Latino Pride, Power & Challenges
by Patricia Campos Medina, PhD
We are in the middle of Hispanic Heritage Month when we celebrate the culture and contributions of Americans of Latinx/Hispanic descent.
New Jersey is one of the most diverse states in the US. We have Latinos here who just arrived and those who trace their ancestry back to the original people in the Americas. Our shared history as Americans goes as far as St. Augustine, an original Spanish colony that existed 100 years before the founding of Jamestown.
Our vibrant cultural traditions are showcased by the thriving urban centers revitalized by the Cuban and Puerto Rican communities who arrived in NJ in the 50s-60s and whose struggles in the Civil Rights movement solidified them as members of our NJ political culture.
Newer immigrants today from the Caribbean, South America, Mexico and Central America are following suit and are fast becoming the leading engines of economic growth in cities like Paterson, Passaic, Camden and Trenton.
At 20% of the population, Latinos in New Jersey are the youngest, most entrepreneurial and most actively employed workforce in New Jersey. We lead the state in small business creation with an impressive economic impact of $12 billion into the NJ Economy (See NJBMagazine).
Our children are the fastest growing population in our K-12th public schools’ system, and our young people in Higher Ed are thriving in STEM education as demonstrated by a 21% Latino enrollment in NJs leading polytechnic institute (NJIT), equal only to that of Asian American enrollment and surpassing any other minority group enrollment.
And while our economic impact is felt on all corners of NJ, we still have work to do to make sure NJ’s political culture transform itself into one that is inclusive and creates spaces for more Latinxs to run for office and drive policy priorities for our families.
Latino voters represent 14% of the NJ electorate yet very few dollars are spent on getting us engaged to vote. That benefits some, but negatively impacts our community. We are left to struggle to fund policy demands without enough political resources. And while we are proud of the work our Latino elected officials such as United States Senator Bob Menendez and NJ Senate President Pro-Tempore Teresa Ruiz are doing, we must continue to demand more opportunities for more Latinos to run for office.
National polls show that 40% of Latinos are registered Democrats, 18% are Republicans and the balance 42% are registered as Independents. Even in the times of Donald Trump, we are still a swing vote and political parties ignore us at their own expense. Let’s remember that in NJ Chris Christie won the Latino vote in 2013 and Phil Murphy recaptured it in 2017.
Henceforth, all the pride that comes from being a Latino voter in NJ also comes with lots of responsibility to build a future that lives up to our dreams as Americans.
Hispanic Heritage Month is a time to loudly remind our political leaders, including our own Latino elected officials, that it is not enough just to celebrate our heritage and culture. We must come together to demand action on policies that impact our children’s future.
So, with that in mind, to all political leaders in NJ, the following are some policy priorities that Latinx voters care about and you should pay attention to:
1. Latinos demand action on Driver’s License legislation: Yes, we get it. There are those in New Jersey who buy into President Trump’s rhetoric that immigrants are the cause of American’s economic problems, but those are in the fringes of the NJ Republican party. And even if NJ Republicans leaders don’t want to buck them, why should a solid majority Democratic Legislature, in a solid majority Democratic State whose leaders claim to be progressive, oppose action on a policy that 14 states already adopted? Latinos have been waiting for nine years to have action on the Driver’s License bill sponsored by the Chairwoman of the Judiciary Committee Annette Quijano.
Yet despite polling that states voters support action on DLs, the NJ Legislature has consistently refused to act on this common-sense policy. Yes, the majority of New Jerseyans do not believe Trump’s racist Twitter rants; they want their highways to be safer and they oppose the separation of immigrant families by Trump’s deportation policies. (See opinion piece)
So, our question remains, what will Democrats do with a bigger Legislative majority? Will you protect our immigrant families or succumb to the fear-mongering of Trump supporters in your ranks?
Just know that we will not stop protesting until our families are safer getting to work on our highways and our children stop being afraid their parents will not be home when they arrive from school.
1. The double standard on Latino appointments to Boards and Commissions: Despite initial positive signs that Gov Murphy’s administration was committed to diversity and appointed several Latinas to his cabinet (See Latino Commission on Gubernatorial Appointments report) nothing substantive has happened on Latino appointments since then, and our government agencies in charge of critical services like public transportation, continue to look the same they always did. Given that we are 20% of the NJ population, we will continue to demand from all elected representatives, including all County Party Chairs, that when it comes time to nominating someone to NJ Transit or the Turnpike Authority, stop choosing the person with the same familiar names you recognize from your weekly golf games. Please, just start looking for names that reflect the diversity of NJ. Women and minorities are still woefully underrepresented. If you don’t know any, give the advocates a call. We got binders full of names of qualified people.
2. Redistricting in 2020—time for equity in political representation: As important as the complete count in the 2020 Census is, we must stay vigilant on what happens next. Our population growth should translate into more political representation for Latinos in Congress and in the NJ Legislature, but getting to decide who makes those decisions is already a contentious affair. Therefore, Latinos should begin to loudly demand that any redistricting plans have public input and adhere to the law as outlined by the Voter Rights Act.
All of us that advocate for political representation for communities of color should follow the work of Latino Justice as they so eloquently argue that the current practice in NJ to have State Senate and Legislative Districts mirror each other violates the Civil Rights Act and should be eliminated. Doing so might not be popular idea with NJ political party leaders, but as we fight for more Latinos to represent us, we must understand that NJs multi-member districts and the gerrymandering of our votes purposely dilutes our influence and power.
Eliminating multi-member districts would also allow for our General Assembly to be more independent from our Senate and hence create opportunities for real debate between the needs of the people and the needs of the party institutions. After all, isn’t that what our founders had in mind when they created the US House of Representatives and the US Senate? Let’s build that balance of power in the NJ Legislature.
3. Equity in Education Access: If our children are our future, let’s fight for equity in educational access for our Latino children. And no-one has done more on this issue than the Latino Action Network (NJ De-Segregation Lawsuit) who is currently suing the State of NJ for segregation.
Nearly half of all black and Latino students in the state, attend schools that are more than 90 percent non-white. According to the UCLA Civil Rights Project, the Garden State ranks as the sixth most segregated state in the U.S. for black students, and seventh for Latinos. Adding insult to injury, most NJ School Systems are ill prepared to handle the influx on new-English learners and are failing to help them integrate into our American culture. As learned recently in Trenton trying to segregate non-English speakers is not what our immigrant families want.
For Latinos like me who have the right to vote, it is our responsibility to make sure those children are granted the education they deserve and the US and the constitution of NJ and US guarantee. NJ legislators, and especially School Board elected officials across NJ, let’s make sure we invest in equal educational access for all NJ children, specially our newer immigrant arrivals.
I could keep on writing a litany of things NJ political leaders ought to do to improve the lives of Latino families. Yes, we need an immediate increase to $15 in our minimum wage for farmworkers in South Jersey and for tip-workers, majority of whom are women and Latinas. We also need the right to organize in all low-wage industries like distribution center workers at Amazon and Target. Oh, and we also need opportunities for Latinos to enter the Cannabis market, plus justice for our youth currently in jail for marijuana possession. We need tax-incentive reform and real economic development with community benefit agreements that create real jobs in our cities. The list goes on and on…
But overall, what we need to demand is for ALL NJ political leaders to stop bickering for power and act on behalf of 20% of your tax-paying Latino families.
So today, in a redacted take on Mother Jones quote, I ask all NJ Latinos leaders to thank your elected official for honoring our Latino heritage, but also demand they begin to fight like hell for our community’s economic future. Si Se Puede!
Patricia Campos Medina, PhD is a Labor, Latina and Progressive political leader in NJ. Opinions expressed on this column are her own. Follow her on Twitter @pcamposmedina