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Glen Cove Latinos want to build political influence in city

Local activists Elsa Valle and Ever Padilla outside

Local activists Elsa Valle and Ever Padilla outside an East Norwich restaurant on Friday, Dec. 23, 2016. Both are involved in trying to find a Latino candidate to run for Glen Cove City Council next year in an effort to increase representation and services for immigrants. Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

Latinos in Glen Cove are trying to organize into more of a political force, as well as expand services to one of Long Island’s largest Hispanic communities.

Nearly one-third of the city’s residents are Latino, but the community’s influence has long lagged behind its numerical strength. No Latinos sit on the City Council, and few have been appointed to city boards and commissions.

Ever Padilla, a Salvadoran immigrant involved with both efforts, said Latinos must work together to increase their influence.

“We need to be organized as a community,” he said. “No one will take us for real if we’re not organized.”

In some parts of Long Island, Latino organizing efforts have come largely through existing regional coalitions. In Glen Cove, local activists say, it has come from below, through informal conversations and a realization that few Latinos are in the corridors of power.

In recent months, people have met to form a group to register Hispanics to vote and also to help immigrants become citizens eligible to vote. Others are recruiting a Hispanic candidate to run in this year’s City Council elections. And in July, Alexander Juarez became the only Latino on the board of Glen Cove City Schools, where a majority of students are Hispanic.

The relative lack of Latino political power in Glen Cove mirrors the situation for Hispanics across Long Island, said Lucas Sanchez, Long Island director for New York Communities for Change, an advocacy group for low- and moderate-income families.

Few Latinos sit on town, village or school boards despite an increasing population, he said.

“There is that demographic shift, but the political power hasn’t followed as quickly,” Sanchez said.

Sanchez’s group worked with another Nassau County-based advocacy organization, The Corridor Counts, to elect Maribel Touré to the board of the Hempstead School District in 2015 — at the time the board had no Hispanic members, although more than two-thirds of the students are Latino — and Melissa Figueroa last year.

Groups went door to door

The two organizations, which also worked in Hempstead on behalf of four African-American candidates, registered new Latino and black voters, went door to door to talk issues and worked to get voters to the polls, Sanchez said. Such time-intensive strategies are critical to convert large numbers into greater power, he said.

About 28 percent of Glen Cove’s population is Latino or Hispanic, according to U.S. Census Bureau surveys from 2011 to 2015 that were released in December. That is nearly 2 1⁄2 times what it was in 1990. Most of the nearly 7,600 Latinos in the city are of Central American background, primarily Salvadoran.

Resident Damary Mercado said city officials would pay more attention to the needs of Latino residents if more Hispanics voted.

“Some feel we get ignored,” she said, referring to concerns about planned upscale housing displacing Latinos and a perceived lack of access to top city officials.

An organization Mercado and several others are forming in Glen Cove will focus on voter-registration and citizenship drives, and connecting Hispanics to immigration, legal and other services, she said.

In November, Nelson Navas and others formed the North Shore Hispanic Civic Association to help Latinos in Glen Cove and nearby communities access services. The organization is now informal but is looking to incorporate in mid-2017, he said.

Padilla said the election of a Spanish-speaking Latino City Council member is a top goal. He is helping recruit a candidate.

“If we want change in Glen Cove, we have to put people in office,” he said.

Few if any Latinos attend most council meetings, but more would if they knew there was someone who spoke their language and looked out for their interests, he said.

Suffolk County Legis. Monica Martinez (D-Brentwood), who is of Salvadoran ancestry, said her 2013 candidacy galvanized Salvadoran-Americans in the area. People are more likely to be excited about a candidate they identify with, she said.

“Many have come to my office that are not even part of my district seeking my help, because I am pretty much the only one who speaks Spanish,” Martinez said, referring to the county legislature.

Call for diverse council

Historically, there has been at least one Glen Cove City Council member of Latin American background: Steve Gonzalez, who is of half Puerto Rican ancestry and served on the council for eight years as a Republican in the 1980s and 1990s. And Peruvian-born candidate Carlos Shimabukuro lost his bid for council in 2015. He ran on the Glen Cove United slate, led by losing mayoral candidate and then-Councilman Anthony Gallo.

Gallo said the council should reflect the city’s diversity.

“The more diverse a leadership team is, you end up getting different perspectives, and in getting different perspectives you wind up having a leadership team or a council team that represents all of the residents of Glen Cove,” Gallo said.

Glen Cove Democratic and Republican Party leaders said they would welcome qualified Latino candidates.

One reason Glen Cove doesn’t have a Latino council member could be because candidates are elected citywide, said Louis DeSipio, a professor of political science and Chicano/Latino studies at the University of California, Irvine, and an expert on Latino political participation.

District election systems typically lead to more Latino and black elected officials, because Latinos and African-Americans have more influence if they’re concentrated in certain districts, he said.

“When you elect at-large, either the voter population has to be a near-majority, or you have to develop an alliance across the whole city, and that’s a lot harder,” he said.

The Town of Hempstead has had council districts since 2000, after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower-court decision that found the town’s at-large system discriminated against African-Americans.

A Newsday review of Census population estimates shows that most of Glen Cove’s Latino population is concentrated in the southwestern part of the city and west of downtown, where nearly 40 percent of residents are Hispanic. That indicates that Latino voters would have political sway if there were council districts there.

Only 40% eligible to vote

But only 40 percent of Latino adults in Glen Cove are citizens and eligible to vote, according to Census estimates. Some are legal residents and potentially eligible for citizenship; an unknown number are living in the country illegally and are not.

Yet more than 87 percent of Latino minors in the city are citizens, illustrating how the community’s political power probably will grow as children become eligible voters.

In Glen Cove City Schools, 57 percent of students are Latino, according to the state education department.

In May, Alexander Juarez became the first Latino elected to the school board in several years. He ran unopposed.

Juarez, who said he wasn’t backed by any organized effort, said a key reason for running was to be a point person for Latino parents — especially Spanish-speaking ones — on the board.

“People tend to feel more comfortable with someone who speaks their language,” Juarez said. Juarez wants the district to provide interpreters at board meetings.

Superintendent Maria Rianna said the district offers interpreters at parent conferences, back-to-school night and other events, and she is open to looking into providing interpreters at board meetings.

“I’d love to see a greater involvement of the entire community,” she said.

Salvadoran immigrant Elsa Valle, who is involved in Latino organizing efforts in Glen Cove, said the city government needs to do more to serve Latino residents, especially those who speak little or no English and are not in the country legally.

For example, she said, some in the United States illegally don’t trust the police and are afraid to report crimes for fear they will be turned over to immigration authorities.

Deputy Glen Cove Police Chief Christopher Ortiz, whose father is a Peruvian immigrant, said he has explained at community forums that officers are trained not to ask about the immigration status of victims and witnesses.

“We don’t care about immigration status,” Ortiz said. “We care about protecting all members of our community.”

Five of the department’s 50 officers speak Spanish fluently or conversationally, Ortiz said. The department also uses seven of its 21 part-time auxiliary officers, who assist in traffic, crowd control and other matters, as interpreters, he said.

In City Hall, three of about 50 employees are fluent Spanish speakers, and another three are conversant enough in Spanish to help residents, Mayor Reginald Spinello said.

Aim to influence policies

Padilla said that, in addition to increasing city services, local Latinos need to exert more influence on policies that may disproportionately affect them, such as the city’s crackdown on overcrowded and other illegal housing.

Spinello said ethnicity is not a factor in enforcement of housing laws.

“It’s a home we’re cracking down on,” he said. “We’re not cracking down on a group of people.”

The city doesn’t keep statistics on the ethnicity of those affected by the crackdowns, but the mayor said it appears that a large number of tenants affected are Latino. Even so, “you have to enforce illegal housing” laws, Spinello said.

Padilla and others involved in organizing new groups and recruiting political candidates lament how even as the city’s Latino population has grown, nonprofit services and political advocacy appear to have decreased.

Glen Cove-based La Fuerza Unida, founded in 1978, offered an array of services and forceful advocacy and ran a day-laborer center, but the center was closed and services declined after founder Pascual Blanco retired from the group in 2011, they said.

Current La Fuerza Unida executive director Alberto Munera said services and advocacy remain strong, and he denied the day-labor center has closed, although Munera declined to offer details of services or the location of the center.

Blanco said even though Glen Cove’s Latino population is much larger than it was several decades ago, organizing it into a cohesive force is more difficult.

Years ago, he said, most Latinos were Puerto Rican and, as U.S. citizens, eligible to vote. Today, Puerto Ricans make up less than 12 percent of the city’s Latino population, which includes people with roots from throughout Latin America.

One result of the challenges in organizing the diverse Latino population is a community that has little sway over the institutions and policies that affect them, he said.

“We should be getting political power,” Blanco said. “We don’t have it.”

28% of Glen Cove city residents are Hispanic

40% of adult Hispanics in Glen Cove are U.S. citizens and eligible to vote

87% of Hispanic minors in Glen Cove are U.S. citizens

57% of students in Glen Cove City Schools are Hispanic

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