The traditional heart of Boston’s Puerto Rican community is the Villa Victoria housing development in the South End, and that’s where hundreds of people gathered last month for the start of the annual Puerto Rican parade. As in years past, parade floats plastered with the Puerto Rican flags lined the streets as salsa music blared. Dozens of baton-twirling girls from the Estrellas Tropicales troupe patiently waited for the parade to begin.
But this year something was different. A lot more politicians, for one thing. The Latino community is seeing a special level of attention in this year’s mayoral race, and every candidate joined in the festivities. Also different this year was the destination of the parade — not Franklin Park, which is under repair, but City Hall, where revelers enjoyed food, carnival rides, and music.
The symbolism was not lost on Felix G. Arroyo, the city councilor and mayoral candidate, dressed in a traditional guayabera shirt. “Maybe it’s an omen. The Puerto Rican Festival being held here today at City Hall and then there will be a Puerto Rican sitting in the mayor’s office in January. I’ll take that!” he laughed.
Indeed, Latinos may well pave the route for a winning candidate to take over City Hall. But while Arroyo’s candidacy is seen as a symbol of Hispanic emergence in Boston, no one, least of all the Latino community, is assuming that Latino influence in this year’s race will begin and end with Arroyo.
There are about 42,000 Latinos eligible to vote in Boston, and Latinos make up about 10 percent of registered voters. In the last mayoral election, Latino turnout was only a little more than 30 percent. But in the last few weeks, ¿Oíste? — the Latino political organization in Massachusetts — launched “Boston Es Mi Ciudad,” an intense voter registration drive in Spanish to activate 10,000 new and infrequent voters in Boston, and to increase Latino turnout to at least 60 percent.
While Arroyo is generating some interest among Hispanics, they’re warming to other candidates as well. The Boston Latino community hardly thinks and acts — or votes — as one. Puerto Ricans and Dominicans are by far the area’s most established Latino populations, but newer waves of immigrants, especially from Central America, are beginning to outnumber them. Conventional wisdom points to immigration reform as being virtually the single most important concern for Hispanics, and that may be true in a presidential or statewide race, but at a municipal level Hispanics intrinsically care about the Boston neighborhoods they live in. In essence, Latinos pretty much care about the same issues as any other Bostonian: access to quality public schools and affordable health care, jobs and training, the casino in East Boston, safety, and the MBTA.
From a few conversations at the parade, it’s clear that Latino allegiances are all over the map, and the scramble is on for votes.
Suffolk District Attorney Dan Conley, for one, hasn’t ceded the Latino vote to Arroyo, or anyone else. He recently named Fatima Breton as political director for his campaign. Breton, of Dominican descent, used to work for Conley and has long been a volunteer in several national and local Democratic campaigns, most recently in the successful effort to elect Linda Dorcena Forry as state senator.
The campaign also recently formed Latinos for Dan Conley, a group that was out in full force in the Puerto Rican parade. Other candidates may not have done as much yet, but it is clear at least a couple of campaigns will end up with a more formal Latino outreach strategy down the road. Certainly all of the candidates have enlisted the support of Latino volunteers and prominent Hispanic leaders in the city, as evidenced by their showing in the parade.
Conley said he hopes voters will look beyond ethnicity in the election. “Felix is a wonderful young man, and I think he brings a lot to the conversation, but I think on balance I bring more to the campaign, and I hope Latinos look a bit deeper than just what our backgrounds are,” he said.
He was marching in a guayabera of his own.