A couple of recent stories on InsiderNJ have echoed a depressive narrative. Instead of celebrating our success as a community during Hispanic Heritage month, September1 was a dreadful month for Latino political leadership in NJ. While I have shaken my head in agreement to some assertions made by the authors, I have also exhaled in disappointment at the lack of nuance at the conclusion that for all our gains in the past, our future as a community looks bleak.
The natural disaster in Puerto Rico, the failure of the Trump Administration to treat Puerto Ricans as 100% American citizens and the ongoing deportation threats of our immigrant communities make our heads spin. How can Latinos worry about “game of thrones” political shenanigans from our NJ political class when the lives of our family members are at stake? How do we react to the unfortunate personal failures of some of our political leaders when, for most of our community members, our livelihoods are at stake?
Economic power and political power are like the chicken and the egg—how do we decide which one comes first? If your community members are struggling to have access to good jobs; or if they are worried about their children safety and access to a good schools; or if they are worried about getting sick, not having health insurance or a paid day off; or if they are middle-class and worry about keeping their job so they can pay their mortgage. How can we then, break through their economic insecurity and make an argument for political participation and voting?
As we saw with the election of President Trump, economic inequality leads to demands for change. For some, that change was voting for a leader who promised them to upend the status quo. For others, it means political apathy as voters begin to doubt whether those elected to office are indeed interested in their economic welfare. A recent report by the Anti-Poverty Network (APN)3 argues that in the last 30 years, wealth accumulation among NJ Latinos has decreased by 50%. And if things continue the way they are, by 2024, Whites will accumulate 75% more wealth than Latinos. NJ today is the 3rd most segregated state in the country. What accounts for such a decrease in wealth for our community and increase in segregation? The answer APN states lies in the lack of access to economic opportunity for people of color caused by structural racism at all levels of NJ policy implementation structures.
Similar to the Kerner Report of 1965 commissioned by President Johnson after the Newark and Detroit race riots, the APN report looks at the effect of legislative policies on communities of color and calls on elected officials to examine how those policies are transforming the power structures that sustain structural racism. The report makes five recommendations to address the problem, and out of all of them, the most important one is the hardest one to achieve if the voices of people of color are not at the table. APN calls for legislators to evaluate policy outcomes based on the impact they have locally. Such a process would indeed need more political participation of our communities at the highest level of policy-making and an organized polity at the local level to challenge implementation outcomes in our cities and suburbs.
Hence, we are back to the old argument about the chicken and the egg. In order to have fairer policy outcomes that improve our economic future, we need access to the power structures that develop such policy. And how do we get access to the political process? We must demand it as an organized community. We must invest in our own political participation, not only for a candidate at election time, but also for solutions to our problems in the long term. This is not a job that political parties usually tackle on their own accord especially in a system like ours that relies on local control. They are interested in sustaining the power they already got by talking to the voters who always vote for them, not by expanding the universe to get new voters. This is a job for our community leaders, for our business leaders, for our non-profit leaders, for our union leaders, and yes it is also a job for our current political leaders.
And so we are at the precise political moment when the voice of our most experienced leaders matters and when diversity at the top of policy making makes a difference on how our government will respond to people’s economic insecurities. Senator Bob Menendez, Mayor Joey Torres, Assemblywoman Maria Rodriguez-Gregg and others who have recently faced personal travails are still our leaders. Like any family member, they might be in personal trouble, but they are still our family. They made great strides for our community and through personal grit demanded respect from the political class. And yet, they are being held to a double standard. While it is okay for a white male politician to be stopped for a DWI, it is not okay for a Latina to lose her patience when she gets accused of doing the same. While for the majority, a political leader facing an accusation of official misconduct is not a reason to step down, for a leader of color it is. So what is the consequence? Instead of cementing political power that secures our community a spot at the highest levels of policy making, we get pushed back to the starting line. The struggle for leadership at the top of the Legislature in NJ is another example of the volatility of our access to power; once the person who has the access stands by their principles, unelected political bosses try to make an example of them and remove them from leadership. Our challenge today, as it always has been, is to organize our community and build our power locally at the grassroots level.
We must invest our resources to register new voters, to educate them and engage them in political mobilization that can hold politicians accountable locally. This work is similar to what labor unions do with their members to make sure political parties keep workers’ issues at the forefront of their agenda. We must invest our resources and work with allies to fund our own candidates and train them to thrive in NJ politics with an understanding that the same rules do not apply to them. But this work takes time and is not measured one election cycle at a time. It is work that requires money and commitment from institutions that care about the survival of our Democracy in a diverse society. Unfortunately, in NJ we do not get national money to do this kind of work. We have to be resourceful in engaging our most established leaders and work with social justice allies willing to invest in our capacity to mobilize.
Given that Puerto Rico is on my mind, I thought of a quote by Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos who often called for his fellow citizens to organize and demand equality for themselves and Puerto Rico; “No somos pequenos. Es que estamos de rodillas.” (We are not small. It is just that we have been on our knees).
The history of Latinos in the US is one of many struggles; Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans fought for social justice along with African Americans in the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s. Mexican, Cubans and other Latino immigrants fought for it again during the 80s and 90s turning states like CA, NV, NM, CO, FL and VA into “battleground states” where Latino voting power makes or breaks elections. Here in NJ, Latino leaders fought their own fights in cities like Newark, Paterson and Perth Amboy opening doors for political representation that pushed our communities forward. It is now the turn of a new generation of leaders to stand up, reorganize and challenge structural racism in our political system.
So during this month of Hispanic Heritage, we must take stock of the shortcomings of this political moment, but we must also celebrate that our community is growing, organizing and fighting back. While Puerto Ricans leaders met at the Puerto Rican Congress last weekend to devise strategies to defend their community, the DREAMERs and the Central American TPS community met to agree on a plan to defend their communities from deportation. At the same time that communities across the state got together to raise funds for Mexico and Puerto Rico, young Latina women met at Kean University to discuss the importance of civic engagement and women empowerment. And as our current young leaders mature in their activism, they will challenge the current political structures to deliver parity for their generation.
We have a lot of work to do. But history has already demonstrated that every time we are held to a double standard, we become stronger, more resilient and willing to talk truth to power. Like the Mayor of San Juan, we are not yelling. We are just trying to be heard.
By Patricia Campos Medina
Patricia Campos-Medina is a labor and Latina leader, political consultant and a former Commissioner of the Casino Redevelopment Authority (CRDA). She has served as Political and Legislative Director for unions such as SEIU International Union, UNITEHERE, Workers United (SEIU), UNITE and the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA-AFL-CIO). She is currently a PhD candidate at Rutgers-Newark and the Co-Director of the Union Leadership Institute at the Worker Institute, Cornell University. Opinions expressed on this column are strictly her own.