Ethnic labels and the political power of Puerto Ricans

By Eddie Borges |  

March 18, 2016 |  

(Philip Kamrass / Governor's Office)

Gov. Andrew Cuomo seems to be one of the few people in U.S. politics and the media who understands the vital political difference between Puerto Ricans, Hispanics and Latinos. After all, Italians and our Spanish ancestors have been working in partnership since Queen Isabella named Christopher Columbus to lead her navy in search of a new trade route to India.

And Cuomo has drawn on this significant expertise to name as secretary of state Rossana Rosado, who was formerly publisher of El Diario/La Prensa and most recently a distinguished lecturer in Latin American studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Cuomo’s decision to name a Puerto Rican – the second under his administration and the state’s fourth straight – to the top administrative position in New York has not drawn much scrutiny. But the political significance of this appointment should not be ignored in light of national politics and more local politics in New York City, especially as, despite a significant Hispanic population, we never gained equivalent elective power.

But for Puerto Ricans, this appointment to the state’s chief administrative job is hard-earned political payback for 30 years of loyalty and service to the Cuomo family, who have long recognized Puerto Ricans as citizens who vote Democratic as loyally as New York’s Irish, Italians and Jews before them.

It started with Tonio Burgos. He came out of a powerful East Harlem Puerto Rican political machine to be an early supporter of Bobby Kennedy. Later, he threw in his lot with Mario Cuomo early in his political career and went on to become the new governor’s all-powerful appointments secretary.

Yet somehow, in recent years, Puerto Rican power has been diminished because of the use, and misuse, of the more generic Hispanic and Latino ethnic labels of the last couple of decades. And, no, it’s not just semantics.

I cringe every time CNN – or even The New York Times – references “Hispanic-Americans.” All Hispanics are American. Hispaniola was the name the Spanish gave the Caribbean island that the Pinta, the Niña, and the Santa María, landed on in 1492. The people that would populate most of this land conquered and ruled by Spain would be Hispanic. So while all Americans may not be Hispanic, all Hispanics are American.

Then in recent decades was born “Latino.” I’m not even going to bother with the etymology of that dreadful label, which has done nothing but sow confusion and is at the root of the diminishing of hard-earned political power for Puerto Ricans in New York, Philadelphia and Chicago; Dominicans in New York; Cubans in New Jersey; and Mexicans in the Southwest.

This is why in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio could be surprised at his lack of Puerto Rican and Dominican support during his re-election campaign. His appointment of Carmen Fariña, the daughter of Spanish immigrants, as schools chancellor, and Herminia Palacio, a Cuban-American, as deputy mayor for health and human services, won’t get him a plate of rice and beans in Puerto Rican strongholds like the South Bronx, or mangú in Dominican neighborhoods like Washington Heights.

Even nationally, Republicans don’t seem to understand that merely having a Cuban-American or a Cuban-Canadian at the top of their ticket won’t get them the support among U.S. Hispanics that they have been pursuing for years.

But Andrew Cuomo understands the nuances of Hispanic heritage. And while we remain severely underrepresented among state and city employees, putting Rossana Rosado, who has worked as a reporter, editor and publisher at the city’s principal Spanish-language daily newspaper for more than 30 years, behind his father’s old desk in the secretary of state’s office will ensure that the concerns of the poorest and most vulnerable citizens of the state and city will be heard.

And New York’s Puerto Rican voters will likely reward that recognition in the voting booth, as they have for the Cuomos time and time again. That’s just good old-fashioned New York ethnic politics.

Eddie Borges is directing a documentary about Mexican and Puerto Rican childhood poverty in New York City.

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