. Mario Cuomo, indicated that they took the Puerto Rican lawmakers more seriously. A source from the first Cuomo era in Albany – who spoke on background, as all Cuomo insiders, past and present, do most of the time – said that Fink in particular helped advance the lot of puertorriqueños in the state. “Fink never gets the credit for listening to what Puerto Ricans wanted and moving toward meeting those needs,” the source told me at the time.

A lot has happened since the task force was established. I’ve witnessed, reported and opined about the potential of Somos (under its various names and epochs) and how it’s come and gone. I’ve waited for 30 years to see state políticos from my community take what is never given: power!

It’s always nice to be liked, as most of our politicos are. What’s lacking is the elusive respeto and fear of our political muscle.

I’ve been privileged to have known and covered the first chairman, Angelo Del Toro. I’ve also witnessed Héctor Díaz, Roberto Ramírez, Peter Rivera, Carmen Arroyo, Félix Ortiz and current Chairman Marcos Crespo carry out their duties. Some of those chairs had successes, but most were plagued by the poor or nonexistent documentation of each conference’s takeaways or the lack of a follow-up agenda for legislation change, bills to be introduced or a strategic plan for expanding the task force and Somos’ reach. They all know they could’ve done better.

It’s been treinta años of hearing about the need for patience with permanent government structures. I’ve heard excuses from eñangotados whose measure of success are the stipends they collect, the titles they’re given, the invitations to the governor’s mansion for political maneuvering and staple dishes from our exquisite cuisine on a Friday afternoon. They feel content with leaving with their panzas full while they get crumbs to take back to their districts.

Even among themselves and in dozens of conversations that I’ve been privy to at times – and repeated along these three decades – there’s been a willingness to accommodate the agendas of those at the helm.

As the 30th Somos conference convenes, the question we must answer is: Has it worked?

I’ve already given you my answer. Think about yours and let the políticos know. Pa’lante mi gente.

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