“If not now, when?” is the motto of the 2019 Somos conference in Puerto Rico, which speaks to the urgency of addressing hot-button issues affecting the Latino community. But the question could also be asked when it comes to the annual conference’s long-standing lack of transparency.
While the stated purpose of the conference, which is organized by the New York State Assembly and Senate Puerto Rican and Hispanic Task Force, is to help craft policy proposals that will “unite the Latino community and raise awareness, advocate and elevate social consciousness,” it remains an open question whether that goal has been met in recent years because of a lack of documentation of what actually gets discussed.
A key part of the days-long conference is legislative workshops and other activities where New York lawmakers and other political insiders discuss key issues affecting the community. However, the task force has yet to publicly release reports that outline the policy proposals that arose from these discussions, even though such reports have reportedly been compiled for at least the past three years.
The reasons for organizers’ reticence remain unclear. Assemblywoman Maritza Davila of Brooklyn, who was named as chairwoman of the task force in late 2018, has said that such a report on the 2019 conference would be made available on the Somos website. If that happens, it could help battle perceptions that the 30-year-old conference has become more of a junket for political insiders than a serious policy conference.
“They're supposed to actually issue reports,” said journalist and former City & State Editor-at-Large Gerson Borrero, who has covered the Somos conference for years. “I know they were written. They never released it.”
This year’s agenda includes discussions on issues like the Puerto Rican debt crisis, K-12 education, housing and getting more Latinos to serve as judges – all of which will be summarized and released to the public, according to Davila. “We have changed things around,” she said. “We want to make sure that everything in every workshop is correctly documented. As you can see, we have changed a lot of things on the website and all of that will be available on the website.”
Davila declined to say why past reports were not released, referring City & State to two previous chairs, Assemblyman Félix Ortiz of Brooklyn and Assemblyman Marcos Crespo of the Bronx. Ortiz said that he did not have possession of any reports from past years and referred City & State back to Davila. “I can't speak for anybody in the past,” Davila responded. “I can only speak for myself.”
Crespo, who was named as chairman in 2015, said that there “was always a plan” to release reports during his tenure but “other priorities” took precedence. The unreleased reports makes it hard to judge the policy ideas that were purportedly developed at past conferences, but Crespo claims there were many. “I’m sure my task force colleagues agree that our conference efforts have helped move many agenda items forward and present pivotal information to our participants and community,” said Crespo, who declined to discuss the issue of the reports further before publication time.
In a 2018 interview with City & State, Crespo gave several examples of substantive policy changes in New York that came out of this Puerto Rican conference, which was canceled in 2017 due to Hurricane Maria. This included proposals on boosting diversity in state government that were later incorporated into a SUNY diversity plan and played a role in the appointment of Havidán Rodríguez as the president of the University at Albany. Crespo also claimed that conversations with Gov. Andrew Cuomo about the conference led to the establishment of a New York office in San Juan. That office later secured additional business in Puerto Rico for apple farmers in New York, according to Crespo.
These accomplishments are relatively narrow in scope, but they do reflect the diversity of possibilities of what can happen when some of the most powerful people in state politics gather in one place. The issues discussed at the conferences inevitably raise their profile in the minds of key policymakers. The task force also has a record of raising big money at annual conferences in Puerto Rico and Albany, which in turn benefit a scholarship fund for students involved with the associated Puerto Rican/Hispanic Youth Leadership Institute.
Why the task force has not wanted to tout its past policy ideas by releasing reports from past conferences remains unclear. But if Davila follows through with her promises to do so going forward, then it will at least be better known what exactly the annual Somos conference in Puerto Rico accomplishes beyond giving political insiders an annual retreat from the cold weather up north.