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.