In a little-noticed political phenomenon in Boston, there will be two Latinas vying for an at-large seat on the Boston City Council in Tuesday’s municipal election.
Boston has never elected a Latina to the city council. In fact, the 13-seat body has had no Hispanic representation for the last six years.
That’s an intolerable status quo in a city where one in five residents, and more than two in five public school students, are Latinx. Boston owes most of its growth to this demographic group; Hispanics account for more than 90 percent of the city’s population increase between 1980 and 2015.
So, perhaps it shouldn’t be so shocking that first-time candidates Alejandra St. Guillen and Julia Mejia did so well in the preliminary election in September — they came in fourth and fifth place, respectively. The two Latina newcomers edged incumbent Althea Garrison, who took Ayanna Pressley’s seat in the council last year when Pressley was elected to Congress.
Such impressive placing among a field of 15 candidates, including four incumbents, for the at-large seats was well-deserved. But it almost didn’t happen.
About a year ago, just after Pressley’s stunning victory in her primary challenge to US Representative Michael Capuano, a group of Latinx leaders — including business owners, community organizers, and nonprofit leaders — came together to strategize about what they saw as a golden opportunity to send Hispanic representation to the city council. But an uncomfortable question reared its ugly head almost immediately: Should the Latinx leaders coalesce around one chosen candidate to ensure victory? Otherwise, there was the risk of splitting support among various Latino candidates
“Coalescing around the chosen one” is an insidious practice of electoral politics that has plagued local communities of color, one that’s anachronistic, fundamentally anti-democratic, and anti-inclusion. Many of the Latinx folks who were part of the discussions felt that way, including St. Guillen and Mejia. At that point, Mejia had already declared her candidacy.
“I didn’t and wouldn’t ask anybody for permission,” she said in an interview. The group continued to meet in the spirit of supporting the next wave of Latinx candidates in Boston. Those who were running, or seriously considering it, were invited to talk about their agenda. By then, the group had made it clear that it wouldn’t endorse one candidate or discourage anyone from running.
It’s commendable that the effort to pick “the chosen one’’ didn’t materialize. We Latinos often complain (rightly) about how we get painted with a wide and simplistic brush that fails to account fully for a complex reality. The community is anything but monolithic, and the success of St. Guillen and Mejia in the preliminary reflect that. They each represent two distinct dimensions within the Boston Latinx world.
In terms of policy positions, St. Guillen and Mejia are almost indistinguishable. They’re both progressive: they support rent control and the return of an elected school committee, and say they would fight for greater equity in the Boston Public Schools. Yet their backgrounds and life experiences are different.
St. Guillen, who grew up in Mission Hill, is a first-generation Latina of Venezuelan descent. She has ample experience in public policy, having worked as executive director of the Latino political organization ¿Oíste? and, more recently, as the head of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Advancement. She has been endorsed by Mayor Marty Walsh. If elected, St. Guillen would also be the first openly LGBTQ woman elected to the Boston City Council.
Mejia was born in the Dominican Republic and brought here as a child by her undocumented single mother who spoke little English. She talks about how that dynamic — always having to translate for her mom — shaped her to be the advocate she is today. A single mother herself, Mejia identifies as Afro-Latina and is the first in her family to graduate from high school and college. She started a nonprofit group for Boston parents and a woman-led civic engagement initiative. Mejia focuses her message around poverty, social justice, and class.
Their political personas are well defined: insider vs. outsider, more experienced vs. less experienced. In the preliminary, there were only 1,000 votes separating them, and many political observers bet on just one of them winning one of the four at-large seats. Even if that happens, Latinos and Latinas in Boston have already won: The candidacies of St. Guillen and Mejia have energized them, and shown the depth of a community that has remained invisible for far too long.