The best example of the power of a single vote is Julia Mejia’s election to the Boston City Council two years ago.
It’s a figure of speech many politicians tap into when trying to persuade disaffected citizens to exercise their civic duty: Your vote matters. In Mejia’s case, one vote literally made the difference and won her the fourth at-large seat.
That’s how she became the first Afro Latina on the City Council, a body that has seen little Latino representation through the years. Mejia and Ricardo Arroyo, who represents District 5, are currently the only Latino councilors in a city whose population growth has been fueled, in no small part, by Latinos. Yet with the Boston City Council expected to experience the most change it has seen in one election in almost three decades, with four of the five mayoral candidates coming from the council, Mejia is the only Latina in the September preliminary for the at-large contest. In the district races, aside from Arroyo, there are four other Latino candidates in this year’s momentous election.
It may seem like a small number for a city where nearly 1 in 5 residents is Latino. But the effect of having just two Latinos has been meaningful. Before they were elected, that number was zero. It brings to mind another figure of political speech: Representation matters. Mejia and Arroyo stand as examples of elected officials of color who have made city government relevant to a broad Latino community in Boston that often goes unseen.
In theory, representation matters because it begets more representation. Once people of color have seen what their government can do for them, they stay engaged in politics, and thus are more likely to vote in more people of color.
That was the energy and hope behind a Hyde Park gathering Sunday organized by some of those Latino municipal candidates running in Boston, including Mejia and Arroyo. “During the pandemic, she was helping out Latinos like myself,” said Griselda Polanco, a Mejia supporter. Polanco spoke of Mejia’s retail residential kitchen ordinance, in effect since the end of April, which allows Bostonians to cook and sell food straight from their own homes. “This is a way to support immigrants and entrepreneurs, removing some barriers to create revenue,” Mejia told the Globe at the time.
For Oscar Guerrero, the host of the gathering, which was attended by roughly 70 Latinos, having Mejia on the council during the pandemic and ensuing economic crisis meant that she was positioned to advocate for Latino businesses, like barbershops and hair salons, that “were in the dark about pandemic aid.”
During COVID-19, “the importance of having someone speaking up for and fighting for Latinos and their communities became super real and not theoretical,” said Arroyo. “It actually, in some cases, was life or death, eviction or stability, losing a business or having it survive.”
It’s also about advancing a collective understanding that there exists a complex diversity within Latino communities. Just ask Angelina Camacho, an Afro Latina of Honduran and Puerto Rican descent, who is a second-time candidate now running for the District 7 seat.
“The challenge [when she first ran in 2017] was we were still very much a Black and white city,” Camacho said. “We looked at it as, ‘Are you a Black candidate, a white candidate or Latinx?’ ” She said she had to redefine what it means to be a candidate who is part of the Latino diaspora but not in the way Boston understands it. Camacho said Afro Latinos don’t feel seen on issues, including asking elected officials for recreational activities that are important to Latino culture, like soccer. “It seems like a small thing but it’s important to the social fabric and to building community,” Camacho said.
There are roughly 130,000 Latino residents in the city; of those, about 50,000 are voters, according to estimates from a local campaign. It’s why Kendra Hicks, an Afro Latina running for the District 6 seat, wants to give noncitizens in Boston the right to vote, part of a growing nationwide movement. Hicks is the daughter of two undocumented immigrants and grew up in Egleston Square. “There’s never been a person of color representing that district,” which includes Jamaica Plain and West Roxbury, she said.
Latino voters probably won’t move as a single bloc. But it’s a good bet they will play a larger role in determining the outcome of the mayor’s race and the composition of the City Council.