Commentary: Brittle nature of Latino identity politics shows cracks as political representation falls short, disappoints

Achievements by the state’s Black political establishment has highlighted how Hispanic leaders haven’t made the same progress.

Eric Adams and Transportation Commissioner Ydanis Rodriguez.

Eric Adams and Transportation Commissioner Ydanis Rodriguez. Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

As Black New Yorkers have crossed milestone after milestone in political representation, longtime allies in the Latino community – who had often worked to help build the Black political movement – rejoiced alongside them.

For the first time since David Dinkins’ single term ended in 1993 after a defeat at the hands of Rudy Giuliani’s campaign of barely concealed racial resentments, New York City has a Black mayor in Eric Adams. Already in office were state Attorney General Letitia James, state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie. Adrienne Adams would follow the mayor to become the speaker of the City Council, and then came former Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin, whose brief stint in office ended with his resignation in April on federal charges for wire fraud and bribery. His replacement, former Rep. Antonio Delgado, who was sworn in as the new lieutenant governor last week, identifies as Afro Latino.

There has been cause for celebration, and yet, Latino advocates and politicians across the state have celebrated with some unease. Some observers pointed to the lack of Latinas among Eric Adams’ deputy mayor appointments, breaking an unofficial tradition upheld by several of his predecessors. The council speakership had seemed like it might go to a Latino member, but Adrienne Adams was elected to the position. And there remains the fact that a Latino has never been elected to citywide or statewide office. No matter the steady population gains over the past few decades – with a population that has now eclipsed the Black population statewide – Hispanic political power seemed stunted.

Even with Gov. Kathy Hochul’s selection of Delgado to succeed Benjamin, activists were quick to question whether he actually had Latino heritage. Things had clearly gone wrong at some point, but where? And what can be done about it?

A propped up, joint identity shows its cracks

There are a number of lessons that the political communications and media apparatuses seem to have to learn periodically, and one of the simplest is that Latinos are not a monolith – and never have been. Not only from the obvious standpoint of national origin, but not culturally and certainly not ideologically, with communities having migrated at different times and for different reasons. Finding themselves generally disregarded and excluded in the same ways by a power structure that certainly didn’t bother to make those distinctions, a sense of convenience and mutual benefit led them to prop up a joint identity. It’s not that there aren’t clear commonalities – there are, among them an immigration experience often in search of economic opportunity and a number of cultural throughlines – but the rifts go almost unacknowledged.

Bringing up the brittle nature of a unified Latino identity is a touchy subject within the community itself, which fears that any crack in the façade will just further kneecap its political and civic power, yet it’s also true that a refusal to acknowledge the underlying fractures keeps them fixed in place rather than give civic and political leaders a chance to address them.

“No one likes to talk about (the brittle nature of Latino identity) because people want to romanticize about ‘Latinos,’ but I don't think that you can do that really when people’s identities are really primarily through nationality as opposed to some pan-Latin identity, although that’s certainly reality as well,” said Laird Bergad, founder of the CUNY Center for Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies and director of its Latino Data Project. “I have a lot of people saying ‘this guy’s a gringo with an attitude, what does he know, blah blah blah.’ Well, I just read the numbers,” which to him indicate that Dominicans, the largest Latino demographic in the city, will be mainly energized to vote in favor of other Dominicans, and Mexicans for Mexicans, and so on.

Young, disillusioned Latinos contribute to low Latino voter registration and turnout

This dynamic still only partially explains one of the primary obstacles to Latino political power, which is relatively low voter registration and turnout. According to data provided by Bergad, Latinos in New York state had significantly lower rates of both registration and voting than non-Hispanic white and Black voters, continuing a historical trend. Bergad attributed some of this to Latinos’ relative youth, with the community skewing younger nationally, and younger voters having lower turnout across the board. It might also be a manifestation of what Assembly Member Catalina Cruz, a Colombian immigrant who represents Corona, Elmhurst and Jackson Heights, termed as a kind of immigrant community disillusionment. “Many of these people end up immigrating to another country, and you have this sense of ‘screw politics. Back home, it didn't work for me, why would I engage in it here?’ Add to that the sentiment that many immigrants have of, ‘I’m going back home anyways.’”

One wild card is the incoming arrival of noncitizen municipal voting in New York. The policy, passed late last year, would in theory allow some 900,000 noncitizens with work authorization – mostly legal permanent residents but also some work visa holders and students – to vote in elections for mayor, comptroller, public advocate and City Council. Many of them would be Dominican immigrants, who make up a large percentage of the city’s permanent resident population and could, if properly energized, become a very significant political bloc. That’s far from guaranteed, though. If parties have failed to activate citizen voters of a particular demographic, there’s no reason to think there’ll be a difference with noncitizen ones. As George Leventhal, the Maryland legislator who led a campaign to pass one of the nation’s first noncitizen voting bills in Takoma Park in 1991, memorably told me: “​I would love to romanticize it and say it led to some utopia of inclusivity, but no.”

Some careerists Latino leaders suffer from ‘Bill de Blasio syndrome’

So where does that leave us? Many a consultant might be licking their chops at the prospect of providing convoluted advice to cash-rich state and local Democratic establishments floundering and desperate to animate Latino voters ahead of what are already expected to be tough midterms, but some proven Hispanic electoral victors contend that the formula isn’t as complicated as some might want to make it. “Republicans, they show up to the opening up of a refrigerator door,” Cruz said. “I follow some of my Republican colleagues on social media and you see them show up to everything. A 90-year-old lady in their senior center had a birthday? They showed up. The renaming of a street? They showed up. There was a blood drive? They showed up.”

Cruz criticized what she viewed as a careerist approach by some Latinos who do make it to electoral office coasting in part on their community ties only to concern themselves mainly with their own ascent. “They’re much more interested in having their own name in the headline, creating a splash, but not in creating real change,” she said. “It’s what I would call the ‘Bill de Blasio syndrome.’ The amazing headline with zero follow-through.” Not that she viewed the somewhat stunted New York Latino political movement as a purely self-inflicted phenomenon. “Jay Jacobs, and you can quote me on this, has not prioritized the Latino vote in the way that he should be. It is embarrassing. And I think that he has been given plenty of opportunities to prioritize the Latino vote, and we haven’t felt it,” she said, in reference to the longtime state Democratic Party chair.

In particular, she highlighted a tendency to see the community as essentially single-issue voters on immigration, with officials forgetting that Latino voters are immensely concerned with housing affordability, community policing, garbage pickup and all the other issues that make up long-term quality of life. While ignoring the fissures between different groups of Latino voters allows them to persist, acknowledging them and coalition-building could create a true bloc that would wield outsized power. The alternative is to keep ceding ground: “If you want to continue to lose more Latino votes to the Republicans, you can keep doing exactly what you’re doing,” Cruz said.

The state Democratic Party didn’t respond directly to these criticisms of Jacobs, but instead a spokesperson pointed to a newly announced plan known as the Nueva York Initiative, a project helmed by former Democratic National Committee Finance Chair Henry R. Muñoz III, which will be dedicated to Latino coalition-building, registration and mobilization via a “​​multi-year, six-figure investment.” The initiative is billed as “the largest ever investment in Latino voter outreach in New York State history.”

GOP’s ‘boots on the ground’ approach to voter engagement and the allure of Donald Trump

The Republicans are certainly listening, and see an opportunity for inroads as Democrats chase their tails. “I think that there are individuals that are really taking public service and making it about the public, and to do that, you need to have boots on the ground, you need to be in the community, and you need to understand the needs and realize that our communities are changing,” said Anthony D’Esposito, a former New York City Police Department detective and Republican member of the Hempstead Town Council, who’s now running for Congress. The son of a Puerto Rican mother, D’Esposito was enthusiastic both about the state GOP’s embrace of changing demographics (an enthusiasm not quite shared by the party’s contemporaries in other states), such as the recent election of Ethiopian Israeli Nassau County Legislator Mazi Melesa Pilip, and what he viewed as the community’s focus on bread-and-butter issues.

“Island Park is not the Island Park that it was 50 years ago, and that’s not bad, it’s good. But we need to recognize that. So I think we have the ability to recognize that and understand that many of the Latino voters have the same concerns, the same interests and they want exactly the same things for their family,” he said. Latinos around New York do and have historically voted overwhelmingly for Democrats, but it’s a mistake to think this is some inviolable rule of politics. As the political discourse writ large becomes more and more about adherence to ideological social tenets and contesting cultural grievances, Democrats often seem to either forget or willfully disregard the fact that large swaths of Latino voters are at least culturally Catholic and often socially conservative.

Much ado was made about the uptick in vote share for Donald Trump in 2020 versus 2016 among Latino-heavy precincts in New York City. He still lost, but Republicans won huge in Long Island in 2021, where the Latino population has been skyrocketing, partly on the strength of an intense focus on the supposed failures of state Democratic lawmakers’ 2019 bail reform. “Let’s be honest, that entire race was about public safety, whether it’s the actual act of public safety, or the way people felt about public safety,” D’Esposito said. Republicans have figured out a winning strategy of seizing on emotional issues not necessarily related to the community’s own identity to drive turnout.

Going outside the political box to building a Latino political pipeline

Still, it’s difficult to imagine the New York GOP making such significant gains that they will be electing statewide leaders or retaking legislative chambers anytime soon, which leaves the Democrats as the best hope for Latino political representation. On that front, Cruz’s diagnosis – an indifferent and unresponsive political power structure paired with Latino elected officials failing to assert their community’s needs out of timidity, self-interest or apathy – was echoed by former New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, one of the city’s most successful Latina elected officials.

“(Party officials) come around to our communities during election time. They don’t build a consistent relationship with the community,” she said. “At the same time, we do have Latino electeds that need to utilize the platform to not allow some actions to go unchallenged or unchecked.” In her estimation, these actions included the failure to include Hispanic speakers in February’s state Democratic nominating convention and the fact that former City Council Member Laurie Cumbo, who claimed that the noncitizen voting proposal would dilute Black voting power before voting against it, was appointed as Mayor Eric Adams’ commissioner for cultural affairs.

In response to Mark-Viverito’s criticism, Adams said in a statement, “Laurie Cumbo brings a breadth of experience in the arts, community advocacy, and city government to her role as commissioner.”

On the broader point of Latino representation and the lack of a Hispanic deputy mayor, City Hall spokesperson Fabien Levy wrote that the mayor “committed to building a team that looks like New York City, and that’s exactly what he’s doing,” pointing to Latino appointments to lead various municipal departments and offices, including Transportation Commissioner Ydanis Rodriguez, Department of Correction Commissioner Louis Molina, Consumer and Workforce Protection Commissioner Vilda Vera Mayuga and Sheriff Anthony Miranda. “(Mayor Adams) looks forward to ensuring all New Yorkers are represented in the administration as he continues to build out his team, and will have more to announce in the days and weeks ahead.”

Among the ways to build a political pipeline is to understand that it doesn’t have to be wholly contained within politics and in fact is tied to a cyclical failure to include Latinos in the types of institutions that can cross-pollinate with and build power outside of standard electoral politics: prominent nonprofits, consultancies, academia and the arts. “Public, private, academic and cultural sectors feel that it is OK to run institutions without recognizing that Latinos make 27% of the New York City population, and that it should be reflected in their leaderships,” said an official within the Adams administration who was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly.

Mark-Viverito has now been on two sides of this equation, as a popular elected official herself and as a strategist for Latino political participation during her post-speakership stint as president of Latino Victory, a national organization dedicated to increasing Latino political representation and civic participation. Yet, when asked what exactly has gone wrong, her tone is one of sharp exasperation. “I don’t know what it is. I’m hoping that we can overcome it. I think at some point, it has to be some sort of a convening, where we come together and have this conversation,” she said. In the meantime, the political representative future of a disjointed community of millions seems rather adrift.

Felipe De La Hoz is a lecturer at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and an investigative journalist focusing on immigration.

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