Could New York be Close to Electing its First Latino Mayor?

Bronx borough president Ruben Diaz Jr., show here during the Sandy cleanup, is a potential New York mayoral candidate. (Photo: Flickr/jaydensonbx)

About one in four New Yorkers are Latino, which is the largest share of any one minority. All together, the city’s minority population is estimated to be around 65 percent. Despite this, New York has never elected a Latino mayor.

Those watching the early stages of New York City’s mayoral race are wondering whether Barack Obama’s overwhelming victory among minorities could manifest itself as an equally predictable force around a Latino candidate.

A panel discussion held Wednesday last week called “Searching for El Primero: Latinos and the mayoralty,” discussed Latino political engagement in the city, touching on subjects like the symbolism of New York City’s first Latino mayor and the pitfalls of seeing the Latino population as a monolithic community with monolithic interests.

Melissa Mark-Viverito, a Puerto Rican immigrant and city councilwoman for East Harlem, argues that having a Latino mayor matters because “we want to see ourselves reflected in the bodies that have decision-making power over us.”

While this may have some importance, all panelists agreed that fundamentals, like educational access and job creation, which are important to voters regardless of ethnic identity, take precedence.

Lucia Gomez, Executive Director of La Fuente, summed it up this way: “I don’t want a symbolic mayor. I want real issues addressed, and if we can have both, then that’s what I want.” Gomez also questioned the assumption behind ethnic allegiances: “Even if we have a Latino mayor, does that mean Latino issues are being addressed?”

Angelo Falcon, President of the National Institute of Latino Policy, cautions against seeing Latinos as a single group. (Photo: Aurora Almendral)

Angelo Falcon, President of the National Institute of Latino Policy, cautioned against seeing Latinos as a single group, saying that when he hears people discuss the Latino vote, “it sounds like they are talking about one guy.”

“The Latino vote” is an overly simplistic characterization, especially for New York, which has a particularly diverse Latino population. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, 27 percent of Latinos in the New York metropolitan area are of Puerto Rican descent, followed by Dominicans at 20 percent. Mexicans, while growing quickly, are only 12 percent of New York’s Latino population. The rest is made up by immigrants from Central and South American countries.

Falcon argued that “a Latino mayor matters less than the ability of communities to organize around their interests,” adding that “the Democratic party takes Latinos for granted. They don’t nurture the vote.”

Among the many names in the preliminary ring for the mayoral candidacy are Rubén Díaz, Jr., a Democrat and current Bronx Borough President, and Adolfo Carrión, former Bronx Borough President and considering a run on the Republican ticket. Both Díaz and Carrión are native New Yorkers of Puerto Rican descent.

José Gil, a Mexican immigrant living in Queens, said he “wouldn’t vote for someone just because he has a Latino name, it depends on who the guy is.” And what he stands for. Gil added that Mexicans differ a lot from each other as it is, and Puerto Rico is an entirely different country.

Latino demographics aren’t as clear-cut as they seem. And there’s no doubt that a hypothetical Latino mayoral candidate would also need broad support from New York’s communities. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Blacks and African Americans make up 25.5 percent of the city and Asians 12.7 percent. Non-Hispanic whites are still the largest group at 33.3 percent.

Fi2W is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation and the Sirus Fund.

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