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Latino political clout in full view at legislative meeting

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO

At the first legislative breakfast held by ¿Oíste? in 2001, just being able to fill an auditorium with Latino activists was considered an accomplishment. There were a handful of legislators at the gathering and activists from across the state with ambitions of building Latino power.

At this year’s meeting, held last Wednesday in the Great Hall at the State House, it was evident that their vision is becoming a reality.

State Sen. Dianne Wilkerson bumped up against that reality when she began acknowledging fellow elected representatives present and started to go through the growing list of Latino officials.

“Oh, how things have changed,” Wilkerson said. “You know things have changed when you can’t remember them all.”

The summit was attended by Latino city councilors and school committee members from major Massachusetts cities including Worcester, Salem, Lawrence and Springfield.

White politicos were in attendance as well, including state Democratic Party chief John Walsh, at-large City Councilor Michael Flaherty and state Sen. Anthony Galluccio.

Former state Sen. Jarrett Barrios shared a table with Gov. Deval Patrick, the first governor ever to attend an ¿Oíste? breakfast.

Patrick, who depended heavily on the support of Latino political activists in cities across the state, acknowledged ¿Oíste? Executive Director Giovanna Negretti for her “coaching and counseling” during his campaign.

Latinos — the fastest growing ethnic group in Massachusetts — constituted 7.9 percent of the state’s population in 2006 according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, up from 6.8 percent in the 2000 Census. The concentration of Latinos in major cities like Boston, Lawrence and Springfield gives them added clout in state politics.

That clout has translated into highest concentration ever of Latinos in high-level jobs in the governor’s office. The keynote speaker at the legislative breakfast was Richard Chacón, executive director of the state’s Office of Refugees and Immigrants.

Other prominent Patrick administration officials present included Director of Appointments Lily Mendez Morgan and Senior Policy Advisor David Morales.

“We have never seen the State House look as Latino as it looks today,” Negretti said.

The growing political might Latinos are seeing in Massachusetts comes at a challenging time. A 2002 ballot initiative backed by a wealthy Republican California activist gutted the state’s bilingual education laws.

In Massachusetts, as in the rest of the country, immigration is increasingly being used as a wedge issue by right-wing candidates. And that doesn’t bode well for Latinos, according to Negretti.

“When they’re talking about immigrants, they’re talking about us,” she said. “And it’s not pretty.”

Immigration became a key campaign issue in the 5th Congressional District special election, which Democrat Nikki Tsongas won by a narrow margin last month.

¿Oíste? is currently working with The Mauricio Gastón Institute at the University of Massachusetts at Boston on a study detailing the needs and priorities of the state’s Latino community. ¿Oíste? will use the study to determine its legislative agenda, according to Negretti. A lobby day is planned for March.

Negretti told the Latino activists in attendance that their work is needed on issues facing the state’s Latino community — bilingual education, health care disparities, CORI reform.

“We’re here to stay,” she said. “Let’s get to work.”