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Amassing Political Clout Latinos Build Civic Awareness, Momentum…In Puerto Rico, Politics Has A More Familiar Aspect

Amassing Political Clout Latinos Build Civic Awareness, Momentum

Joseph Spector

National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Staff

April 29, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Democrat & Chronicle. All rights reserved.

Octavio Garcia grew up in Rochester but admits he felt disconnected from its politics.

Maybe it was because he wasn't educated enough about it, or just didn't have enough interest in it growing up in a Hispanic community.

Now 36, Garcia wants to change - for himself and for the younger Hispanic generation.

"There are enough Latinos in Rochester to make a huge difference," said Garcia, who along with his wife is taking part in the political campaign academy organized by the Regional Latino Advocacy Coalition. The academy started Monday.

"At least if we're educated about the process we can try and make a difference."

Garcia's philosophy is one Hispanic leaders in Rochester hope will spread, and there's evidence that it has. But while Hispanics have become the largest minority group in the United States and their numbers have grown rapidly in Rochester, many say there is still plenty to do to increase their political clout.

Language barriers, distrust of the political process and a young population of mainly first- and second-generation immigrants are factors that have presented obstacles to gaining a representative role in government.

Hispanic leaders in Rochester say they continue to try to break down the barriers, but they are slow to crumble.

Still, new political action committees, the political academy, fresh faces running for office and better organization by Hispanic leaders are all signs that the changing demographics are affecting local politics.

"We have not arrived," said Luis Zamot, who heads the Monroe County Hispanic Republican Committee. "We still have work to do."

Old habits

Scholars and Hispanic leaders scratch their heads sometimes about why more Hispanics aren't involved in U.S. politics or registered to vote.

Although Latino and black populations are relatively the same size nationally, 6 million more black people are registered to vote.

Another puzzling piece is that in Puerto Rico, native home to 78 percent of the roughly 28,000 Hispanics who live in Rochester, voter turnout is more than 80 percent. Yet when they come to the United States, turnout is less than half that.

The disengagement among Puerto Rican voters prompted its government last year to launch a three-year, $6 million national voter education campaign in the United States, aimed at reaching the 1.7 million Puerto Ricans eligible to vote here.

The effort seems to be working: In six months, 80,000 people have registered to vote.

Puerto Ricans and other Hispanics here often feel detached from U.S. politics, experts say. Used to being tied to smaller governments, Hispanics tend to shy away from the larger governments in the U.S.

Add to that the cultural differences between their native land and the mainland United States - as well as apathy evidenced by voters across all ethnic divides - and Hispanics have found difficulty in triggering interest in politics and government in their communities.

"In general, Latinos tend to be collectivists," said John Rodriguez, president of the Regional Latino Advocacy Coalition in Rochester. "The core of U.S. culture is individualist."

But building political involvement by Hispanics is a challenge no different from those faced previously by other groups growing in influence, said Christine Sierra, professor of political science at the University of New Mexico.

It wasn't until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 gave black people equal rights at the polls that they began to mobilize. And it wasn't until 10 years later that those protections were extended to Hispanic, Asian and Native American citizens.

"The same trajectory has occurred," for black people and now Hispanics, Sierra said. "For blacks, you can see the rise of black elected officials traceable to the 1965 era, the same for Latinos post-1975."

Both groups, however, continue to face instances of alleged discrimination at the polls. In March, for example, Hispanic voters sued and won in Berks County, Pa., because ballots were not printed in Spanish and English, which violated a federal law that requires Spanish versions of all election materials in precincts where at least 5 percent of registered voters are Hispanic.

Growing movement

Hispanics in Rochester have made greater political inroads than in other upstate New York cities.

For one, Rochester has the largest concentration of Hispanics in upstate New York, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The Hispanic population in the six-county Rochester region nearly doubled, to 48,000, from 1990 to 2000. In Rochester, Hispanics now represent 13 percent of the population.

Additionally, Hispanics began migrating to Rochester more than a half-century ago, making them more ingrained in the community than in many other parts of the Northeast.

Thus, second- and third-generation families are now showing signs of greater political influence.

That is a significant advantage because the median age for Hispanics nationally is the late 20s.

Over the last decade, Hispanics have gained at least one seat on every major governing body in Rochester and Monroe County.

New York, overall, has kept pace with the national rise in elected Hispanic officials. Since 1996, the number of Hispanic elected officials in New York at every level of government rose from 77 to 88, a 14 percent increase, according to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

Nationwide, it increased from 4,787 to 5,557, a 16 percent spike.

The gains have not satisfied local Hispanic leaders, but they are becoming more confident that the future will lead to greater influence.

Bolgen Vargas, a school board member since 1996, blames the lag in involvement on city planners for being disconnected from the city's changing demographics.

Economic development, he said, should center more on the people who live in the city, which is about 50 percent black or Hispanic.

"There's been a major failure on part of elected officials to address the demographic shift going on before our eyes in the city," said Vargas, a Democrat.

That feeling of alienation, as Vargas put it, could be leading to more Hispanics than ever wanting to have a voice in government.

Veteran Hispanic leaders in Rochester say they are seeing an unprecedented number of Hispanics becoming active in campaigns and running for office.

Officials credit college scholarship programs offered by local Hispanic groups and the rise of a Hispanic middle class as some of the reasons.

"I've seen some real positive things with young folks getting involved," said Jose Cruz, D-Rochester, a Monroe County legislator since 1999. "You have a sense from our younger community that they are much more open to getting involved politically and socially."

For the November elections, at least four Hispanics plan to run for Rochester school board and City Council.

David Perez, 32, a Rochester native, is running for the school board because he wants to give back to the school district he graduated from. He's had the urge to enter politics for years, but he hasn't pursued the goal until recently.

"It was basically ignorance," said Perez, a Democrat. "Your natural tendency is to not get engaged because you're not informed. That was my situation."


Hispanics are trying to increase education about government within their community. The Hispanic Republican Committee last week, for example, held a recruitment event at Monroe County Republican headquarters attended by 30 people.

Zamot, the committee's chairman, said the group's enthusiasm creates a competitive environment where Democrats can no longer take the Hispanic vote for granted. And that creates more outreach programs and more candidates going into the Hispanic community to gain support.

The growth of the Hispanic population and its political influence may be more evident on a statewide and national level. President Bush in 2000 and Gov. George Pataki last year made inroads with Hispanic voters and that helped carry the two Republicans to victory.

In New York, the Republican outreach was especially crucial because Democrats outnumber Republicans, 5 to 3.

The number of Hispanics casting ballots in a presidential election will increase from 5.7 million in 2000, when 79 percent of Hispanic registered voters went to the polls, to 7.9 million in 2004, according to a study by the National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Hispanic civil rights group, based in Washington, D.C.

But with 20 million Hispanics of voting age, La Raza hopes an aggressive education and registration effort will produce an increase of more than 3 million Hispanic voters.

"For our community, when you look at the numbers of each election cycle, voting has gone up," said Ingrid Duran, president and CEO of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, based in Washington, D.C. "While it's still minimal, the numbers are increasing with each election cycle."

E-mail address:

Share of all voters

2000 U.S. population





New York




Eligible Latino population of voters

U.S. Latinos

Actual voters


5.9 million voters

New York Latinos

Actual voters


502,000 voters


Elected Latino officials in N.Y. as of January; Male Female

U.S. representatives 1 1

State senators 2 2

State representatives 7 1

County officials 4 -

Municipal officials 14 6

Judicial/law enforcement 6 3

Education/school board 21 19

Special district officials 1 -

Totals 56 32

In Puerto Rico, Politics Has A More Familiar Aspect

Joseph Spector

April 29, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Democrat & Chronicle. All rights reserved.

Caravans blare political messages that echo along the streets. Hundreds gather in town squares to rally behind candidates. Volunteers parade through small villages to urge residents to vote.

That's an election year in Puerto Rico, where elections held every four years are as much carnival as they are political combat.

So when Puerto Ricans come to the mainland U.S., many feel disconnected from government and politics because they lack the spirited involvement and close interaction with leaders they are used to.

"People feel disconnected and they don't understand the issues as well here as they do there," said Domingo Garcia, a native Puerto Rican and longtime Rochester resident who has worked on campaigns in both places. Garcia is running for city school board this year.

In Puerto Rico, residents vote at a higher rate than in any state in the United States. In 2000, 82 percent of voters went to the polls in Puerto Rico.

Yet when they come to the United States, their voting rate drops to nearly 40 percent.

The issue looms large in Rochester, where 78 percent - roughly 21,000 members - of the Hispanic population is of Puerto Rican descent.

Experts point to several reasons Puerto Ricans often demonstrate less enthusiasm for U.S. politics.

* Unlike most U.S. states, which hold annual elections for either local or state and federal offices, Puerto Rico holds elections every four years and only has town and state positions. So when Puerto Ricans come to the mainland, they can be confused by the electoral process.

"In Puerto Rico, the electoral process is simple," said Celeste Diaz Ferraro, spokeswoman for the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration. "It is impossible to miss the fact that, A, there is an election going on, B, who the candidates are and, C, what their stance on issues are."

* Elections in Puerto Rico are close, usually decided by five or six percentage points. That makes it imperative for the two major parties - the Popular Democratic Party and the New Progressive Party - to rally their base of supporters and seek new voters. Puerto Rico has about 2.5 million registered voters - about the same number as in Connecticut.

"Political parties have an incentive to draw out its political base and the people on the fringes," said Carlos Vargas-Ramos of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York City.

* Because patronage - giving government jobs to people connected politically - is widespread in Puerto Rico, many residents have direct ties to who is elected. Government is also smaller, closer to the people.

Moreover, the issue of whether Puerto Rico should seek U.S. statehood, improve its current commonwealth status or seek independence from the U.S. is so heated a topic that it drives people to the voting booth.

"When your livelihood is at stake, you are always more motivated to vote," said Luis Zamot, head of the Monroe County Hispanic Republican Committee.

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