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New York State began to elect Hispanics to political office as early as 1937 with the election of Oscar Garcia Rivera to the New York State Assembly. Unfortunately, he only served for three years and it took 13 more years before we saw another Latino in the state legislature. Thereafter, Latinos were elected to the [...]
New York State began to elect Hispanics to political office as early as 1937 with the election of Oscar Garcia Rivera to the New York State Assembly. Unfortunately, he only served for three years and it took 13 more years before we saw another Latino in the state legislature. Thereafter, Latinos were elected to the state legislature sporadically and it was not until the late 1970’s that we saw five or more Latinos serving in the State Legislature at the same time. Nonetheless, the Hispanic population in New York State was steadily growing. In 1970 Hispanics made up 8% of the overall state population.
By 1980 the Hispanic population had grown to 11.4% and in 1990 it was at 12.3%. In twenty years, (approximately one human generation) the Hispanic population has grown by approximately one million people. Hispanics in New York State were primarily of Puerto Rican descent although there are many other Hispanics that have migrated and or immigrated to New York. In fact, all Hispanics elected to the State Legislature were of Puerto Rican descent until 1997, when we elected our first Dominican Assemblyman.
By the mid 1980¹s there were approximately 2 million Hispanics in the State and over one million were Puerto Rican. At that time at least 80% of the Hispanic population was from the downstate area and could be found mostly in New York City. It was during this time that Assemblymen Hector Diaz and Angelo Del Toro met with the speaker of the Assembly, Stanley Fink, to begin to discuss the creation of an official legislative body that would focus on the needs and concerns of the State’s growing Hispanic community.
In December of 1986 the Assembly elected a new speaker, Mel Miller. At this time Assemblyman Vito Lopez had been elected to office and he joined Diaz and Del Toro in their quest to create a Latino caucus. Their intent was supported by Assemblyman Jose Serrano and long time community activist and Assemblyman Jose Rivera. Shortly thereafter, Assemblyman Herman Farrell Jr. joined their crusade along with newly elected member Israel Martinez. They met with Speaker Miller to discuss and negotiate the best way to create such a legislative body.
They were advised to develop the empirical evidence necessary to demonstrate that Latinos were under represented in government and had unique needs that were not being met by contemporary legislative committees, commissions, caucuses or task forces.
The legislative session in 1987 began with a very enthusiastic agenda for the Hispanic members of the State Legislature, the potential creation of a Puerto Rican Hispanic caucus. They began collecting data about Latinos that would help convince the legislature that a caucus was necessary. The effort appeared to be focused in the Assembly, because they had more Latinos members than the State Senate. In fact, there were only two Latinos elected to the State Senate in the mid 1980’s, Olga Mendez and Israel Ruiz. They concurred with the opinions of their colleagues in the Assembly and joined in the effort to create a legislative body in both houses that would focus on Latino issues in New York State. They began meeting on a regular basis and dedicated many sleepless nights and weekends to developing lobbying strategies and presentation techniques that would help them effectively introduce this information.
Before the 1987 legislative session closed their arduous work along with their passion, professional and personal commitment to the Hispanic community resulted in the creation of the New York State Assembly and Senate Puerto Rican/Hispanic Task Force. It was created and distinguished from the Black and Puerto Rican Legislative Caucus, for its intent was that it would be agenda driven (of course agenda was a Hispanic agenda for New York State). Thus, membership was not limited to Latino elected officials but was determined by the demographics of the respective districts. If 20% or more of the constituents of an Assembly or Senate district are Hispanic, the Assembly person of Senator are automatically eligible to be a member of the Task Force. The New York State Assembly allocated $1 million to the Task Force and by 1988 the first Somos Uno annual weekend conference was held in Albany, New York, the following year the conference name was changed to Somos El Futuro, and since 2008 it has been simply SOMOS.
Today there are 59 members in the Assembly and 16 in the Senate. The Latino members are the Executive Members and they drive the agenda of the Task Force. Currently, of the 17 Executive Members, 12 are in the State Assembly and 5 are in the State Senate. In twenty three years, the Task Force has had five (5) chairs and eight (8) executive directors.
In March of 2001 newspaper headlines from around the state broke the news that Hispanics were the fastest growing minority group in the state and would sooner than expected be the largest subgroup in the great American mosaic. By early summer, the large number of Hispanic candidates for public office throughout the nation was a [...]
In March of 2001 newspaper headlines from around the state broke the news that Hispanics were the fastest growing minority group in the state and would sooner than expected be the largest subgroup in the great American mosaic. By early summer, the large number of Hispanic candidates for public office throughout the nation was a testament to that fact. In political contests for mayorships, governorships and state legislatures, Hispanics were not only part of the electorate but visible choices in the voting booth. By early November, unexpected outcomes in nationally watched elections drew more attention to the growing political sophistication and strength of the Hispanic community.
“This process of a more engaged Hispanic electorate has been in the making for some time,” stated Assemblyman Peter M. Rivera, chairman of the New York State Assembly Puerto Rican/Hispanic Task Force. “In New York alone, a long history of strong grass-roots efforts have been magnified by the growing political strength of Hispanic elected officials and the vehicles they have helped to create to empower the communities they serve.”
One example of such a vehicle is the annual Somos Legislative Conference. Now heading into its 15th year, the conference has mobilized Hispanics in an effort to focus attention to issues of vital importance to communities across the state. “Each year the conference has built on previous achievements and the basic idea of bringing together political leaders, community leaders, the private sector and nonprofit sector to work on strengthen our state is the foundation of the conference,” stated Assemblyman Rivera.
In April of 2001, thousands of Hispanics again joined the events of the three-day conference as it looked to create a medium for public input on how the state should solve a variety of issues, including:
• How the results of the 2000 Census would be used to redraw the state’s political districts and its impact on Hispanic communities;
• The failure of the Rockefeller Drug Laws and how new attempts to reform the 30 year-old state policy would handle the problem of drug crimes and punishment;
• The consequences of four million immigrants having settled in New York State since 1990, their impact on the state’s economy and the need to formulate public policies to meet their needs;
• Continuing to call on the United States military to stop the 60 years of the militarization of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques;
• Cleaning up contaminated vacant and underused industrial sites as the first step for urban centers in efforts to build strong regional economies;
• Examining the disproportionate government funding for HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment in Hispanic communities;
• How bilingual education should be strengthened in order to make sure that the programs have teachers, resources and the leadership they need to succeed; and,
• A review of the impact of the new standard of the New York Regents exams and what they will mean to the already high school drop-out rates of Hispanic students.
Other workshops were held on issues ranging from strengthening the administrative structure of nonprofit organizations and examining ways to better the communication skills of Latinas to a review of financial aid programs available to college students and a panel discussion on how minority businesses could better access government contracts and the bidding system.
The Somos Legislative Conference also served as a stage to acknowledge the significant contributions of Hispanics in New York State. Labor, business, civic, political, and youth leaders were part of the 2001 awards recipients.
“The 2002 Somos Legislative Conference will surpass other years’ conferences, both in quality of workshops and in the number of attendees, which has hovered around 7,000 each of the last few years,” stated Assemblyman Peter M. Rivera. “It is an exciting year as well as an important one for our communities as political districts will be redrawn, elections for governor and other state political leaders will be held, and problems with the national and state economies need to be resolved. These issues will also increase the public interest in the work of the New York State Assembly Puerto Rican/ Hispanic Task Force,” continued Rivera.