News & Opinion » News

Latino Rochester: pride and power


Don't be too hard on yourself if you don't remember, but the City of Rochester has already had its first Latino mayor. City Commissioner Carlos Carballada filled the office for a blink-and-you-missed-it period of time in 2011, when everyone was arguing over the legal process to replace former Mayor Bob Duffy. (Duffy won election as lieutenant governor and eventually a special election was set to select his replacement).

Carballada says he's proud of his Spanish and Peruvian heritage, but that he didn't give the milestone a thought until a reporter brought it up.

Though Carballada grew up in a household with deep ethnic roots, assimilation into a largely Anglo-American society was what his mother wanted most for her two sons. She pushed them to speak proper English.

"She would say, 'Work hard today and tomorrow will take care of itself,'" Carballada says. "It's still the best advice I've ever received."

Carballada represents one end of the spectrum of the Rochester area's rich Hispanic-Latino community: immigrants and their first-generation children who have attained nearly every measure of success. They've become CEO's, doctors, engineers, attorneys, politicians, and teachers — often leaving the city to join the middle class in the suburbs.

But a large portion of Rochester's Latino community still struggles in poverty: living in crime-ridden neighborhoods, and filling low-paying laborious jobs in agriculture, construction, food service, and housekeeping.

For many Latinos, the move to the continental US mirrors the path taken by earlier European immigrants: a journey from humble beginnings in chaotic homelands. And even though some Latinos say Rochester's second-largest minority group has made enormous strides, others say the community needs new leaders who will inspire and drive much-needed change.

Either way, Rochester's Latino community is clearly a significant factor in the city's diversity and economic success. But the community's struggle to move further into mainstream America while retaining its unique cultural identity presents a challenge for young and old.

Rochester's Latino community is obviously not as large as some cities in the Northeast or Southwest, but its growth reflects a national trend occurring in many urban areas. According to the US Census, the number of Monroe County residents identifying as Latino or Hispanic in 2000 was 39,065 or 5.3 percent of the population. The community not only grew to 54,005 in 2010, but it increased to 7.3 of Monroe County's total population.

Most Rochester-area Latinos, nearly 35,000, live in the city. And the majority, nearly 28,000 according to the 2010 Census, is Puerto Rican. Some arrived on the US mainland in the late 1800's, but the migration began in earnest in the 1940's and continued through the 1990's, according to Julio Saenz, author of "Images of America-Rochester's Latino Community."

Rochester school board member Jose Cruz's family left the island in the 1950's when he was 18 months old. Before moving the family to Buffalo and then to Rochester, Cruz's father found work on a Florida farm operated by food giant Campbell.

"My story is pretty typical of many, many [Puerto Rican] families who came here at that time," Cruz says. "We were able to create this hybrid culture where kids like me grew up in two worlds. We'd be having a regular day in school, and then go home and have rice and beans. And never the two shall meet."

Puerto Ricans, who were American citizens by then, were hindered by many of the same challenges faced by other immigrant communities, Cruz says, and self-reliance was akin to survival.

"We looked different from everyone else, we ate different foods, and we had different customs," he says. "[And] there weren't as many agencies to help people like there are today. There weren't many Latino doctors or lawyers, so you really had to develop this matrix of people who could provide these services."

The interdependence within the community grew out of necessity, Cruz says. He says his family was fortunate because his father learned to speak English.

"My father had this knack, he was actually very proficient in English," Cruz says. "So people like business owners and farmers would ask him to help with translation."

The Spanish language is something Latinos have in common regardless of where they are from, Cruz says: language acts as a unique bond.

"It's important to remember that 'Latino' is a very broad brush," he says. "We come from many places and we're not the same. But one of the things that really helps our communities — whether it's Puerto Rican, Dominican, Cuban, or one of the Latin American countries — is that we're all bound by the same language. So you could go to any one particular house, it doesn't matter where we've come from, and we're able to communicate with each other almost 100 percent of the time."

Rochester City Council member and businesswoman Jacklyn Ortiz was born in the continental US, but her mother was born in Puerto Rico, and her grandmother was Mexican. She says that the Latino community in Rochester has had several periods of growth, and that the community today is definitely in transition.

"At this moment, we're on the rise again," Ortiz says. "And it's not just from a population standpoint; it's happening from a cultural awareness standpoint, too." Ortiz says the wider public is much more familiar with Latino foods, customs, music, and artists than it used to be.

Rochester school board member Melisza Campos says her mother was the only member of her family who graduated from college. But more first- and second- generation Latinos are earning college degrees, running businesses successfully, and assuming positions of higher responsibility today.

"I think our community is progressing economically and politically," Campos says.

Many Latinos organized support for former Mayor Duffy's election, she says, and the community can become a game-changer when it's engaged.

"I think we have to harness this opportunity we have and make it even more powerful," she says. "And we can do that by raising our voices where there is an issue."

One extremely sensitive local and national issue for many Latinos is immigration. Immigration reform became a highly contentious political issue during the 2012 presidential election, with Democrats supporting a path to citizenship for the approximately 12 million noncitizens living in the US. The majority are believed to be Latinos, many living here discretely for decades.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said during the campaign that people who are here illegally should voluntarily deport themselves. Romney later conceded that the comment probably alienated many Latino voters.

"I think honestly it's horrendous," Ortiz says. "How many people in this country can say that they or their families, or however you want to describe it, were here from the beginning? Rarely can anyone say that."

Ortiz and many Latinos say it's a matter of fairness. Ortiz says she has trouble understanding why millions of Europeans were allowed to come to the US years ago, and when Mexicans and other Latinos come here for the same reasons — searching for a better life — they're treated differently.

"What is the difference?" she asks. "Who are politicians to say, 'Sorry, the doors are now closed. I got mine. My family is here.' I don't care how long you've been here and how many generations [of your family] are here, you have no right to say that it was OK for my descendants and family to come here, but yours can't."

Former Monroe County Legislator Saul Maneiro, whose family came to Rochester from Puerto Rico by way of Brooklyn, likes to say he's a "New Yorican." And he says he's especially proud that a lot of Puerto Ricans are at the forefront of immigration reform efforts.

Maneiro says he's concerned that earlier groups of people who came to the US seem to have forgotten what that experience was like.

"They were once in that position where people distrusted them and there was fear and xenophobia," he says. "You know there was a certain point when pizza and bagels went from being ethnic cuisine to being on every other corner."

Equally concerning to many Rochester Latinos is the community's ongoing struggle against poverty. While it's true that many Latinos have achieved success in almost every area of the private sector, politics, and academia, some city officials say the Latino community is the Rochester area's poorest. In a 1989 report, 37 percent of Monroe County's Latino community lived at or below the poverty line, compared to 32 percent of the African-American community, and 7 percent of whites.

And according to a 2011 US Census American Community Survey, the situation is still grim. The median family income for Latinos living in Rochester at that time was about $27,000. More than 1,300 Latinos under age 18 had no health insurance. And more than 5,000 between ages 18 and 64 were not covered.

Poverty seems to create more poverty, Maneiro says. And ironically, it's expensive to be poor, he says.

"The cost of things tends to multiply when you're poor," he says. "If a person has bad credit, everything becomes more expensive to them. When you have a person with bad credit coupled with low income, their resources are extremely strained."

A major contributing factor to the Latino community's challenges with poverty, says school board member Campos, is lack of education. When immediate family members have a college education, it changes the trajectory for the next generation, she says.

Campos recalls a conversation she had with a group of young Latinas in a city school fifth grade.

"I asked them what their goals were," she says. "They all had the same goals as you would expect from girls that age: going to college, having a great career, getting married, and having a family. When I asked what gets in their way, one young Latina stood up and said, 'I can't even do my homework because I'm too busy watching my brother and sister.'"

The mother worked nights, so the young girl had to do the cooking, cleaning, and laundry.

The young girl is resilient, Campos says, but the distraction from her homework and the lack of educational support at home for all three children put them at risk for a life of poverty.

And many parents take their children out of school to return to Puerto Rico to visit family for a week or more, Campos says, not realizing how far it can put their children behind academically.

While the graduation rate for students in city schools hovers around 50 percent, it's even lower for African American and Latino males. A major problem waiting for these students is the transformation under way in the US economy, says city schools Superintendent Bolgen Vargas. (Vargas came to the US from the Dominican Republic when he was in his teens.)

There was a time when a young person with a limited education could get a decent job, Vargas says, but today even most entry level positions require some math and computer skills.

Education is more than just a pathway to a better job, Vargas says: it is essential.

Ask a group of Rochester Latinos to name some of the community's most important leaders, and many familiar names come up. But the Rev. Laurence Tracy is among the community's most highly regarded figures. For about 50 years, the Roman Catholic priest has worked and lived in what he calls the city's east-side barrio. The walls of Tracy's small apartment off North Clinton Avenue near Upper Falls Boulevard are covered with small plaques in both Spanish and English recognizing his community involvement.

Tracy says he's deeply concerned about the city school district's low graduation rates. He has worked with multiple generations of Latinos who have struggled with poverty, often from cradle to grave. And he attributes some of the problem to a lack of new leadership in the Latino community.

"In the 1960's and 1970's, we had some charismatic people," he says. "We don't have that kind of leadership today. Just because you have people who have been elected into office or have achieved success, doesn't mean you have charismatic leaders. You have people in political jobs."

He credits the work of Latinos like retired city commissioner Julio Vasquez for building community awareness and engagement around a wide range of issues from employment to education.

"We had pickets and marches, and we brought about needed change," he says.

Those efforts resulted in the introduction of bilingual education into the city school district's curriculum and the creation of the Ibero-American Action League. The human service agency remains at the heart of the community.

He says the difficulty for many activists and community leaders is that upward mobility sometimes leads to a disconnect from the community. And he includes his own work in the criticism.

"What's hard is not being clinical and detached," he says. "I challenge myself to be personal and compassionate to a lot of people who are in pain and suffering. You've got to remain involved with advocacy. You deal with tragedy by dealing with the structural causes of that tragedy."

"It's important to remember that 'Latino' is a very broad brush." Jose Cruz

Poverty seems to create more poverty. And ironically, it's expensive to be poor. Saul Maneiro