The Growing Influence
of DC’s Latino Community
As early as July 2011 the New York Times was reporting that the black population of Washington DC was dropping below 50%. It has been the subject of numerous articles and conversations among city residents and the political classes. Symbolic though it may be the idea that the dominant racial group in the city is no longer a majority of the city’s population has profound implications. In discussions about who will lead the District in the future there are few African American figures who come to mind with the credentials and integrity necessary to lead and win a citywide election at this time.
Lost in these discussions is the fact that DC’s Latino community is suddenly a much more significant minority than ever before; estimates of the Latino population in DC reach somewhere around 10-12% of the general public. In the last primary election where close to 100,000 voters participated, roughly 10% of them were Spanish surnamed individuals. Joshua Lopez, the Latino candidate who ran in the special election on April 26, 2011, garnered 7% of the vote. In a city divided into roughly equal amounts of black and white voters who vote in clearly defined blocs, suddenly 7-10% of the electorate, united around common issues, a common language and culture can make all the difference in a citywide contest.
Latino voters in the District have also become more sophisticated. Franklin Garcia leads a contingent of 4 Latino delegates to the Democratic State Committee, most ever, and the DC Latino Caucus (DCLC) which he heads has been increasing in size and sophistication over the past decade. Young Hispanics moving into the city to work on Capitol Hill and the numerous non-profit and advocacy organizations are more savvy and involved than their parents. The New Latino Movement (NLM), an organization of young Latino professionals organized around progressive causes in the region, are involved in voter identification and registration as never before. Various Latino groups in the city are organizing forums to gauge the possibility of electing Latino candidates to citywide offices and the DCLC, NLM and Metrodiversity Foundation are organizing their second forum of the year with the Chief of Police. The first event that featured Nick Majett, Director of the DC Dept. of Regulatory Affairs was quite successful. You can watch a video of the entire activity >> here. <<
In all aspects of city life Latinos are at the forefront. Latino leadership can be found in most offices and public agencies and vocal, intelligent and informed Hispanics are present everywhere in the daily life of the District. This newfound prominence presents unique challenges and possibilities. Unity, a concept difficult and alien to our community, is on the lips of everyone who participates and aspires to greater inclusion in city affairs. Activists young and old are searching for vehicles and platforms to express themselves and powerful national and international organizations and political figures are curious and concerned about what goes on here. In this time of political uncertainty Hispanics in the District are poised to take on an increasingly visible role and function as the arbiters of what a new District will look like.
Washington’s Latino community is well established and includes numerous small business owners and a long standing middle class that remained in the city since the early 70’s. It’s also home to low and moderate income residents under great stress due to housing prices and the cost of living. Latinos were strong supporters of Marion Barry who during his period in government provided a great many opportunities to Latino owned businesses just starting up. He also increased support to community non-profits and had a number of talented Hispanics in his administration (full disclosure: this author served as a delinquency, drug and gang prevention counselor in his administration and also as a political appointee of Mayor Anthony Williams).
Since the Barry years District Latinos have always expressed majority support for our Mayors and become active and involved with a great many Councilpersons. This past Mayoral campaign, vocal and organized Latino contingents worked on both sides with the major candidates. Mayor Gray is considered a valuable friend to this community and has ties that date back to his time at Covenant House. His support remains strong and he continues to be a respected figure in leadership circles.
Whereas ties to the African American community are deep and long lasting, the relationships to the west side of the city and its majority white population are less so. The District’s Latino population remains concentrated in Wards 1 and 4 and increasingly on the eastern side of the city. The affinity to the African American community makes for natural political alliances. Veteran community activist and present Chair of the Commission on Latino Community Development, Roland Roebuck, put it succinctly when he said Latinos must; “understand and appreciate the political strategy of forming and nurturing ‘alliances’… engaging with other ethnic sectors… and providing badly needed transparent leadership for the overall benefit of the DC community.”
Above all for the political maturation of the Hispanic community in DC to bloom there has to be unity of purpose and intent and powerful leadership willing to place the collective good above personal ambition and gain. What is needed is leadership that listens, is comfortable with compromises and transparent; leaders who build on common themes and mobilize the base. Latinos must enunciate a vision of what they see for the future of our city/state and how that fits into the larger picture of what the District will look like over the next decades and how they can make that a better destiny for all.
My appreciation to Jose Gutierrez, Roland Roebuck and Franklin Garcia for their help with this story.