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'Hispanic First' Becoming Stale Valenti Takes Seat - Will Retain Her City Council Post
'Hispanic First' Becoming Stale
JERRY BARCA STAFF WRITER
January 2, 2005
MIDDLESEX COUNTY: Being tagged with the description "first Hispanic" to do something is nothing new for Blanquita Valenti.
In the early 1970s, the Puerto Rican woman was the first Hispanic member of New Brunswick's Board of Education. In 1977, she became the first Hispanic on the Middlesex County College Board of Trustees. In 1990, she became the first Hispanic on the New Brunswick City Council.
On Thursday afternoon, the 70-year-old will be sworn in as the first Hispanic freeholder in Middlesex County.
Her election to a countywide position is not so much a signal of an upstart group making headway, but rather a statement of Hispanics' foothold in politics.
Politicians across the country, in both national and local elections, court the Latino vote now. But Hispanic elected officials from New Jersey say it has been a struggle to achieve recognition.
In many ways Hispanics' political rise is the same as previous immigrant groups, but with varying ethic identities - Cubans, Colombians and Mexicans, etc. - they can't be lumped into a single voting block.
The presence of Latino voters in Middlesex County has forced a language shift to Spanish at certain stops on the local campaign trail.
The Hispanic population in Middlesex County grew by 75 percent between 1990 and 2000, according to 2000 Census data. In November, Valenti had to defeat another Hispanic, Perth Amboy Republican Maria Garcia, to become a freeholder.
"We're claiming our place at the table of power," said Martin Perez, president of the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey. "There is an understanding of the need to be part of the whole process. We cannot isolate ourselves from the mainstream."
Valenti grew up in Santurce, Puerto Rico. She received her secondary education at a convent boarding school in Connecticut. She attended Rosemont College, an all-women's Catholic school outside of Philadelphia, where she met her future husband, Carl Valenti, when he was a senior at Villanova.
The couple moved to New Brunswick after college. Carl became a city commissioner in the 1960s and Blanquita began her 32-year teaching career at JFK High School in Iselin during the same period.
In 1971, Blanquita Valenti helped found New Brunswick's Puerto Rican Action Board, which initially offered GED testing and now serves the community with multiple programs, including a bilingual preschool.
When Valenti started making her way in New Brunswick, a 20-year-old son of Cuban refugees, Robert Menendez, blazed a trail to elected office by becoming a member of the Union City School Board in 1974.
U.S. Rep. Robert Menendez, D-13th Dist., will swear in Valenti Thursday.
Before heading to Congress, Menendez was, and still is, the only Hispanic to have a seat in the state Senate. He also served as mayor of Union City in Hudson County.
During one city council meeting, Menendez spoke to a resident in Spanish. This caused an uproar from the public. Menendez recessed the session. He then retrieved the minutes from the first Union City council meeting. Those minutes, he showed the crowd, were written in German.
"We have come a long way from those days," Menendez said. "Today, it's a whole different mind-set. We've broken ground for a lot of people."
When Joe Vas became mayor of Perth Amboy he said he had to dispel the notion that his Puerto Rican ethnicity meant he would only serve Hispanics. Vas, who also serves in the state Assembly now, said mayoral elections have shown he represents all people. He went from winning by 28 votes in a special election in 1990 to running unopposed in 2000.
"It's been a grass-roots effort, like every other ethnic group, and, I hate to use the word - struggle - to get in the door. And we have struggled to expand," Vas said.
The rise in the region's Hispanic population led state Sen. Joseph F. Vitale, D-Middlesex, to change part of his campaign style. Vitale, who had Valenti as his high school Spanish teacher, has brought a translator with him to communicate in Spanish with constituents.
Dan Tichenor, an associate professor at Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute of Politics, said a unified Hispanic voting block could turn the tide on a national level. He points to the electoral votes in California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois and New Jersey. These states house almost three-fourths of the nation's Hispanic population.
But by the same regard, the professor said, the diversity within Latino groups cannot be ignored, noting that Mexicans predominantly vote for Democrats and Cubans are known to vote for Republicans.
"The biggest misconception as far as Hispanics is figuring it's going to be one-block vote," said Jorge Diaz, a 32-year-old of Colombian descent, who will be sworn in today after winning a seat on the Carteret Borough Council in November.
Diaz said that speaking Spanish to voters on the campaign trail last fall didn't guarantee him their vote, but he didn't mind.
"I enjoy our diversity because now both political parties have to cater to our needs," he said.
Sitting, letting her "very cranberry" red fingernails dry at Shelley's Nail Salon in Highland Park last week, Valenti deflected questions about why she wanted to become a freeholder.
"I don't know. It was a challenge," she said. "I've been retired three years, I just can't sit around."
But in the same conversation she proved to be aware of what her freeholder status means to the Hispanic community.
"It's really not only a recognition of Hispanic people. It's a realization on part of the political process that Hispanics are here to stay," she said.
HISPANICS BY THE NUMBERS IN MIDDLESEX COUNTY
58,021 Hispanic population in Middlesex County in 1990.
101,940 Hispanic population in Middlesex County in 2000, a 75 percent increase since 1990.
33,033 Hispanic population in Perth Amboy, the largest Hispanic population in any Middlesex County town.
34,676 Number of Puerto Ricans in Middlesex County, making them the largest groups of Hispanics in the county.
41,053 Number of Hispanic homeowners in the county.
SOURCES: 2000 U.S. Census, Middlesex County Planning Department
U.S. Hispanics by the numbers
* 39.9 million The Hispanic population in the United States as of July 2003, making the group the largest ethnic minority in the country.
* 13.7 percent The percentage Hispanics constitute of the nation's total population.
* 102.6 million The projected Hispanic population in the United States as of July 1, 2050. This estimation means Hispanics would make up 24 percent of the nation's total population on that date.
* 7 States home to more than three-fourths of the Hispanic population. Each of these states have more than 1 million Hispanics: New Jersey, California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois and Arizona.
* $32,997 The real median income of Hispanic households in 2003, down 2.6 percent from the previous year.
* 22.5 percent The poverty rate among Hispanics in 2003, unchanged from 2002.
* 2.6 million The number of Hispanics age 18 and older who have at least a bachelor's degree, more than double the number in 1990 (1.1 million).
* 36,200 The number of Hispanic physicians and surgeons in the country.
* 1.1 million The number of Latino veterans of the U.S. armed forces.
- U.S. Census figures released September 2004
County's 1st Hispanic Freeholder Takes Seat - Valenti Will Retain Her City Council Post
DIANE C. WALSH
January 6, 2005
Blanquita Valenti takes her seat today as Middlesex County's first Hispanic freeholder, but she wants voters to know she will represent all county residents.
A proud native of Puerto Rico, Valenti realizes her election is important to the Hispanic community. But, she said, "I'm there for all the citizens."
The new freeholder succeeded Jane Brady of Perth Amboy, who retired from the board after 12 years. Valenti was elected on the Democratic ticket, which included Freeholders Stephen "Pete" Dalina of Woodbridge and Christopher Rafano of South River. The Democrats control all seven seats on the freeholder board.
Throughout her career, the 70-year-old Valenti has been a pioneer in the Hispanic community, which has grown from about 5 percent of the county's population to about 12 percent during the past 24 years.
Valenti was appointed as the first Hispanic on the New Brunswick Board of Education more than 35 years ago. In 1977 she became the first Hispanic on the Middlesex County College board of trustees. She was also a founder of the Puerto Rican Action Board, a social service agency in New Brunswick.
Since 1990, Valenti also has been a New Brunswick councilwoman, earning $9,000 annually. During the past year, she has been vice president of the five-member board, and she was in line to become council president in 2005. But after conferring with Mayor James Cahill, Valenti said she decided not to take the top council post this year because of the demands of her new $22,536-year, part-time freeholder post.
"I felt I wouldn't be able to do the (council) job justice, because I'm also on the freeholder board. So, I agreed it would be best to give someone else the opportunity," she said earlier this week. Valenti had been council president in 1995 and 1996.
Valenti plans to complete the two years left on her council term.
"I probably will not run for re-election in
'06," she said. The Valenti family has had a role in city government for many years. Her husband Carl is a former city public safety commissioner.
The New Brunswick Council adopted a new meeting scheduling, which will make it easier for Valenti to be a councilwoman and freeholder. The council eliminated its Monday agenda sessions this year. All its business will conducted on Wednesdays. The freeholders also hold their agenda sessions on Mondays and their regular meetings on Thursday.
Valenti said, however, the change was not done to accommodate her. She said it was done to make it easier for the public to appear before the council.
In the coming weeks, Valenti, a retired school teacher, said she will be "studying my new assignment and learning as much as I can" Like her predecessor, Valenti said she will be overseeing the Department of Human Services, which controls most of the social service programs in the county.
During his director's message today, Freeholder Director David Crabiel plans to announce the creation of a new Hispanic Advisory Council, and he said he will name Valenti to chair it.
"I believe the board should represent the entire population of the county and the Hispanic population is substantial," Crabiel said.