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The Hartford Courant

Puerto Ricans Still Fight Apathy

Helen Ubinas

April 1, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The Hartford Courant. All rights reserved. 

The volunteers met at the corner of Washington and Park and fanned out, stopping people on the street, knocking on doors, asking anyone who gave them a second the same question: "Do you vote?"

Some did, more didn't. But even those who didn't puffed out their chests to point out that hey, Hartford has a Puerto Rican mayor, you know.

Never mind that they did nothing to get him there, and come election time, they likely won't again.

It's been nearly 40 years since our first grass-roots leader, Maria Sanchez, set out to register Latinos outside her store on Albany Avenue. It's bad enough that after all these years we're still fighting the same fights - poverty, teen pregnancy, and lack of education. That we're still fighting apathy is unthinkable.

Yet there they were last weekend, volunteers from the non-partisan Puerto Rican Federal Affairs Administration, pleading with people to get involved - this in a city where Latinos have become the largest population group, with the potential power to run the town.

There was a litany of excuses Saturday:

"I don't have time."

"I don't want to."

"I vote in Puerto Rico."

"Why should I? Politicians don't do anything for me, so why should I do anything for them?"

Soraida Rodriguez, a 34-year-old lifelong resident of Hartford, said she just doesn't know enough to vote.

And more than a few people the volunteers approached said they were Jehovah's Witnesses, who are politically neutral. I trust in God, one woman told the volunteers. Personally, I subscribe more to "God helps those who help themselves."

The volunteers from PRFA were frustrated. Carlos Rivera put it nicely: With Latinos poised to become the nation's largest minority group, "we're going to be a country dominated by Hispanics, run by Anglos."

Yet they remained polite, and hopeful, trying their best to get their pitch out before people shooed them away. On the rare occasion that someone said yes, they were registered and yes, they voted, organizer Luis Cotto greeted them with a "Perfecto!"

Well, I don't get paid to be polite. Here's the deal: We keep acting like newcomers, that's how we're going to be treated. Not knowing enough about the process is no excuse. Hey, I went to New York City public schools where I barely learned the 50 states; once you reach a certain age, you have to take responsibility for yourself, and that includes the responsibility to learn.

For all the pride Puerto Ricans take in el alcalde Eddie Perez, the truth is it wasn't the Latino vote that put him in office; it was the lack of any real opposition. About 30 percent of the city's Latinos voted in the 2001 municipal election. Even if every one of them voted for Perez, it wouldn't have been enough in a serious campaign.

And this pride people have in the high voter turnout in Puerto Rico: Well, that's fabulous, but unless you live there, it doesn't matter. You live here, you have to vote here, for yourself, your kids, your neighbors and your neighborhood, or years down the road there's going to be a new set of volunteers canvassing other city neighborhoods for those elusive Latino voters, and then there will only be one word to describe our community: Pathetic.

If this annoys you or upsets you, call Cotto on his cellphone, 833-5587, and volunteer. Or better yet, call to register, and actually get out and vote when it's time.

The next election will likely be in September. Vote for Perez. Or don't vote for Perez, I could care less. But vote. Don't, and our numbers won't add up to a hill of habichuelas.

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