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The Record

N.J. Hispanics Begin To Grasp Need For Unity


May 26, 2003
Copyright © 2003
Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company.. All rights reserved. 

When Governor McGreevey nominated an appellate judge for the state Supreme Court instead of a Cuban-born former public advocate, Hispanics - long underrepresented in nearly all levels of government - blamed his action on indifference to their community.

But since then, many New Jersey Hispanics have concluded that their lack of unity may be at least as much to blame for their failure to win more political nominations and appointments.

The state's Hispanic population, more than a million strong, is more diverse than perhaps any other group in recent history that has tried to become a potent voting bloc.

There are the Old Guard Hispanics - Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens by birth, and Cuban-Americans, who are primarily political refugees - who have lived in the state for more than 40 years.

There are others, such as Dominicans, Peruvians, and Colombians, all large groups who have been in the state for more than a decade and boast their own businesses and civic groups. And then there are the newest groups - Mexicans, Guatemalans, and Salvadorans - who cut lawns, lay tiles, and wash cars, and who include a large number of undocumented immigrants.

"The process of developing unity for Latinos is complex," said Martin Perez, an attorney who is president of the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey, based in New Brunswick. "It's very different to be a Cuban than a Puerto Rican, or a Puerto Rican than a Mexican. They are very different, very defined cultures. Uniting them is a big challenge."

Tom Giblin, who served as Democratic chairman for both the state and Essex County, knows what Perez is talking about.

As chairman, he quickly noticed "internal issues, like Hispanics divided into several camps, and issues of Puerto Rican vs. Mexicans or some other group, that seemed to be obstacles" to political advancement, he said.

"I didn't see that with African-Americans," he said. "They seemed more cohesive, more organized."

To further complicate matters, Hispanics in New Jersey are spread out - -from Camden in South Jersey, to Union City, just a few miles from Manhattan. Dozens of urban Hispanic enclaves, often separated by suburbs, dot the state. And thousands of Hispanics, from assimilated professionals to new arrivals who want to live near work, have settled in predominantly white suburbs.

The wide dispersion, leaders say, does far more than limit opportunities for Hispanics to connect. It also makes it challenging to redraw legislative districts to bolster a Hispanic's chances of getting elected, they say.

Union City resident Lucia Gomez, who has participated in redistricting efforts in several states, says that developing districts to bolster African-Americans has worked more smoothly because of "their level of concentration in large cities in New Jersey and their ... patterns of segregation from other ethnic groups."

By contrast, she found that "the Latino community is dispersed in small, concentrated units throughout the state - not just in large cities right next door to African-Americans, but in small clumps in [areas such as] Dover, Morristown, Pennsauken, and Vineland."

The dispersion also has fueled parochialism, with Hispanic leaders in one part of New Jersey not knowing leaders in another part of the state, Hispanics say.

"People up north don't know people in the south," Gomez said. "Some of us are trying to address those dynamics. We're saying things like 'Let's have the next meeting in South Jersey, and the one after that in North Jersey.'-"

Hispanics have been well aware of such obstacles for some time. In 1999, Perez and several other community leaders founded the Latino Leadership Alliance to galvanize members of civic, professional, and religious organizations in the state.

One of the first things Perez urged members to do was to develop a common agenda aimed at empowering Hispanics in New Jersey, and not let their native homeland interests get in the way of unity.

"People wanted us to deal with things like who should be the next president of the Dominican Republic, issues in Mexico," Perez said. "I said, 'We'll help the Dominicans and Mexicans lift themselves up here, we will deal with issues that affect Hispanics here in New Jersey - like education, access to health programs, housing, immigration - but there are some things we cannot solve and we will not get involved with, like Cuba and whether Puerto Rico should have statehood.'-"

Many outside observers predict that, like previous marginalized ethnic and racial groups, Hispanics will adopt a more global identity.

"When the Irish first came, they didn't identify as Irish," said Vincent Parrillo, author of immigration books and chairman of the sociology department at William Paterson University. "They'd say there were from County Monaghan or County Cork in Ireland, not that they were Irish. The Italians also identified with the part of Italy they were from, not as Italians."

Hispanic leaders say that in the aftermath of McGreevey's decision not to nominate the Cuban-American lawyer to the state Supreme Court, they have noticed an unprecedented desire among members of their community to join forces.

McGreevey's aides have said that Zulima Farber was not nominated because of bench warrants that were issued for her arrest due to failure to appear in municipal court on motor vehicle violations. Hispanic leaders, however, charge that pressure by African- Americans on the governor to nominate a black candidate is what doomed Farber.

Hispanic leaders say the Farber incident has roused Hispanics from complacency and a belief that someday, their ship would come in. In a series of meetings in recent weeks, Hispanic leaders have discussed the need for their community to "grow" its power, instead of looking to the major political parties, and even Latino elected officials, to bestow it.

Several people who attended the meetings left surprised by the consensus reached by leaders who, in the past, have been at odds. In recent weeks, Hispanics have established a statewide political action committee and are laying the groundwork to help immigrants become U.S. citizens and register to vote.

"Before, we may have needed to be docile and humble," said Jose Morales, a community activist in Paterson. "Zulima has been the beacon that has showed our community that our differences, when put in the context of what is at stake, should not matter."

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