Being Mexican in NYC with Carlos Menchaca

New York City Councilman Carlos Menchaca at a hearing.
New York City Councilman Carlos Menchaca at a hearing.
William Alatriste/New York City Council
New York City Councilman Carlos Menchaca at a hearing.

Being Mexican in NYC with Carlos Menchaca

A Cinco de Mayo Q&A with NYC’s first elected Mexican-American.
May 5, 2018

New York City Councilman Carlos Menchaca became the first Mexican-American elected in the city when he won his Brooklyn seat in 2013. In Sunset Park and Red Hook, many of Menchaca’s constituents are ethnically Mexican as well, making up part of what he says is a majority foreign-born district. To mark the Cinco de Mayo celebration of Mexican culture, Menchaca talked to City & State about spending summers on a farm south of the border, the best Mexican restaurant in the city and how he has to deny working with President Donald Trump.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

C&S: What does your Mexican heritage mean to you? Do you feel like you represent Mexicans citywide?

CM: The Mexican community in this whole region has been growing, in number and in political power and need and voice. I really represent that wave of Mexican culture and presence for the region. I have a very specific role in my district to make sure everyone feels like they can connect to government, whether or not they’re documented. That’s my role as the chair of the (City Council) Immigration Committee, but that’s also just what I believe at the end of the day.

I grew up in El Paso, Texas. It’s a border town between Mexico and the United States, and so Mexican culture was embedded in my city while growing up. From where I lived, I was able to walk to the border. As kids in the summertime, we’d walk over to the border and I’d spend summers with my grandparents at a farm (in Mexico). Mexico has always been a part of my life, my culture.

C&S: What does Cinco de Mayo mean to you?

CM: It’s a beautiful story that everyone should know. This is a battle (of the Mexican Army defeating occupying French forces in 1862) that shows the triumph of a small group of rambunctious revolutionaries that decided to say no. And they stood up and they fought their hearts out. And I think in a lot of ways, that represents us as Mexicans today. If you’re a Mexican, that’s what we remember, that’s what we celebrate. The Mexican spirit of fight with our hearts. And that’s what I’m carrying in the work that I do as an elected official, when I stand up and fight back against so much injustice that I see in the city. It’s good to have a touch point like this, Cinco de Mayo. Reconnect with the community, celebrate our culture, be proud of who we are as Mexicans.

C&S: The Mexican-American experience is so tied to immigration and coming across the border. Is that what made you want to chair the Committee on Immigration?

CM: Oh yeah, no doubt that my history of organizing, my history or representing communities like the LGBT community, immigrant communities led me to want to be here as the chair. As the chair, we get to do so much right now to represent folks that are not inherently part of the political system. These are people that cannot vote, but live in our neighborhoods. These are people who are thrown into the shadows by our broken immigration system, but have real needs that municipal government must respond to: health care, legal services, education – to ensure that they can be part of our civic fabric. That’s why I’m fighting as hard as I can, and I’ll fight anyone who gets in the way of that kind of justice that we deserve.

C&S: Have you noticed a change in the every day life of immigrants in your district since President Donald Trump took office?

CM: Without a doubt, there has been a real shift from one day to the next. You felt it first in the schools. School parent coordinators and principals said we have children who are afraid in our classrooms. ... They were afraid because they were watching television, they saw the reports, they saw (Trump) speak up against immigrant families. They saw the hate spewed during the campaign. And that became real for them, that this guy had won.

That now has permeated through all levels of government. When I talk to people, there’s a real sense of “Are you with Trump? Are you government?” We have to do so much work to separate us and government officials from Trump. I have to (say) ‘I’m a Council member, I work for the government. But I do not work for Trump. I represent YOU.’ … That’s person by person, heart and mind at a time, one person at a time, that’s real. Everyone’s afraid, and we’re seeing less and less participation across the board with our communities.

C&S: What’s the biggest hole in New York City’s sanctuary city policy?

CM: One of the biggest holes right now is confronting head-on the mayor’s decision to remove legal representation for all immigrants who need it. Our mayor has decided that there are some who deserve it and some who do not. And his line in the sand is based out of people who have been convicted of a certain amount of crimes. Due process is at stake here. In order for our judicial, criminal justice system to work, everyone must have representation. It’s not up to us as elected officials to decide who’s worthy of justice.

That’s the biggest hole that I’m finding in our work to land this budget as we move through until (when the city budget is due June 30).

C&S: You were the first elected official to endorse Cynthia Nixon for governor. Why did you think it was so important?

CM: Everything I just told you really inspired support for Cynthia. Cynthia lifts up the voices that have yet to make it into the governor’s office in a real way. Cynthia is for every New Yorker, not just a few. Cynthia is about putting action behind words that we have seen so empty from this governor.

There is a real dangerous situation that we are putting all New Yorkers in across the state when we do not take that step to bring the DREAM Act, to bring the Liberty Act, to bring drivers licenses for all. These are about public safety. This is about human dignity for every New Yorker. And the economy. Cynthia not only has that vision. I believe in her, and I believe her when she says she’s going to fight for us. I believe her when she says education is about bringing resources to every school for every New York kid. I want someone I can believe in, and someone I believe, in that office, to work with me, and build a democracy that we deserve in the state.

C&S: What’s the best Mexican restaurant in the city?

CM: Whooooo. (Laughs.) It’s around the corner from my office and I love it, because they have these delicious Mexican homemade tortillas: El Bronquito on 45th Street and 4th Avenue.

C&S: Did you see “Coco?” Did you like it?

CM: Ah! (Laughs.) Pixar has always been a joy for me as a human. “Coco” finally brought everything together. It brought a story that spoke to my people and made it acceptable to everyone to enjoy. The music is incredible, I cried all through the movie. They were complicated tears. Like tears of joy, and remembrance and family. You know, my family is in El Paso and I don’t get to see them that much. My mom comes and visits once or twice a year. But it just reminded me of the essence of my culture – and really any culture that is still connected to their roots. This is not just speaking to Mexican culture. This is an immigrant story. This is the story or our heritage. It was beautiful, and I can’t stop singing the songs.

Jeff Coltin
is a staff reporter at City & State. He covers New York City Hall.
20180520