The Somos conference has been a priority for New York lawmakers since 1988. Originally known as Somos Uno, the event was intended to address and serve the needs of the Latino community in New York state. Conferences were held twice a year and served as a platform for legislators and leaders to bring up issues in their communities.
While serious issues are discussed, Somos also presented the opportunity for legislators to let loose – with unofficial parties and networking opportunities.
The conferences until now have been in Albany and San Juan, Puerto Rico. In 2025, Somos will be hosted in three locations: Albany, Puerto Rico and for the first time in the Dominican Republic, a decision approved this year and which did not come without some controversy.
Leaked messages from conference leadership suggested bypassing Puerto Rico and hosting the conference in the Dominican Republic, drawing pushback in some communities. Newspaper reports suggested that the change would create a divide between the Puerto Rican and Dominican communities in New York.
Leading the discussion to make the change was Assembly Member Karines Reyes, who clarified for City & State that she wanted to move the conference, not just to the Dominican Republic, but to other Latin American nations each year to show greater representation of New York state’s diverse population. A compromise came when it was decided to add the third annual conference in the Dominican Republic.
City & State caught up with Reyes to find out why she wanted to host Somos in the Dominican Republic and learn how the compromise came about.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What is your reaction to the debate that emerged from your proposal to relocate it to the Dominican Republic? Were you expecting this debate?
Well, I think, first, it's important to clarify that the proposal was never to completely relocate the conference. And I think that the choice of words makes a difference. The proposal was to rotate the conference. It wasn't a removal of the conference from Puerto Rico completely. It was an idea for us to explore how we can be more inclusive of other Latino groups in our conference.
And, did I expect the debate? Yes. I knew that there were going to be folks that wouldn’t completely be happy with the idea of rotating the conference. But I think overall, it's hard to argue with the change of demographics in the Latino community. And it's hard to ignore the diversity amongst New York Latinos.
Do you expect there to be any sort of inclusion of other countries where demographics in New York City are represented?
Actually, my initial plan was not to move the conference from Puerto Rico to the Dominican Republic. The plan was for us to look for ways to rotate the conference to different Latin American countries, like the Dominican Republic. And that was my first recommendation just because of the sheer number of Dominicans in New York City. But in my proposal was also the idea for us to look at Mexico as the next country that we go to. To look at Colombia because we have so many elected officials of Colombian descent. That was all part of the broader vision to look at how we move forward with the conference.
What are the topics that you envision for each conference in 2025? And how will these discussions differ in both the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico?
When we were curating the discussions and the workshops at the previous conference, I was not doing that solely by myself. I think that the process that we use to curate the conversations of the past two conferences that I chaired, has been a very organic one that included voices of the community, impacted people, and groups that are doing work with the Latino community.
I anticipate that a conference for the Dominican Republic, a conference in Mexico, and the upcoming conference in Puerto Rico is going to be the same. Part of that organic process is how we ended up with 30 workshops at the Albany conference in 2023 and 36 workshops at the Puerto Rico conference in 2023. There is an increased interest to participate in the conference when you allow people with space to curate those conversations.
The Somos conferences are always sold out. People are very excited to attend and to talk about what's going on in their communities. Do you think that Somos will grow in scale? Instead of it being like around 2000 attendees, do you think that the attendee list will get bigger?
Absolutely, I think, you know, capacity has been a problem the past year. And in the past conference, we saw a record number of first-time attendees as well. I attribute that to what I mentioned before, just the organic process by which we allow people to take part in the conversation that happened during Somos. So I anticipate that we are going to continue to grow. There are going to be more and more people interested in participating in the conference, because they feel represented and welcome and feel part of the conference.
That has always been my goal. And then now of course, we're going to have the challenge of capacity to deal with again. But I think that's a good problem to have. And, moving forward I think that also better serves the growing Latino community.
Do you think that the Dominican Republic will have the same opportunity for service like in Puerto Rico?
If there's anything that there is no lack of is opportunities to provide service trips. There are plenty of communities in need in all of Latin America and the Caribbean that could use our help.
For the trip to the Dominican Republic, will it be in Puerto Plata or Punta Cana?
It hasn't been formalized yet. Ideally, I think in terms of properties that can accommodate the size of the conference, that provide proximity to the airport, safety measures, and all of those things; Punta Cana seems like the more appropriate location.
I understand from your bio that you identify as afro-latina with history with the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, do you have any personal feelings about this expansion and change in SOMOS?
I was born in the Dominican Republic. I lived in Puerto Rico with my dad. My dad's Puerto Rican. My Puerto Rican family still lives on the island of Puerto Rico, everything that the island struggles with impacts me directly. But I think it's also a moment to be proud of when I can say that we are including another important part of the Latino Diaspora in the events that we do.
A conference in the Dominican Republic, though it won't be the first one, I think it's good to clarify that there have been smaller events from the conference in the Dominican Republic. But I think a very deliberate mounting of an event in the Dominican Republic will be a moment of pride for a lot of Latinos even those who aren't necessarily Dominican or Puerto Rican. I think for Latinos, for a diverse group of Latinos, this is a door opening for them to be represented in a conference as well.
Any remaining thoughts?
I think the process and the public discourse that has taken place has been premature because the conversations of the proposal were private conversations that unfortunately spilled out into the public sphere. And I think that is a disappointing reality that undermines our ability as Latinos to come together and to talk through issues that impact us. So I would hope that moving forward, people will be more mindful of how the things they do or the things they say publicly can cause divides where there doesn't have to be any or shouldn't be any.
A lot of what happened was speculative. I think the news of a complete move of the conference is of course going to be a shocking one. But that was never the intended plan to begin with. So I think that drummed up some vitriol that was unwarranted. It didn't allow for the board to come out with a public statement or the task force to come out with a public statement or myself to come out with a public statement before people started to form their opinion.