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    Tuesday, April 16, 2024

    Hispanic and Latino people wield influence in Connecticut politics

    In this file photo, former state Rep. Chris Soto, center, on the floor of the Connecticut House of Representatives on the opening day of the 2019 legislative session Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019, at the State Capitol in Hartford. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
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    In this file photo, Lina Agudelo, Director of the Hispanic Alliance of Southeastern Connecticut, in the group’s State St. offices in New London Wednesday, August 3, 2022. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
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    In this file photo, newly elected New London City Councilor Efrain Dominguez Jr., is sworn in Monday by his sister, Adacil Dominguez, at City Hall.
    In this file photo, state Rep. Joe de la Cruz, D-Groton, stands in support to a statement from Gov. Ned Lamont during the opening of the Connecticut General Assembly session for 2020 on Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020, at the State Capitol building in Hartford. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    State House Majority Leader Jason Rojas (Courtesy of Jason Rojas’ office)

    Hispanic and Latino political power in Connecticut has never been more potent, although the question of how to mobilize that power remains.

    Political leaders from the Hispanic and Latino communities in Connecticut told The Day why they think it is important for these communities to be engaged in the political process, and how to foster that engagement.

    Growing in influence

    In 2021, the U.S. Census Bureau released data showing that the non-Hispanic white population decreased by 10% statewide and by 9% in New London County, while the Hispanic population increased by 30.1% statewide and 33.2% in the county. Latinos comprise the second-largest ethnic group in the state behind white people at 17.3% with almost 600,000 people out of the state’s more than 3.6 million. Between 2010 and 2020, Connecticut’s white population dropped by about 11%, while the Hispanic population went from 13.4% to 17.3%.

    In February, state Rep. Joe de la Cruz, D-Groton, who is part Filipino, reflected on how the General Assembly’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus has grown.

    “The House overall is 151 members and we have 35 members in our caucus alone right now, which, if you break it down as a Democratic caucus it’s almost a third of all Democrats,” de la Cruz said at the time. “The numbers are pretty striking: One out of every three Democrats is a member of our caucus, so the voice is getting louder.”

    An open letter to Gov. Ned Lamont from the Connecticut Hispanic Democratic Caucus, which includes New London City Council President Efraín Domínguez, sent in May, serves as a case in point. The caucus asked Lamont for his endorsement of then-Secretary of the State candidate Hilda Santiago, so that he could help “to nominate a Hispanic candidate to statewide office.” A Latino has never held statewide office in Connecticut.

    “We had your back in 2018, and we ask that you have ours in 2022. Nationally, 38% of Hispanic voters cast their ballots for Republicans. It is only a matter of time before that trend begins to hit Connecticut,” the caucus wrote. “If there is a 15% increase in Latino turnout — which we will make happen — that is 30,000 extra votes for Democrats up and down the ballot.”

    Former New London state representative Chris Soto, who is Latino, said Democrats should not simply bank on the Hispanic and Latino vote.

    “We’re not a monolith. There are conservative Latinos, and there are liberal Latinos. I think that’s all the more reason why the Democratic Party cannot take Latinos for granted,” Soto said. “I think we as Democrats have enjoyed a long stretch assuming that because Latinos and Democrats were aligned on certain issues that we could just count on communities of color and the Latino vote, but clearly that’s not the case for all Latinos.”

    At the table

    State Rep. Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, of Puerto Rican descent, became the first person of color to ascend to one of the “big six” state leadership positions in Connecticut when he was elected House Majority Leader by his colleagues.

    “It’s a huge honor for me, and it’s certainly a pride point for I think the Latino community, but I also think it’s a pride point for Connecticut in general,” Rojas said of his position. “That is not something that just Latinos have a right to own. I think our entire state should celebrate that we’ve reached this milestone.”

    Rojas knew since elementary school that he wanted to be involved in politics. He said Hispanic and Latino people in Connecticut should become involved in politics because “it’s important for our elected officials to reflect the populous they represent.”

    “For the Latino community there could be barriers to knowing the English language, or immigration barriers in terms of how you get served by government,” Rojas continued. “It’s important to have those life experiences at the table when policies are being formulated that are directly going to impact those groups of people.”

    Soto is a Coast Guard Academy graduate and the former representative for the 39th state House district from 2017-2019; he has worked in state and national politics since. He knows the politics of New London’s Hispanic and Latino communities well. He said he first got involved in politics because, “I felt that frankly we deserved better representation.”

    “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,” Soto said. “That’s unfortunately what happens for a lot of communities of color when they don’t have representation, whether it’s at the local, state and federal level.”

    Soto said that while issues like employment, housing and education are important to everyone, they play out in different ways for Hispanic and Latino people.

    “If you have population growth and you have a bunch more English learners in your district, you have to adapt to that,” Soto said. “A lot of times our state laws are not as nimble, or our local policies aren’t as nimble, to respond. It gets exacerbated if you don’t have a Latino representing your community.”

    Soto used the example of Hurricane Maria in 2017.

    “When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico and we had an influx of students from Puerto Rico, we weren’t foreign to English learners, but the state and local districts had to grapple with what do you do when you get an influx of English learners, especially into districts that are not equipped to serve English learners in the ways others like New London and Hartford are,” Soto said.

    Lina Agudelo, the new president of New London’s Hispanic Alliance, an organization that aims to advance Hispanic contributions in the southeastern Connecticut community, also commented on issues facing Latino and Hispanic people locally and statewide.

    “Immigration can be considered the top of our concerns when it comes to policy, but in reality, education is equally as important. The economy is equally as important. There is a very high number of Latinos who are entrepreneurs. The economy has a direct affect on their lives and their businesses,” Agudelo said.

    Political engagement

    Rojas said efforts to foster political engagement among Hispanic and Latino people break both ways.

    “Both locally and at the state level, there needs to be more Latinos who choose to run for office. Power and influence are never given away, you have to go take them,” Rojas said. “We also have to ensure that our systems that allow people to run for office are inclusive, are welcoming, and provide opportunities to these disparate groups to run.”

    Agudelo was mentored by the late Alejandro Melendez-Cooper, the Hispanic Alliance founder. Like her mentor, Agudelo is adamant about Hispanic and Latino representation in the region.

    “The Hispanic population is the second-largest minority group in the U.S. It’s growing and it continues to grow,” Agudelo said. “We have power, we have a voice, we have leadership, we have entrepreneurship, we have people from so many different backgrounds who can offer and provide leadership in politics.”

    That’s why, Agudelo said, it’s important to fight back against “this view of Latinos or Hispanics being considered foreigners without thinking of how long they have been here.”

    “That doesn’t really help when it comes to involvement and a feeling of belonging,” Agudelo said.

    Rojas and others said they hope for greater participation in the electoral process within the Latino community.

    “Surely there are pockets of real strong engagement, and I think there’s a lot of people who are aware, but there’s a difference between being aware and being active,” Rojas said. “What we need is more active engagement from the Latino community, but we also need elected officials to go out and give the community a reason to come out and vote.”

    Soto echoed Rojas, saying that to recruit Hispanic and Latino people to be in elected roles, “You have to go above and beyond what has been done in the past or what works for the general population.”

    “No matter what work we’re doing, we can’t just fold our arms and say, ‘Oh, Latinos don’t want to be involved,’” Soto continued. “We need to do an introspective look and say what are we doing to get Latinos involved and if they’re not involved what do we have to do differently?”

    Soto characterized the level of political engagement in the state among Hispanic and Latino people as a “chicken and egg situation.”

    “If Latinos voted in higher proportions then they would be taken more seriously. Or do you take them more seriously so they can vote in higher proportions?” Soto said. “When I got involved, that election was an example of, if you meet people where they’re at, then they will come out. We had a disproportionately high turnout for Latinos in an election, but that’s because we met them where they’re at.”

    Dual identities

    Agudelo is in the distinct position of being able to vote both in Colombia and the U.S. Agudelo has dual citizenship — she and her parents emigrated to the U.S. in 1999.

    “I hold some cultural and emotional ties to my native country, which is Colombia. I see myself as a person with dual identities,” Agudelo said. “I belong to the U.S. and I participate in community and civic and the government and voting activities. I also have this responsibility toward my family and the people I left behind in Colombia.”

    Agudelo said she thinks many Hispanic and Latino people who are not originally from the U.S. are more aware of politics and active politically in their home countries than in the U.S.

    “Especially for those who are first generation, I believe that there is strong involvement in their native countries because there is still that feeling of being a foreigner,” Agudelo said. “That starts to diminish as you have children, you raise families here, you start to have more ties to the country as time progresses. I think it happens to every culture when you leave behind a home, a family, and an entire life, you keep those ties.”

    s.spinella@theday.com

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