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Puerto Rico Profile: José Serrano

July 28, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

"If I was living in Mayagüez with some of my cousins, I could not be a member of Congress, but I also could not be Ambassador to Nicaragua representing the Republic of Puerto Rico. I would be in limbo. I want that limbo to end."

José Serrano is the senior of the three Representatives in the U.S. Congress of Puerto Rican heritage. He has devoted his career to the service of his constituents in the South Bronx, NY, his home since childhood. He has demonstrated a commitment to improving the lives of the poor through better education and government services; he has worked to clean up the environment; and he has fought for the self-determination of his native island of Puerto Rico.

Serrano was born in Mayagüez, on the west coast of Puerto Rico, on October 24, 1943. He was infused with Puerto Rican culture during his early years, and he remembers his parents, José and Hipolita (known familiarly as "Pepe" and "Pola"), taking him to celebrate Fiestas Patronales — Patron Saint Feasts. The powerful combination of the spirituality and music at these festivals filled young José with a pride in Puerto Rico that he retained when, at seven years old, he moved with his family to New York.

Despite his immersion in Puerto Rican culture, José Serrano was not wholly unprepared for life on the mainland. His father had served in the U.S. Army and had returned home with a stack of Frank Sinatra records. These songs were Serrano’s introduction to the English language, and he credits the "Chairman of the Board" with instilling in him the English speaking skills that have made him an eloquent and confident public speaker.

Serrano grew up in circumstances similar to most Puerto Ricans in the South Bronx. His family was poor and lived in the projects. José and his little brother Eli attended public schools, and, as Serrano later recalled, they "learned to play all the urban games that are part of New York." José became involved with the Road Runner Club, which sponsors the New York City Marathon; and he continues to run in numerous races throughout the city.

Serrano took classes at Lehman College, part of the City University of New York, before serving a two-year stint in the military. Like his father, he joined the U.S. Army, and he was stationed at Fort Wainwright in Alaska with the Army Medical Corps from 1964-66.

Returning to New York after receiving an honorable discharge, Serrano became a staff member of the New York City Board of Education and, from 1969-1974, acted as the chairman of the South Bronx Community Corporation.

He was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1974. For the next 15 years, he served on the Assembly, authoring legislation to expand bilingual education programs, reduce school drop-out rates, and reform the election process for local school boards. He became chairman of the Education Committee in 1983, a position he retained until 1990. In that year, an opportunity arose for Serrano to takes his legislative experience and political activism to a new level.

New York’s 16th Congressional District, which covers the South Bronx, holds a notable place in the history of Puerto Ricans in New York. In 1970, Herman Badillo became the first person born in Puerto Rico to be elected a U.S. Congressman. He stepped down in 1977 to become Deputy Mayor of New York City and was replaced by Robert García, a New Yorker of Puerto Rican origin. García had himself been the first Puerto Rican elected to the New York State Senate.

In 1990, García resigned after 12 years in office. In a special election that Spring to fill the vacancy, José Serrano received an overwhelming 92% of the votes. He followed that victory with an equally decisive one in the general election that November.

Over the past ten years, José Serrano has maintained his high level of popularity by building a legislative track record that adheres closely to his constituents’ needs and priorities. In his first term in Congress, he sponsored a successful bill to help curb drop-out rates in schools, a problem that has plagued his district. Subsequently, he was also principal sponsor of the Voting Rights Language Assistance Act, an expansion of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Serrano has been instrumental in fighting off the attempts by English-only advocates to cut back bilingual education. He has developed a policy framework that he calls "English Plus" which involves the encouragement of English proficiency for all Americans, but not at the expense of their original languages and cultures. His own experience of mastering the English language — while retaining and celebrating his Puerto Rican identity — stands as proof that this goal is attainable.

Congressman Serrano received a whopping 95% of the votes in the most recent election, in 1998. With that mandate, and with key positions on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, he has continued to take an active role in the issues that most affect his district. Reacting to police brutality and racial profiling, he has recently spearheaded efforts to improve police training and establish closer ties between the New York Police Department and the neighborhoods it patrols. He has also promoted the development of cleaner fuels and more stringent environmental standards, which would be instrumental in reducing the cases of asthma and other pulmonary problems in the inner city.

Moreover, as a native-born Puerto Rican, and as the representative in Congress of a heavily Puerto Rican district, Serrano has taken a leading role in the debate over the island’s political status. "It really doesn’t matter how far you go," he said in 1997. "If you were born on the island, that issue is always with you."

José Serrano advocates the cessation of training by the U.S. Navy in Vieques, and he has supported efforts in Congress to help resolve Puerto Rico’s status. "Our country has to live up to its standard," he has said, "and the standard is that we must allow the people on the island the right to express themselves, and then to have Congress react to that."

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