Original URL: http://www.boston.com/dailyglobe2/265/metro/Latinos_see_major_gains_in_Bay_State_primaries+.shtml

Latinos see major gains in Bay State primaries

By Benjamin Gedan, Globe Correspondent, 9/22/2002

When the ballots were counted after last Tuesday's party primaries, Latinos throughout Massachusetts celebrated electoral milestones that analysts say mark a new high in the community's political influence.

Primary victories in Boston, Springfield, Lawrence, and Cambridge left four Latino candidates poised to make history as the most Latinos ever to serve together in the State House - including the first Latino senator. Currently, there are three Latinos in the House, but no senators.

Their successes, as well as Felix Arroyo's ascension as Boston's first Latino city councilor - filling the seat of Councilor Francis (Mickey) Roache when he takes office as Suffolk register of deeds - have cemented a consensus among community activists and political observers: In state politics, Latinos are finally making progress.

''The sleeping giant is waking up,'' said Antonia Jimenez, a member of the Latino Professional Network. ''We're becoming the swing vote.''

Between 1990 and 2000, the number of Latinos in Massachusetts jumped 50 percent, to 482,729, according to the US Census. Latinos now make up 7 percent of the Bay State population. The numbers are even more dramatic in urban areas like Boston, which now has 14 percent Latinos, and Lawrence, where the Latino population is 60 percent.

Early in the population boom, specialists say, Latinos remained uninterested in voting, and were often hesitant to run for office. Nationwide, only 20 percent of Latinos were even registered to vote in 1994.

But recently, things have started to change. As the young Latino population reaches voting age, community groups have launched citizenship and voter registration drives that are beginning to pay political dividends. By 2000, 35 percent of America's Latino population was registered to vote.

''It's a matter of time, I've been saying for a very long time,'' said Giovanna Negretti, executive director of Oiste, a Latino political organization.

Although statistics of Latino voter turnout in Tuesday's primary are not yet available, analysts say evidence of Latino influence was clear in the election results:

Two Democratic incumbents - Representatives Cheryl A. Rivera of Springfield and Jose L. Santiago of Lawrence - were nominated for reelection in heavily Democratic districts.

Jeffrey Sanchez, a former aide to Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, won a primary race to represent Mission Hill, Jamaica Plain, and sections of Brookline.

And state Representative Jarrett Barrios of Cambridge defeated two opponents in the hotly contested race for the Democratic nomination to fill the seat of retiring Senate President Thomas F. Birmingham, virtually assuring that four Latinos will serve simultaneously in the State House for the first time in Massachusetts history.

''We're not afraid to run anymore,'' said Laura Medrano, a vice president of the League of United Latin American Citizens. ''It shows that if we join forces, we can succeed.''

To Latino political organizers, the primary results validated years of grass-roots work, and with news of the Latino victories celebrated in Spanish-language newspapers, on radio and television shows, political activists say the motivation will last through the 2002 congressional elections.

''This is just the beginning of what we'll see in the years to come in elections in Massachusetts,'' said Jose Masso, a regional director for the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration. ''We're making history.''

Latino candidates say their community's interests mirror those of many working-class voters, but political observers say some Latinos are particularly interested in preserving bilingual education in public schools, a program threatened this November by the so-called Unz referendum, sponsored by California businessman Ron Unz.

''It's not just speaking their language, it's speaking the language of their issues,'' said Barrios.

While campaigning door-to-door, for example, Barrios reminded Spanish-speaking voters that he authored a bill placing translators in hospital emergency rooms. ''I'm a candidate who spoke to issues that were important to them, and for the first time in their native language,'' he said.

Two days after the primary, signs of increased political participation were evident, as a Latino community activist in Brighton announced his intention to join Arroyo on Boston's City Council by entering a special election to fill the seat of the late Brian Honan.

Following Tuesday's stunning victories, Arturo Vasquez would make no secret of his ethnicity.

''Where are you from?'' asked a bulky man with a bicycle helmet, leaning over a flimsy table perched last Thursday in a tree-covered slice of Brighton Park, where Vasquez held his first rally.

Vasquez could have answered ''Texas,'' where he moved when he was 8 years old. Or he might have said ''Brighton,'' where he has lived in a rented apartment on Commonwealth Avenue for 17 years. He chose neither.

''I was an immigrant,'' he said. ''I was born in Mexico.''

Yesterday, the momentum continued, when hundreds of Democratic activists gathered to hear US Senators Edward M. Kennedy and John Kerry speak at a rally at Faneuil Hall, and the sign-waving crowd was greeted in Spanish, with a wide-eyed Sanchez shouting ''buenos tardes'' (''good afternoon'') above whistles and cheers.

''Ron Unz,'' he said later, translating his speech, ''go back to Silicon Valley.''

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 9/22/2002.
Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.