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Monday, December 28, 2009

Boricuas in New York City: An Historical Inventory of the Past Year

> By Angelo Falcón
> Comite Noviembre Journal (November 13, 2009)
>
> This Puerto Rican Heritage Month finds a Puerto Rican community with much to celebrate and much to be concerned about. But as we look at the arc from the 40th anniversary of the Young Lords this year to the naming of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the US Supreme Court this year, as they say in Puerto Rico, "Poco poco, se anda legos." In the United States, the more than four million Boricuas living here continue to struggle and to say ¡presente!
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> The Puerto Rican presence in New York City goes back to the 1860s, so we are certainly not newcomers to this country. Today there are more Puerto Ricans living stateside than in Puerto Rico and the current growth of the stateside Puerto Rican population appears to be greater than that of the Island. And, since 1917, we also didn't come here are immigrants but rather as US citizens more appropriately referred to as migrants. So as the immigration debate continues in this country, with its anti-Latino overtones, Puerto Ricans certainly don't fill the profile, but we find ourselves in the thick (and sometimes at the leadership as is the case with Chicago Congressman Luis Gutierrez)) of that battle too. This is because, after all is said and done, we are part of a larger Latino world and most people in this country simply don't make the distinction.
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> As we review this past year since last November's Puerto Rican Heritage Month celebrations, much has occurred of both a positive and negative nature. As you read this review, you will no doubt see much that I have missed, but this overview is only meant to be suggestive of the many good and bad things that we experienced as a community from November 2008 to October 2009. It is, at most, kind of the beginning of an historical inventory.
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> 2008: The Historic Election of Obama
> and Statehood Party Victories in Puerto Rico
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> Statistics on stateside Puerto Ricans at the national level released by the Census Bureau from their Current Population Survey for 2008 reveal some troubling indicators. The most disturbing was that among Latinos, Puerto Ricans had the highest poverty rate, 25 percent. In addition, we also had the highest unemployment rate, 10 percent. The Puerto Rican poverty rate, in fact, was more than double that of non-Latino Whites. And I don't even want to get into the poverty and unemployment rates in Puerto Rico, which are much worse, and, remember, these statistics are for the period before the current economic crisis.
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> The Census Bureau, in their American Community Survey (ACS), estimated that there may have been as many as 809,675 Puerto Ricans living in New York City in 2008, making up 35 percent of the city's 2.3 million Latinos. While still the largest Latino group in the city, in 2009 the Center for Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center projected that by 2024 Mexicans would become the largest Latino group in the city.
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> There was the historic election of Barack Obama to the Presidency of the United States and, as 14 percent of the Latino vote, Puerto Ricans helped in significant ways in that great victory, especially those Puerto Ricans in Florida. At the end of 2008, with the election of President Obama, Latinos began to push for Latino appointments to his Cabinet and Administration. Although getting off to a slow start on Latino appointments, by the mid-2009 Obama had accumulated a record of Latino appointments that was higher than that of any past President, Republican or Democrat. But Puerto Ricans remained concerned because the only major appointment they saw was that of former Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion to organize and head a new Office of Urban Policy in the White House.
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> Of course, this concern was overshadowed by the historic nomination and confirmation of Sonia Sotomayor as an Associate Justice in the United States Supreme Court the following year. This was a major event for Puerto Ricans that also brought widespread attention to our community, both here and in Puerto Rico. Her ascension to the high court catapulted her to near rock star status in the Latino community and with the general public. This was definitely the high point for Puerto Ricans in 2009.
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> Along with Obama, Puerto Rico elected a new party to office: Luis Fortuño as Governor and Pedro Perluisi as Resident Commissioner, both from the statehood New Progressive Party (PNP). Anibal Acevedo Vila, the Governor of the pro-Commonwealth Popular Democratic Party (PPD) lost big, being under a federal indictment during his reelection bid for campaign finance fraud and other charges. In 2009, he was, ironically, acquitted of the charges.
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> On November 19, 2008, New York Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez was elected Chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC), a historic moment for the Puerto Rican community. Also, during the 2008 election, history was made when another Puerto Rican woman, Rosa Clemente, ran for Vice President of the United States under the Green Party, although this was little noticed.
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> One of the major highlights in 2008, was when Lin-Manuel Miranda's play In the Heights won the Tony Award for Best Play and in many other categories in mid-June. Also, in November of that year, the Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre, led by legendary actress Miram Colon, celebrated their 40th anniversary. News also arrived that West Side Story was returning to Broadway after 51 years. Also, after a long hiatus, efforts began in 2008 to bring back the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights (NCPRR), the btheme of a national convention in October 2009.
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> On the local political front, NYS Assemblyman Ruben Diaz, Jr. was elected to be the Borough President of The Bronx. However, other news on the local political front for Puerto Ricans was not as positive. Legendary South Bronx political player, Ramon Velez, passed away in November 2008. In that same month, NYS Assemblyman José Rivera lost the powerful Chairmanship of the Bronx Democratic Committee, ending Puerto Rican leadership of that body. Also, after an impressive election to the New York State Senate, Queens politico Hiram Monserrate was arrested in December for domestic violence, to be tried the following year.
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> 2009: The Year of Sotomayor and the Young Lords
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> The beginning of 2009 saw the deaths of many prominent Puerto Ricans. They included legendary boxer and writer José Chequi Torres, former NYC Councilmember Antonio Pagan, musician Joe Cuba and music promoter Ralph Mercado.
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> While in 2009 the highlight at the national level was definitely the appointment of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, there was also the appointment of Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion in February to head up the new White House Office of Urban Policy. The only problem with his appointment is that he has seemed to disappear since then, so we all eagerly await his full return to public life.
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> Locally, the highlight has been the fresh and energetic leadership that the newly-elected Ruben Diaz, Jr. is providing as Bronx Borough President. And, staying in The Bronx, there was also the appointment of Dr. Felix Matos Rodríguez to be President of Hostos Community College, one of the major institutions in the Puerto Rican community. Dr. Frances Negron-Muntaner also had the distinction of being appointed Director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Columbia University. This was also the year when NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg first started to speak Spanish in his news conferences, which I am not sure is a good or bad thing.
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> South Bronx Congressman José Enrique Serrano celebrated 35 years in elective office, making him the most senior Puerto Rican elected official in the United States. He was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1974 and to the United States Congress in 1990.
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> This past summer, the talk of the state was the revolt of a coalition of Democratic and Republican State Senators against the NYS Senate's Democratic leadership. What was most fascinating about it was that it was led in part by two Puerto Ricans who had just gotten elected to the body: Bronxite Pedro Espada and Queensite Hiram Monserrate. In the end, to the surprise of many, Espada wound up as President of the NYS Senate in what was a major controversial move.
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> Part of the problem with the state is that the Democratic Party is seen as unsupportive of Puerto Rican and other Latino elected officials. For example, when Governor David Paterson had the opportunity to appoint a Latino to the US Senate to replace Hillary Clinton, such as seasoned Congresspersons Velazquez or Serrano, he chose a relative newcomer, Karen Gillebrand who, up to that point, held very conservative positions on social and economic issues. There is also the problem that Governor Paterson has also neglected important Puerto Rican and Latino issues, such as our extreme underrepresentation in the state government: today Latinos are only 4 percent of state government workers, despite being over 13 percent of state's labor force.
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> But on the more negative side, there was the case of the former NYS Health Commissioner under Governor Pataki, Antonia Novello, who pleaded guilty in January to charges of abuse of her use of state employees for personal matters and mismanagement of state funds. This was particularly tragic since she had also served as the United States Surgeon General under the first President George Bush. We also got the sad news at the beginning of the year that the Puerto Rican Mayor of Hartford, Connecticut was arrested for allegedly having a conflict of interest in using the service of a city contractor for personal use.
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> In 2009, The Natural Resources Committee of the US House of Representatives approved the Puerto Rico Democracy Act (HR 2499), introduced by Puerto Rico's Resident Commissioner Pedro Perluisi, calling for a series of plebiscites on the political status of Puerto Rico. While it hasn't been reported to the full House for a vote, this bill will no doubt generate much discussion in the Puerto Rican community, both stateside and on the Island, about Puerto Rico's future. Meanwhile, the economic crisis in Puerto Rico by October 2009 has resulted in the wholesale laying off of thousand of government workers, creating a reaction of major demonstrations and a call for a general strike. Under the leadership of Puerto Rican labor leaders, such as Sonia Ivany, many New York unions have rallied in support of the workers of Puerto Rico.
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> The 52nd annual National Puerto Rican Day Parade marched down Fifth Avenue this year with the theme, "Our Music." The Grand Marshal this year was super star singer Victor Manuel. The year also saw the premiere of the Lillian Jimenez film on the life of the legendary Puerto Rican educator and founder of Aspira, Dr, Antonia Pantoja, at the New York Latino Film Festival called "Antonia Pantoja: ¡Presente!" Puerto Ricans won a victory at the beginning of 2009 when WABC-TV Channel 7 finally agreed to move their long-running Latino public affairs show, Tiempo, hosted by reporter Joe Torres, from the 5:00am graveyard slot to a more appropriate 11:30am on Sundays. But the year also saw protests against MTV for the "Nuyoricans" segment on one of their series that the Puerto Rican community found stereotypical and offensive. MTV since met with Puerto Rican community leaders and is constructively working on correcting the problem.
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> In late August there was a unique and historic gathering in El Barrio for the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Young Lords. This was a major event that highlighted the long history of struggle of Puerto Ricans in New York for social justice. One of their first lawyers in the struggle, FOX News' Geraldo Rivera, demonstrated the influential trajectory of the influence of the Young Lords when he was inducted this year to the Hall of Fame of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists in a moving ceremony in San Juan, Puerto Rico. And also as part of this trajectory, especially influenced by the work of the late Richie Perez, in October 2009, over 300 gathered in a convention in Philadelphia to support the rebirth of the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights (NCPRR).
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> The Meaning of It All?
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> It's a little difficult to find the meaning in all of these recent developments, since it is usually with time that we get a real sense of their implications for our community. However, it is clear that they reflect a passing of the baby boomer generation and the ascendancy of a new one, which is always a good thing. The rise of creative individuals like Lin-Manuel Miranda and Ruben Diaz, Jr., along the achievements of those like Sonia Sotomayor, Nydia Velazquez, José E. Serrano, Sr. and others bodes well for the future of the Puerto Rican community.
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> However, the general disrepute that our local political class is undergoing indicates the fragility of that future. We always talk about holding our elected officials accountable, so maybe we need to make this a firm resolution during this Puerto Rican Heritage Month. If we don't do it as a community, who will? And if we don't do it now, then when? As we boricuas like to say, "Buena fama se pierde fácilmente; mala, casi nunca."
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> Angelo Falcón, a political scientist, is President of the National Institute for Latino Policy (NiLP) and is Chair of the Latino Census Network. He is the author of the "Atlas of Stateside Puerto Ricans" and co-editor of "Boricuas in Gotham: Puerto Ricans in the Making of Modern New York City." He is a resident of the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. He can be contacted at afalcon@latinopolicy.org.

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