As East Boston continues to cement its status as the de facto Latino epicenter of the city, a group of Hispanic organizers in Eastie is engaged in a serious grass-roots campaign this summer, knocking on doors, listening, and lining up support. Their cause isn’t to help elect a mayoral candidate, however. It’s to solidify approval among the Latino community for the proposed casino at Suffolk Downs.
They’re not volunteers. They’re paid to canvas by Caesars Entertainment, which is partnering with Suffolk Downs in vying for the one available casino license in Eastern Massachusetts. It’s not often discussed, but the Latino community holds the cards in deciding Caesars’ fate in East Boston — Hispanics now account for 53 percent of the neighborhood’s total population.
And right now, they’re leaning towards the casino. It may come down to a referendum on jobs, for that is what Latino immigrants crave. And many will be willing to bet they get one of the 3,000 to 4,000 jobs a casino would create at Suffolk Downs.
Most Latinos in Eastie are here, after all, for economic opportunity. Jobs are more real than the warnings of congestion, crime, and vice that are being put forward by gambling opponents. The casino symbolizes a slice of the American dream coming to the neighborhood.
And rather than launch a flashy media blitz, Caesars smartly prefers that people in the community do the convincing, Latino on Latino, street by street. It’s a ground game. For the last thing Caesars wants is for the eventual vote in East Boston to come down to chance.
The extensive guerrilla campaign reflects a quiet intensity that’s slowly building among neighborhood Latinos about the issue. The casino is not slam dunk by any means, for East Boston has organized casino opposition who see the promise of jobs as a false panacea and worry instead about the wear and tear of more traffic and crime, and the temptation of gambling right around the corner.
So far, Caesars seems to be winning hearts and minds. The casino may have found a secret weapon in Gladys Oliveros, a Colombian immigrant and a longtime East Boston activist, who has worked on the pro-casino canvassing. Oliveros estimates that 60 percent of the Latino community supports the casino.
But Oliveros, a political veteran, is no pushover. She still awaits the final agreement between Caesars and Mayor Menino over the benefits the casino will provide the community, which is expected soon.
When she was canvassing, she said, “What we found on the streets is that people didn’t see a tangible proposal — the actual agreement of what Caesars is actually doing for the community. So there’s been a lot of misinformation.”
A good agreement will catalyze her into further action, but also a new level of vigilance. “We need to watch what the casino does and what they don’t do, what they build and what they don’t build, what jobs are being offered and where. We, the neighborhood, are responsible for making them accountable. That’s our job.”
Oliveros sees the $1 billion project as a golden opportunity for community empowerment. “This casino has given us, Latinos, the chance to take ownership of East Boston. We’re the owners. Yes, the casino may come but it’s not what they say. We’re going to decide.”
There are other organizers in the neighborhood with diametrically opposing views, among them Pedro Morales, a full-time theology and public policy student at Harvard and a strategist for “No Eastie Casino.” He sees the issue in economic terms as well — only he envisions money being sucked out of the community.
“Studies say that every slot machine extracts from the local economy about $100,000 annually,” say Morales, who grew up in Mexico. “Where does that money come from? From the people in the surrounding communities. The casino won’t be a tourist attraction. It’s just not going to happen.”
He says commercial and residential rents will go up in East Boston, and the neighborhood’s economy will suffer. “Small businesses will have to close because the casino will capture all available spending dollars in the area.”
Such dire predictions don’t seem to faze Paula Osorio, who owns the Café Gigu in East Boston. “[The casino] has its pros and cons. My con is I live close by. I care about the safety of my family,” she says. And will it tempt neighborhood residents, including her just-turned-21 nephew, to drink and gamble? She hopes not.
“So it’s complicated. We’ll see what happens.”