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Mayoral quest for Latino votes is fraught with challenges

Sandra Nijjar is the kind of voter that all of Boston's mayoral candidates covet.

The El Salvador native and East Boston resident is active and passionate about improving education at East Boston High, where 65.5 percent of students are Latinos. She worked to curb crime and is strongly opposed to the planned casino at Suffolk Downs.

But most importantly, she can vote because she is a US citizen.

Already, she has been wooed by candidates Martin J. Walsh, Rob Consalvo, and Felix G. Arroyo, but Nijjar said she turned them all down because they support a casino in Boston. Arroyo, who would be the city's first Latino mayor, had particularly captivated her.


"I was really heartbroken,'' said Nijjar, who canceled a recently planned backyard barbecue for Arroyo after learning of his stance. "He's the best Latino candidate we've had. I couldn't be more proud. But now I can't feel that pride."

Hoping for an edge, mayoral candidates have begun a full-court press to woo Latinos, with some hopefuls distributing Spanish-language literature on their political positions, rolling out Hispanic volunteers to make a pitch, and hiring Latino staff members.

But as the race for mayor gains momentum, the quest to capture the Latino vote remains fraught with challenges, starting with getting eligible voters to the polls.

¿Oìste?, a Latino political advocacy group in Boston, says that less than half of the city's 105,000 Latinos in 2012 were eligible to vote and that only about 21,000 of those are registered. The group said that in Boston elections in recent years only about 10,000 have voted.

Latinos have much at stake in the mayor's race — they represent the largest group in Boston public schools — but many cannot vote because they are not citizens, are here illegally, or have other immigration restrictions.


For example, some residents born in countries such as Colombia and El Salvador have asylum or temporary protected status and are not allowed to vote. And many Latino immigrants, like Nijjar, are eligible voters, but are undecided or turned off by the process.

"Most people concentrate on who are eligible to vote, and that's a reasonable consideration," said Miren Uriarte, a research associate at Mauricio Gastón Institute for Latino Community Development and Public Policy who is writing a book on Boston's Latinos. "But there is a very large mixture of immigration status within the Latino community that makes it impossible for them to vote."

Still, the candidates are seeking as many Latino votes as they can.

Consalvo's effort includes an office in East Boston and Spanish-speaking organizers going door to door in heavily Latino areas of the city. John R. Connolly rolled out his mayoral campaign platform in seven languages, including Spanish.

Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley recently hired Dominican native Fatima Breton as political director, and began what his campaign called Latinos Con Dan, a group of Hispanic supporters. Conley's strategy also includes an aggressive television ads and face-to-face contact with prospective voters.

Breton acknowledges that there are challenges aplenty in attracting Latinos to the polls, but stressed that their solid participation in recent elections, including the special elections for US Senate, offers hope.

In his historic bid, Arroyo, a councilor whose parents were born in Puerto Rico, has made Latinos a key target along with liberals, so-called super voters, and labor.


He has launched ads on Telemundo, opened a campaign office in Maverick Square, and invited big-name Latinos to raise funds for him, including Pulitzer-Prize winning author Junot Diaz and Grammy-nominated salsa singer Frankie Negrón, who hosted a salsa and sangria night at Mojitos Lounge last month.

"The historical nature of this campaign is not lost on me; I recognize it,'' Arroyo said recently. "But it's not why I am running. I'm a running as a son of the city, who loves the city, who believes in the city, who believes everyone deserves an opportunity in every neighborhood."

Many are also hopeful that Latinos will be swayed by Arroyo's family political history — including his father Felix D. Arroyo, who served on the City Council and the School Committee. But the quiet mayoral race has not yet galvanized any one group around a candidate.

Alejandra St. Guillen — executive director of ¿Oìste? — said her group has launched a massive voter registration and mobilization drive in wards packed with Latinos such as Egleston Square and Forest Hills. The group is running ads on Telemundo and Univision and has registered voters at Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Colombian festivals.

"We are reaching to infrequent Latino voters who don't usually vote in municipal elections to increase turnout and convince them of the importance of participating in local elections," said St. Guillen.

At the Puerto Rican festival recently, a parade of mayoral candidates danced down the streets of the South End.


But Jose Aponta saved his loudest cheer for Arroyo. "He's bilingual. He's bicultural. And he's from here'' in Villa Victoria, said Aponta. "It's time that we are all represented in the decision-making of this city."

In East Boston, the former home to a majority with Italian heritage, 53 percent of the population is now of Hispanic descent. Spanish drifts from bus stops and front porches. The streets are dotted with green and gold Arroyo signs.

For Nijjar, there is pride in seeing a better East Boston. Crime is dwindling, the streets are cleaner, and new people are moving in. But as she scans the list of mayoral candidates, she still doesn't know who she wants to support.

"Right now, I can't say," she said by phone. "It all depends on who is really fighting for the well-being of residents in Boston."

Meghan Irons can be reached at mirons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.