A trip to Maverick Square in East Boston provides a vivid reminder of Boston’s growing and potentially powerful Latino population. Bodegas, hair salons, restaurants, bakeries, and other Latino-run businesses line the busy streets. It’s a neighborhood at once bilingual and increasingly prosperous. One senses yet another chapter of the American dream in the making, as immigrants gain an economic foothold and hope for even better things for their children. Every two months I go there to get my hair done, and my hairdresser, a native Colombian, continues to grow her shop, now a half-dozen stylists strong.
My trips lately have made me wonder if Boston Latinos will rise up and be heard this fall, and follow the national paradigm of assuming the role of a suddenly powerful political force. Or will local Latinos continue to hide (politically speaking, at least) in plain sight?
One thing is for sure: The indelible object lessons of the 2012 presidential campaign — that some 50 million Latinos finally added up to an electoral force that mattered — won’t be lost on local political organizers this election year.
Indeed, as Boston embarks on its first political free-for-all mayoral election in a generation, the hunt will be on for the local Latino bloc, especially now that City Councilor Felix G. Arroyo is running. The problem is, there is no real bloc — instead Boston offers a hodgepodge of Latino influences, East Boston notwithstanding. The local Latino political presence is still in its adolescence, and it’s an open question whether its various elements can unite to flex some collective muscle.
Boston is more Latino than ever. The community grew by 26 percent between 2000 and 2010 and now accounts for over 17 percent of the city’s population. Beyond East Boston, where 53 percent of the population is of Hispanic descent, pockets of the city remain Latino strongholds, including Jamaica Plain and parts of Dorchester. Most important for the future of the city’s political complexion: 42 percent of Boston public school students are Latino.
Yet the numbers are far less impressive when one looks at likely voter participation. Precise numbers of Latino voters in recent city elections aren’t available, but statewide trends are bleak — only 47 percent of eligible Massachusetts Hispanic voters actually registered to vote — and it’s likely those numbers would translate similarly in Boston, where the Latino voting-age population is around 51,000.
It’s somewhat fair to generalize that the newer the immigrant, the less likely they will be interested in grassroots political activity. Some of the inertia stems from the basic challenge of making ends meet — working two jobs often doesn’t leave time to think about the affairs of the city. And, unfortunately, political skepticism and detachment comes with the turf for many Latino immigrants. For a significant percentage, political involvement in their native countries was either a largely meaningless exercise or potentially dangerous, and the possibilities of democratic action remain, for too many, an abstraction.
Finally, Latinos do care first about immigration reform, which is the core reason why an estimated 9 million Latinos supported President Obama last November. Of the Boston mayoral candidates, perhaps no one understands this better than Arroyo. He was first a field organizer and then became political director at SEIU Local 615, where he educated and organized Latino janitors around workers’ rights and other labor issues.
There surely are signs of hope for increasing Latino engagement. Concerns about a proposed East Boston casino might resonate among Hispanics, perhaps powerfully enough to inspire more of them to register to vote and go to the polls in November. In fact, they have already mobilized either by protesting against casinos, or simply by attending informational presentations of the proposals in East Boston.
All the same, the thought of mayoral candidates named Conley, Connolly, and Walsh poking their heads into businesses up and down Meridian Street in East Boston pleases me — and can only be seen as progress. Take the current US Senate race, for example: Representative Ed Markey has hired a Latino and New Americans Vote Coordinator (a Latina who used to work as an aide to Councilor Arroyo, no less).
I have no doubt this new level of political attention to Latinos will, in turn, inspire more Latino engagement. Whether it happens in time to shape the 2013 mayoral election is anyone’s guess.