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.