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The Boston Globe

Felix D. Arroyo: A Quiet Leap For Latinos


January 9, 2003
Copyright © 2003 The Boston Globe. All rights reserved. 

The Boston City Council underwent a historic change a few days ago, though not many people seemed to notice.

After more than two decades in public service and several near- misses as a candidate, Felix D. Arroyo became the council's first Latino member.

One glance at the "Paz Para Vieques " (Peace for Vieques ) sign adorning his City Hall office suggests the change that Arroyo represents. A longtime city official and former School Committee chairman, he is well aware of what his ascension represents. It's no surprise, he said, that it's taken so long for a Latino to join the council.

"I think that the city was held back because of the traumatic experience of race that it has gone through, and I think many people have been unable to connect," Arroyo said yesterday. "But there has been a steady growth of diverse people in the city of Boston, and we need to deal with each other."

Arroyo, 54, went on the council to fill the unexpired term of Francis M. Roache, who became Suffolk County's register of probate. Few, if any, new city councilors have been familiar faces in city government for as long as Arroyo. He has been a vocal commuity activist since shortly after arriving in Boston in the mid-1970s, and served in two high-profile posts under Mayor Raymond L. Flynn. He was also appointed to the School Committee by Flynn and chaired it under Mayor Thomas M. Menino, before the two parted ways politically.

Arroyo first came to Boston to pursue a doctorate in education at Harvard. A native of Arecibo, Puerto Rico , he was teaching school in Puerto Rico when he got interested in graduate study, and decided he wanted to pursue it on the mainland. He wanted, he said yesterday, to better understand the experience of migrants from the island.

"We are a people with two cultures, two languages, and two ways of life," he said. "If I don't understand that, I'll never be able to serve my people."

He never finished the doctorate. A stint in the South End social service agency, Casa Del Sol, led to a run for the then-elected School Committee in 1981. He ran again in 1983, placing fifth in a contest for four at-large seats. By then he had caught the eye of Flynn, who named him his education advisor in 1985. He became the city's personnel director a few years later.

Eyebrows were raised in 1993 when Arroyo accepted a seat on the appointed School Committee. Flynn's bid to abolish the elected board wasn't popular in minority communities, and Arroyo was still a city employee. But he said he believed the appointed body would be more representative, and, under public pressure to choose between his appointed post and his city job, he quit the job and served on the School Committee.

Menino declined to reappoint him in 1999. Arroyo suspects it was because he was too independent. He worked, until Monday, for the Hispanic Office of Planning and Evaluation, and also teaches one course a year in Cambridge for Springfield College. He remains a student, as well: He takes courses at Weston Jesuit School of Theology.

Arroyo expresses few worries about working with his new colleagues.

"I believe in adaptation, not assimilation," he said. "I believe that you don't have anything by denying who you are, or your roots, or your culture. But you need to function and work effectively where you are."

In less than a year, Arroyo will again be on the ballot as a City Council candidate. Though he considers himself a standard-bearer, he trusts voters to look beyond ethnicity in judging him.

"The accumulation of experiences that I have been able to have have convinced many voters that beyond being Hispanic, I have something to offer - and being Hispanic might be a plus."

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