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opinion | Marcela García

Low turnout a lost opportunity for Latinos

ANTHONY RUSSO FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

It’s been almost two full weeks since the very crowded and historic preliminary mayoral race in Boston, and Hector Piña is still bummed out. He calls it a “morale hangover” after a disappointing result for Latinos — both in the ballot and in turnout numbers.

A longtime community activist, heavily engaged in local politics, Piña, originally from the Dominican Republic, owns the well-known Merengue Restaurant in Roxbury, and the popular Vejigantes in the South End. Both of his Latino restaurants are magnets for Boston Hispanic community leaders, activists, and Latino personalities in general (Mariano Rivera ate at Vejigantes a couple of weeks ago; David Ortiz and Junot Diaz are both regulars).

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“It is our own people who end up discouraging Latino candidates from running,” said Piña. “How can they run if our own people don’t stand behind them?”

Piña threw his support and money behind the only Latino running, Felix G. Arroyo, who finished out of the running with almost 9 percent of the vote. Arroyo did not even win heavily Latino East Boston. The sentiment in Boston political circles is that Latinos didn’t come out to vote as expected, suggesting this growing minority population failed to flex its muscle. Unlike Election Day last fall, when Latinos exercised political clout, the Boston preliminary was far from a defining moment.

But some say Latino political power has to walk before it can run. Organizers, and Arroyo himself, still see the potency of the Latino vote. There are 42,000 Latinos who are eligible to vote in the city; of those, 20,000 are registered voters, but only half actually show up to vote. Boston Latinos, comprising about 18 percent of the population in the city, especially newer immigrants, are in the middle of gaining a political education. The final election, even without one of their own in the race, will be another important lesson.

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Piña echoes a sentiment that is shared by many who bemoan the lack of Latino clout in the city. “It’s not part of our culture to donate to campaigns,” he says. “We have to change that. Look at John Barros. The Cape Verdean community — which is smaller than ours — got behind him. Now look at the Latino City Council candidates, look at Ramon Soto. ¡¿Qué pasó?! Why do we always come up so low in votes? Why are we always behind? Why are we always the last ones?”

That was the situation ¿Oíste?, a Latino political organizing group that endorsed Arroyo, was aggressively trying to fix through its election drive before the preliminary. Its “Boston Es Mi Ciudad” campaign targeted the 20,000 or so Latinos who are eligible to vote in Boston but aren’t registered.

But with very limited time and resources — the campaign launched in late July— ¿Oíste? shifted its objective towards motivating those already registered. “We changed our strategy to be more targeted toward those 10,000 Latinos who usually don’t go out and vote in the municipal election,” said executive director Alejandra St. Guillén. They did not abandon registering new voters: St. Guillén estimates that ¿Oíste? did register about 1,000 Latinos to vote since the campaign started.

“I’m very confident that if you look at the numbers for 2009 and 2013, you’ll see a huge uptick in turnout,” St. Guillén said. “The percentage increase between 2009 and 2013 I would think will come from communities of color.”

Several other factors contributed to the poor showing of the Latino vote, according to St. Guillén. “Money is a factor, in terms of being able to relay your message. I think that the timing in which the mayor announced was difficult as well.”

As for Arroyo, he doesn’t seem to have many regrets, except for not making it to the final. He clearly sees Boston Latino political power as a work in progress.

“The East Boston Latino is not a voter yet, but I think they will be and are starting to become citizens and will be, one day, new voters. But we know how bad our immigration system is.”

“Whenever I was in East Boston the amount of people who would tell me that they couldn’t vote for me but that they would have and wanted to was pretty high. And they can’t because they’re not citizens yet. It was a lot of them.”

But that still doesn’t account for all the citizens who don’t register or don’t show up. The Latino community’s clout may be growing in Boston — given the numbers, how could it not? — but the results clearly indicate it will take a more concerted effort and real money to vault one of its own into a mayoral final.

Marcela García is a special correspondent at Telemundo Boston and a contributor to the Boston Business Journal.
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