Are Philly Latinos waiting for a candidate to ‘grab their hearts?’

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Six of the seven canadates for the Philadelphia mayorial race came together for a debate on issues surrounding new immigrants in the city of Philadelphia. April 11th, 2015 Emily Cohen / For Newsworks

Six of the seven canadates for the Philadelphia mayorial race came together for a debate on issues surrounding new immigrants in the city of Philadelphia. April 11th, 2015 Emily Cohen / For Newsworks

Latino voters have a reputation of not turning out to vote, especially in local elections. The numbers are even lower than that of the general population, which isn’t exactly stellar in off-year races.

How can you explain that?  Is it poverty? Is it that few Latinos hold elected office? There are a lot of contributing factors.

Journalist and analyst Tom Ferrick, with the Next Mayor project says it’s not just about raw numbers.

“You don’t get taken seriously in this city unless you are seen as a power block,” Ferrick said. “That’s to the detriment of Latinos, because the power establishment says ,’They don’t vote. Why should we let them at the table?'”

Despite this, he predicts “Latinos are going to emerge as a political force that’s equal to their population [in Philadelphia].”

There are 188,000 Latinos in the city. Latino and Asian immigrants are fueling the city’ recent population growth.

It’s on display at naturalization ceremonies that take place every week.

Barriers to civic engagement

“One of their primary motivations is that they’ve been waiting years to vote and participating fully in the civic system,” said Tasha Keleman, executive director of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizens Coalition. The group has registered approximately 30,000 new voters with that program.

Most immigrants wait 10 to 15 years for citizenship. That’s a long time, and it gives immigrants a chance to grow cynical about how much good voting does. Casting a ballot is not mandatory in the U.S. as it is in many of their home countries. And then there’s the challenge that voting in general doesn’t translate immediately into action. And life intervenes, as it does with other Americans, causing complications that could delay or prevent people from showing up at the polls. Voting becomes more of an option than a civic duty.

Pedro Rodriguez, a community activist and Civil Service Commissioner, says that attitude is the first sign of voter disengagement. “The reason for that is many-fold but one of the them is the lack of attention the candidates pay to the community,” Rodriguez said. “And in the process of political elections, many Puerto Ricans and other Latinos feel marginalized.”

Looking for inspiration

In this election, the candidates have strategically taken the time and energy to address some Latino concerns. Also the presence of former judge Nelson Diaz as a candidate, may slowly start changing the rules of the game, in terms of voter engagement. If elected, the Puerto Rican would be the first Latino mayor.

Puerto Ricans, who are American citizens by birth, just have to register to vote. They constitute the largest Latino voting block in Philadelphia, but most of their daily issues have a lot in common with that of other Latinos. That was made clear at the first United Voices for Philadelphia forum on Saturday. The candidates heard wide-ranging questions from a diverse group of immigrants — about access to driver’s licenses, protection for students in schools, presence of immigration officials in police departments and prisons.

In Philadelphia, the issues that dominate these elections are education and jobs, but according to a recent Pew study among Latinos, crime is the big issue.

Crime and poverty go hand in hand, says community activist Rev. Adan Mairena, pastor of West Kensington Ministry at Norris Square.

“Forty-four percent of Latinos in Philadelphia live below the poverty line. That’s twice the national average and that is a very in-your-face issue that we struggle with on a daily basis,” Mairena said. “Without the resources to make a living, the trickle-down effect of that is crime and the lack of daily necessities.”

But for Mairena there’s also a less-tangible factor at play in this election: “What I want is a mayor that can articulate a dream and a vision that can inspire us to become politically engaged. I think a lot of us are not politically engaged because we haven’t met a candidate yet that has grabbed our hearts.”

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