After the twelve and a half years that she served, New Jersey hasn’t had any other female executive leading the people, affirms Wilda Díaz, the former Mayor of Perth Amboy, who lost reelection for a fourth term in 2020. The first female Mayor of Perth Amboy and the first Latina Mayor of New Jersey, Diaz (pictured, above) said she believes the state needs more Latina officials because the Latina community is underrepresented, and without the representation, “there is no way the leaders would hear the wishes and needs of our communities.”
New Jersey is the home to a significant number of people with a Latino and Hispanic racial or ethnic group. In fact, in the Census carried out in 2019, this group represented a 21.5% of the total. Why don’t we have more Latinas in higher positions of power – not just mayor but in federal office? In New York we can see Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and in Nevada Catherine Cortez Masto, but in New Jersey we lack a corresponding representative.
Maritza Davila, councilwoman of Paterson, says Latinas in politics lack a history of dedicated organization. “We don’t have the bench, the Latina woman doesn’t have a political bench here in New Jersey,” the councilwoman told InsiderNJ.
The times are changing, however. Build the bench: that is the purpose of Latina Civic Action. According to the organization’s website, Latina Civic Action “advocates for the rights of Latinas to have a seat at the table in government and politics so that our community can have a voice in enacting policies.”
The president of the organization, Dr. Patricia Campos Medina, affirms that “our job is to promote Latina women to join politics, we are always looking for opportunities where Latinas can run for office and, eventually, win.” In the eyes of Dr. Campos Medina, creating a supporting network is important and crucial in the process, “that’s why we have a lot of activities around the state called Latinas Building the Bench – we went to Atlantic County in November and we will be in Morris County in February.” Alongside their presence in social media, conferences and activities, a new program will be inaugurated in March at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, called “ELLA Wins (Election and Leadership Latina Academy).” The goal of this program is to encourage Latina women to get to know the steps to run for office. “they will give them training and advice, and teach them the steps of the process, including what documents or papers are needed,” Campos Medina said.
There are still a lot of limitations and challenges that the Latina community may need to face that others won’t. Forming a team, gaining the representation, getting to be known in the political elite and, especially, raising the money “is more difficult,” says Davila, “and the colleagues of your same race, the same Latinos, instead of uniting, instead helping each other out, they can be another challenge as well.”
Wilda Díaz recognizes that she had to endure many obstacles and many difficulties because “I was the first one, and by being the first Hispanic woman to have that mandate, I wasn’t known by the government and the politicians – luckily, the community and nonprofit agencies knew me and they were a huge help.”
Dr. Campos Medina says running for office without the support of the Democratic Party, “is really hard – in fact, Wilda Diaz has been the only woman who has run against the Democratic Machine and won.” Unfortunately, in Dr. Campos Medina’s eyes, “the Party has a terrible record of supporting women at a local level, that’s why we always say that if the Democrats want to attract more Latinos to vote for them, they need to put more women candidates that look like us.” There arises the importance of the activism of Latina Civic Action. “We put up the fight because we need to jump into politics already – and that’s our message to the Latinas – because we cannot wait until the Party let’s us run,” she said. “We have to run ourselves and we have to gain the ability to fundraise our own money for campaigns.”
In addition, the raising of voices is crucial, Campos Medina said. By not letting the fear get to them, being more involved, being more confident in themselves and by not waiting around until the leaders say “now it’s your time” –“because that time may never come,” says Díaz– are the keys to a career in politics and in the community.
“We have experienced it firsthand”, affirms Kat Esquiche, Passaic County mover and shaker and former Board of Education member. “That’s our strength that nobody can take away from us, we have lived it through family, sisters, mothers, aunts and ourselves.”
So, where could we see the next Latina Mayor in New Jersey?
In the last November elections in West Orange, the last candidate Latina Civic PAC supported was the councilwoman, Cindy Matute Brown, who only lost by 200 votes, “and we dearly hope she runs again because she has a great record”, says Campos Medina.
With a Latino population that represents more than 65% of Paterson, the current Mayor, Andre Sayegh, is optimistic regarding the future of the most important political position in the town, and said he thinks the city may be the home to the next Latina Mayor of New Jersey. Precisely, Maritza Davila is “a great name” and “could be the next Latina Mayor of Paterson” for the next local elections in 2026, the mayor told InsiderNJ. In addition, sources in Newark do not rule out the possibility of state Senate Majority Leader M. Teresa Ruiz (D-29) – like Diaz another pioneer and still in office, an anomaly perhaps with the backing of the Essex County Democratic Organization – becoming mayor of Brick City when sitting Mayor Ras Baraka finishes his service. Ruiz may also be best positioned – if her party sees the numbers and the need – to crack the glass ceiling that to date has kept Latinas from federal elected office in New Jersey, or maybe the grassroots will take hold in time and vault someone else, someone specifically molded with the help of Latina Civic Action.