The Rising Latino Tide

Hispanics have been elected to political office in Rhode Island in unprecedented numbers in recent years, but the community still faces daunting achievement gaps and unemployment.

In the mid-1990s, America had one of its periodic anti-immigrant seizures. As the Hispanic population swelled and dispersed, California banned, by referendum, illegal immigrants from accessing public benefits. In 1996, Congress passed legislation barring immigrants caught without proper documentation from returning for as long as a decade; giving asylum-seekers a year to apply; and deputizing local police as immigration officials.

In Rhode Island, Joseph R. Paolino Jr., fresh from his stint as the United States Ambassador to Malta, demonstrated his diplomatic chops and the broadening effects of travel by mounting an unsuccessful campaign for Congress on an anti-immigrant platform, with the catchy slogan: English only.

Paolino’s advocacy for the elimination of bilingual education and a crackdown on undocumented immigrants galvanized the Latino community. They rallied against Paolino, but Latino candidates got crushed in the Democratic primaries for General Assembly seats representing Central Falls — a city with the highest concentration of Latino residents.
“A bruising election,” recalls Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea. “We thought: Let’s bring everybody together for a debriefing over pizza about what happened.”

Fifteen years later, Rhode Island has in Gorbea its first Latina in statewide office; the capital city elected its second Latino mayor, Jorge Elorza; Central Falls, its first Latino mayor, James A. Diossa; Pawtucket elected its first Latina, Sandra Cano, to the city council, and Latinos won local elections in Smithfield and Newport. Latinos and Latinas are also beginning to fill state and municipal unelected policy and leadership positions.

By the 2014 midterms, some 6,100 Latinos held elective office out of 500,000 in the United States, says Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

“But it’s nowhere near to representing the number of Latinos in the population or the electorate,” Vargas says. “These 6,000 elected officials are very concentrated geographically in Texas and California. What we are seeing in Rhode Island is that evolution of Latinos developing a political presence outside of the traditional states.”

The rise of Latino political power in Rhode Island is owed, in part, to changing demographics and impeccable candidates, whose appeal lay in Ivy League educations, professional credentials and an up-from-the-bootstraps backstory. But it is also the result of planning.

In 1998, a small group of activists formed the Rhode Island Latino Political Action Committee (RILPAC). While other Latino welfare organizations were well-established — like Progreso Latino — this was the first devoted to improving Latino lives through the electoral process.

“We are a diverse group with different politics, social identities and cultures,” says Jose F. Batista, RILPAC’s current president. “A lot of us come from countries where we are all too familiar with political oppression and seclusion. We really take advantage of that passion Latinos have for politics. It may seem like it’s new, but it’s been developing for a long time.”

Former Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, who drew up RILPAC’s bylaws at his former law office, says despite the rise of nativism in the 1990s, RILPAC was not formed to play defense.

“We were being proactive,” he says. “We could see the growth coming in our community and how it had a unified desire to make a difference and make sure that our voices were heard.”

And early on, the founders decided that the non-partisan PAC would support candidates most likely to advance Latino interests, not simply Latino candidates. The group also made “sure there were a diversity of Latino sub-groups at the table,” says Gorbea, who is from Puerto Rico.

Latinos have had a presence in Rhode Island at least as early as 1848, but the Hispanic community took root here in the 1950s, when Colombians came to work in the jewelry industry. By the mid-1990s, Providence County hosted one of the nation’s most rapidly expanding Latino populations, with a nearly 100 percent growth rate. From 1990 to 2000, the Latino community rose from 45,752 to 90,826. The last United States Census tallied 130,655 residents of Hispanic origin, accounting for 12.4 percent of the state’s population, concentrated in Providence, Pawtucket and Central Falls.

Unlike other areas of long settlement, in Rhode Island no one nationality dominates. There are representatives of more than twenty countries, with large contingents of Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Guatemalans and Mexicans.

And yet the community has struggled against “very negative stereotypes” that lead some civic leaders to perceive them as a threat to the economy, says Tony Affigne, a 1986 gubernatorial candidate and a Providence College political scientist. Some of Affigne’s research has focused on busting myths: that Latinos are not interested in attaining the American Dream, learning English, joining the military or jumping into the melting pot.

Far from it; “only the growth in the Latino population allowed Rhode Island to retain a second seat in Congress,” Affigne says. “And if you drive around city neighborhoods, they were boarded up in the 1980s and 1990s. Latinos are helping to revive the urban core. Much of what people think they know about Latinos in Rhode Island is simply false.”

Latinos care about the issues that all voters rank highly: education, public safety and the economy. But in Rhode Island, they are disproportionately affected by high rates of unemployment and low rates of educational attainment. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the state’s overall jobless rate was 7.6 percent in the third quarter of 2014, but 20.3 percent for Latinos — the nation’s highest.

In 2013, a report by Roger Williams University’s Latino Policy Institute found that the Latino-white achievement gaps were among the worst in the country. These would be policy dilemmas for any elected official; they are especially challenging for the first wave of Latino political leaders. They must represent everyone in their cities or be reduced to an ethnic label; they must address the real needs of the Latino community or risk rejection. Taveras, Diossa and Elorza acknowledge it’s tricky.

“Latinos are a very savvy political community,” Elorza says. “It takes more than a surname or language skills to win their vote. It takes relationships and a platform that speaks to them.”

Diossa says that one of his missions is to restore Latinos’ trust in government.

“Many countries that they come from have a very corrupt system,” he says. At the same time, “I’ve been able to show that I’m here for everyone. My staff is very diverse. I made sure I didn’t go down the route of just appointing Latinos. It’s always going to be a challenge. To some I’ll always be the Latino mayor. And we’ve had several conversations with groups who say that we’re not doing enough for Latinos. I have to do what’s best for everyone.”

The immigrant’s path toward full participation in any society heads upward, toward the middle class. Attaining political clout is a milestone, but not the destination.
“We still have a long way to go,” acknowledges Anna Cano Morales, director of the Latino Policy Institute. “But I do think there will be a different engagement of all communities. Window-dressing doesn’t cut it anymore — give me the same ten names. Latinos want real change, real accountability and a role to play.”

Tony Mendez will know that Rhode Island has embraced its Latino citizens by the faces at Hispanic heritage festivals. In 1995, Mendez cofounded the state’s first Spanish-language radio station PODER 1110. With 30,000 weekly listeners, PODER serves as an unofficial Latino community center, broadcasting news and entertainment. Its North Providence studios are a campaign must-stop for any serious statewide candidate. Yet unlike other places, Rhode Island’s Latino festivals tend to be segregated events, he says. Lots of Latinos, but few else.

“These festivals attract tourism while they really celebrate that heritage. But here we don’t,” Mendez says. “Sometimes I feel Latinos are seen as a problem instead of a resource. Both communities need to meet in the middle.”

Ellen Liberman is an award-winning journalist who has commented on politics and reported on government affairs for more than two decades.