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What A More Diverse City Council Could Mean For Boston’s Latino Community

While canvasing through a Roslindale neighborhood in September 2019, Alejandra St. Guillen, left, listens to resident Radrigunda Marmanillo, speak about some of the issues in the area.  (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
While canvasing through a Roslindale neighborhood in September 2019, Alejandra St. Guillen, left, listens to resident Radrigunda Marmanillo, speak about some of the issues in the area. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

It’s easy to overlook municipal elections, particularly when headlines are saturated with national politics. Turnout is typically low; in Boston’s municipal election on Tuesday, only about 16.5% of all residents cast ballots. But who we send to City Hall matters. Mayors, city councilors and school committee members have decision-making power over local issues and questions that affect our everyday lives: Who can afford to live in the city of Boston? How do we ensure every child has an opportunity to excel in our public schools?

Given the authority vested in our local elected officials, Tuesday’s election represents a critical turning point for Boston. For the first time in the city’s history, women and people of color will represent a majority on Boston’s City Council — seven of its 13 members will be people of color; eight will be women. In one of the least affordable cities in the country, many of the winning candidates touted their records as housing activists, running grassroots campaigns focused on housing affordability, racial justice and economic inequality.

Boston has been a majority-minority city in the last two censuses and children of color comprise more than 85% of the students attending Boston Public Schools (BPS). We shouldn’t be surprised that diverse candidates won on platforms that prioritized issues pertinent to communities of color and immigrant communities.

We should be shocked that it took so long for Boston to get here.

Ricardo Arroyo (Simón Rios/WBUR)
Ricardo Arroyo (Simón Rios/WBUR)

The absence of Latinx representation in City Hall has been striking, and Tuesday’s election results are an important corrective. Regardless of whether Julia Mejia or Alejandra St. Guillen prevails in the recount, it will mark the first-ever election of a Latina councilor, as well as the first election of a Latino, Ricardo Arroyo, in several years.

Even though the push to reduce racial disparities has long been portrayed in Boston as a struggle between black and white residents — the busing battles of the 1970s or emblematic of that — Latinx residents now constitute about one-fifth of Boston’s population.

Just over 42% of BPS students are Latinx. Indeed, Latinx population growth is responsible for 92% of Boston’s population growth since 1980. Over the next two decades, this growth will be fueled more by domestic migration and natural population growth than international immigration, in part because the median age of these residents is over 10 years younger than the population at large. Latinx residents make up just shy of 15% of all workers in Suffolk County and 10% of all Boston business owners. And this population is incredibly diverse, encompassing Puerto Ricans, Salvadorans, Colombians, Mexicans, Brazilians and Guatemalans in neighborhoods throughout the city.

Despite these contributions to Boston’s population and economy, Latinx residents in Boston and the state fare worse than their white counterparts on almost every metric, from household income and homeownership, to education and access to leadership roles. Indeed, in early 2018, Massachusetts was ranked the worst state in the country by the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, for economic and social disparities between white and Latinx residents.

Julia Mejia, left, speaks with Carol and James Dryden about issues that concern them. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Julia Mejia, left, speaks with Carol and James Dryden about issues that concern them. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

If Latinx communities are shut out of political decision-making and civic leadership roles — and if they are unable to afford college tuition or a mortgage — these disparities, along intertwined racial and economic lines, will only worsen. But these disparities will not be meaningfully addressed if the Latinx community is ignored in conversations about education or economic development in Boston. Nor can they be solved if Latinx residents are excluded from political decision-making that affects their day-to-day lives.

Representation matters. When debating solutions to the crisis facing minority- and women-owned businesses (who receive less than 1% of city contracts), who has a seat at the table matters. When developments such as Suffolk Downs impinge on the Latinx community in East Boston, who is deciding makes a difference.

We can no longer treat diversity and inclusion in terms of the black-white binary that has plagued Boston’s racial politics for decades.

Indeed, given the primacy of housing to candidates’ campaigns, we would not be surprised if this Council prioritizes affordability, pushing for increased community engagement and transparency in development projects under Boston Planning and Development Agency review, which disproportionately displace immigrants and people of color. Since 2013 alone, 19 large residential projects have been approved in East Boston, of which Suffolk Downs is the latest and largest. These projects cannot be considered in isolation, but must be analyzed in the context of community needs in order to avoid yet another Seaport.

That two Latinx representatives will sit on the City Council means the growing Latinx community will have more allies, and more authority figures dedicated to correcting our lack of representation. The urgency cannot be overstated. Boston’s Latinx community is suffering. Consider the “severe” representation gap between Latinx students and teachers at BPS, or the Boston Police Department’s entanglement with federal immigration officials to apprehend and deport Boston residents.

We can no longer treat diversity and inclusion in terms of the black-white binary that has plagued Boston’s racial politics for decades. Instead, we must ensure that our political institutions fully reflect the communities they serve, so that Latinx students, workers and business owners can have a meaningful voice and full participation in Boston’s political and economic life.

All eight candidates for the four at-large seats on the Boston City Council participate in a debate on WBUR’s "Radio Boston." (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
All eight candidates for the four at-large seats on the Boston City Council participate in a debate on WBUR’s "Radio Boston." (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Editor's note: An earlier photo caption incorrectly stated Alejandra St. Guillen's position. St. Guillen initially conceded to Julia Mejia on Tuesday, but has since requested a recount. We regret the error.

Related:

Lauren Sampson Cognoscenti contributor
Lauren Sampson is the civil rights fellow at Lawyers for Civil Rights.

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Iván Espinoza-Madrigal Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Iván Espinoza-Madrigal is the executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights.

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