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Associated Press Newswires
Latinos Making Mark In N.J. Mayoral Races
By WAYNE PARRY
MAY 19, 2002
PATERSON, N.J. (AP) - When Jose "Joey" Torres reached the stage on election night after becoming this city's first Latino mayor-elect, one of the first people to hug him was Samuel Rivera, who last year became the first Latino mayor of Passaic.
In many New Jersey cities, "Mister Mayor" is giving way to "Senor Alcalde."
Torres, a former bodega owner and veteran City Councilman, sees the trend as the natural progression of power in a county where the Latino population doubled over the last decade.
"This is the future of New Jersey," his campaign manager said.
Indeed it is, particularly in areas like Passaic County, where the two biggest cities will now be led by Hispanic mayors. They join veteran Latino mayors in West New York and Perth Amboy, where Albio Sires and Joseph Vas have been entrenched for years.
"It's a sign of the times," said Torres, who ousted veteran Mayor Martin Barnes by topping a field of five candidates in Tuesday's election. "In Paterson, Latinos make up 52 percent of the population, 60 percent of the children in the schools are Latinos, and 80 percent of the small businesses are run by Latinos.
"This is history being repeated," he said. "In earlier days, when the population was primarily Italian, that's who the mayors were."
Torres spent much of his childhood in a bodega his parents ran. He inherited the business at 19, and soon bought others before getting a job with the city and entering politics.
"I was born in Paterson, and my parents came from Puerto Rico 60 years ago," he said. "At that time, there were only about a dozen Latino families here. Now I am the first Latino mayor, and for that, I am very proud. It shows how far we have come."
U.S. Rep. Robert Menendez, the state's highest-ranking Latino elected official, sees more than just growing numbers at work. He said Latino voters are beginning to transcend parochial concerns that in the past had pitted Dominicans against Puerto Ricans, or Cubans against Mexicans in the electoral arena, with the resulting divisiveness preventing Latinos from winning.
"We have long had the ability in terms of numbers to elect a mayor, but that hadn't often been realized," he said. "That one electorate is coming together shows the political maturity of the community.
"When one of us achieves and breaks through, all of us do," said Menendez, a Cuban-American. "In Joey's case, I cut radio commercials for him and had a rally where we brought Dominicans and Puerto Ricans together and said, `He's one of us. That political maturity is continuing to blossom. It's not just, `Is he Puerto Rican or Dominican or Cuban?' but `Is he a qualified candidate that can make us all proud?' Sammy Rivera and Joey Torres benefitted from that."
Torres, who critics said appointed a disproportionate amount of Latinos to head committees while serving as City Council president, says his administration will be an inclusive one, reflecting the diversity of Paterson. According to 2000 census figures, the city has 74,774 Hispanics, 49,095 blacks and 45,913 whites.
"Just because I am the first Hispanic mayor doesn't mean I am only going to deal with `Hispanic issues,"' Torres said. "The social problems of Paterson are colorblind. Homelessness and drug addiction and prostitution don't depict any one race."
Rosa Montes runs a struggling restaurant on an otherwise abandoned block of boarded-up storefronts near City Hall. She's happy the new mayor will be someone who speaks her language, but that will only get him so far.
"Many people in Paterson don't speak English at all, and it's not the same if you can't communicate with your mayor and he can't communicate with you," she said. "But it's not just speech; it's action. He has to understand what happens out here."
Montes said she has lost customers because of crime in the neighborhood.
"We are not safe here," she said. "All the time, I have problems. My customers' car windows get broken, they get robbed. The main thing is he needs to listen to people. If he works with us, we will support him."
Rivera, the Passaic mayor, gets the message.
"It's up to us to have this trend continue and make people understand that although we are Hispanic, we work for the whole community, not just one segment," he said. "We have to do a good job so people can see we know how to govern well and deserve to stay in office."