Columnist

Damaso Seda: The unsung hero of Somos el Futuro

By Gerson Borrero |  

March 20, 2016 |  

Damaso Seda and Gov. Mario Cuomo.

When Latino lawmakers gather in Albany for this year’s Somos el Futuro spring conference, they will be standing on a foundation built by a man whose name they might not even remember: Damaso Seda.

Seda was born in Manhattan on April 17, 1938, to Puerto Rican parents. In the New York City of the 1930s, Puerto Ricans were openly discriminated against in all spheres of the societal structure just as much as “negroes” – as blacks were referred to at the time.

The city was a different place during that epoch. There was no reference to “Latinos” back then. It was Puerto Ricans who had to open the doors and in some cases tear down the walls for the Latinos of today. The Puerto Rican community in New York had no formal political power. Only one Puerto Rican had been elected to public office in the Empire State. As a matter of fact, when Óscar García Rivera Sr. was elected in 1937, a year before Seda was born, he became the firstpuertorriqueño to be elected to any office in the entire United States.

García Rivera’s candidacy for the state Assembly as East Harlem's representative garnered the support of Independent Democrats, labor unions and the American Labor Party, as well as the backing of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. A resident of Spanish Harlem, he served in the state Legislature as a Republican. García Rivera, like Seda, was also a labor leader.

But there weren't many role models for Seda back then. While he was proud of his ancestry, many Puerto Ricans, despite already being U.S. citizens when they arrived stateside, were focused on trying to assimilate almost as much as newcomers from faraway lands like Europe. For the Puerto Ricans who arrived here in the early part of the 20th century, their first-generation U.S.-born children faced a lot of prejudice.

Unlike García Rivera, Seda wasn't a Republican. Seda served in the U.S. Navy from 1955-59, then returned to New York. He started working for the transit system, fueling buses and providing maintenance to subway cars. He joined the Transport Workers Union, which Mike Quill founded in 1934, and was an active member of TWU Local 100.

Seda’s devotion to the union and labor activities didn't prevent him from becoming a part of the growing political class of Puerto Ricans, however. As a labor activist, he found ways to get involved with fellow Puerto Ricans seeking elected office in the state.

It’s not clear when Seda began his relationship with those legislators. The current Somos el Futuro conference website lacks historical information about the struggles and battles that paved the way for the organization’s present-day significance in the body politic in New York.

As a response to muddied boundaries separating the New York State Assembly Puerto Rican/Hispanic Task Force from the independent board of Somos el Futuro, papers were filed in the summer of 1991 with New York’s secretary of state. Seda's name was the first. 

The other six signatures belonged to the following individuals:

  • Roberto Rodríguez, who served on the New York City Council representing ElBarrio. He is also the father of Assemblyman Robert J. Rodriguez.
  • Luis Miranda, founder of the Hispanic Federation and current co-owner of MirRam Group.
  • Saúl Nieves, a lifelong community activist and retired labor organizer from Brooklyn.
  • Ramón Vélez, the legendary South Bronx leader.
  • Amalia Betanzos, an influential Latina.
  • Dennis Rivera, the longtime labor leader.

Of the seven individuals, only three – Miranda, Rivera and Nieves – are still alive.

In its state certificate of incorporation, Somos El Futuro Inc.’s founding purposes are defined as follows:

  • To act as a co-sponsor of conferences sponsored by the New York State Assembly Puerto Rican/Hispanic Task Force a.) to receive contributions from sponsors, b.) to receive funds from the sale of banquet tickets or booth space at the conference sponsored by the New York State Assembly Puerto Rican/Hispanic Task Force.
  • To award scholarships to students with any available monies not needed to meet expenses of conferences sponsored by the New York State Assembly Puerto Rican/Hispanic Task Force.

Seda’s is the only signature that appears on the official certified document dated Aug. 8, 1991, as the founding chairman of this newly incorporated group.

This specific part of the incorporation is under review again. While writing this piece, two sources said that due to the current concerns about appearances of impropriety, there will be updates to the specificity of boundaries and separation between the two entities.

Seda constantly promoted Somos el Futuro among organized labor groups, which in turn contributed to making the annual conference part of its calendar.

In 1993, Seda became president of TWU Local 100, representing 32,000 workers out of a transit workforce of 41,000. He was the first Puerto Rican/Latino transit worker to lead the men and women charged with keeping New York City's buses and subways up and running. The trailblazer died on April 25, 2000, at the age of 62.

Today, Seda’s numerous contributions to Somos are mostly unknown or ignored. The present was built on the past. This is often forgotten by those who don't know or acknowledge their own history.

“Somos el Futuro and Somos Uno owe a debt of gratitude to Damaso Seda,” said Mike Nieves, the founding secretary of the Somos board and its longest-serving member. “At a crucial time for the organization, he stepped up and provided leadership that allowed for this organization to be alive today.”

Gerson Borrero is editor-at-large at City & State and a frequent New York Slant contributor.

 

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