Latinos have lived in the District for decades without having elected one of their own to the D.C. Council but efforts are underway to see that could become a reality soon.
There are six Latinos running for the D.C. Council in the Nov. 3 general election. Five of them — Alexander Padro, Claudia Barragan, Monica Palacio, Mario Cristaldo and Franklin Garcia — are candidates for the independent at-large council seat while the sixth, Martin Miguel Fernandez, wants to represent Ward 2 on the District’s legislative body.
The Latino candidates, whether citywide or for a ward, face an electorate where their ethnic population won’t be dominant. Census data indicates 11.3 percent of the District’s population consists of Latinos, people of Central and South American origin as of July 2018. Nearly a quarter of District Latinos, 24.4 percent, are of Salvadorian descent, followed by in measurable numbers Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Cuban, Colombian and Guatemalan.
In the District, Latinos live largely in the Northwest quadrant in Ward 4, with a 21 percent population and Ward 1, 20 percent and have a strong presence in neighborhoods such as Ward 1’s Adams Morgan, Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights and Ward 4’s Petworth and Mid-16th Street. In the overwhelming majority Black Wards 7 and 8 located east of the Anacostia River, Latinos make up three percent in both.
Despite the low percentage of residents, a few Latinos have been elected as advisory neighborhood commissioners since the advent of Home Rule in 1973; however, few have been elected to other positions. Frank Shaffer-Corona, a Latino, won election on the D.C. School Board as an at-large member in 1978 and served until 1982, according to the D.C. Board of Elections. In 2004, Victor Reinoso won the District 2 seat on the D.C. School Board representing Wards 3 and 4. In 2014, voters elected Garcia as the shadow U.S. representative and he won reelection in 2016 and 2018.
In 2006, Garcia and a few other Democratic political activists founded the D.C. Latino Caucus in order to articulate issues of concern to Brown elected leaders in the city.
“The D.C. Latino Caucus has hosted candidate forums and issue endorsements through the years as a means to empower our community,” Garcia said. “We also have two seats on the D.C. Democratic State Committee and through those seats we make sure our voices are heard.”
Charles Wilson, the chairman of the D.C. Democratic State Committee, said the D.C. Latino Caucus has a strong voice in the party.
“We have become dependent on their efforts regarding outreach and we support what they do,” Wilson said.
Garcia said he realizes five Latino candidates running for the at-large council seat could create a troublesome logjam for Brown voters, possibly dividing the vote and diluting Brown voter strength.
“We may need to consolidate as the Nov. 3 general election date gets closer,” he said. “Those Latino candidates who don’t have a chance should coalesce behind someone who does.”
Garcia said Latinos have issues that block their political potency. He said even though 11 percent of the city’s population consists of Latinos, immigration status means 40 percent of that population aren’t eligible to vote. Garcia said ideas in the past to have council representation, such as a proposed Latino ward 10 years ago consisting of neighborhoods in Wards 1 and 4 wouldn’t work presently because Latinos live are all over the city, “not just in the two Northwest wards.”
Fernandez said there should be at least one Latino on the D.C. Council, based on the legislative chamber having 13 members at a time when the Latino share of the city’s population exceeds 10 percent.
“We are not represented as a group on the Council,” he said. “Ward 1 and Ward 4 have a heavy number of Latinos but my ward is 12 percent Latino. I am the only candidate in my race whose website and campaign literature are in Spanish and English. I feel an affinity for my community but identity isn’t everything to me. I am not a gimmick. I want people to know I have the back of Latinos and the community now and on the council. Plus, as someone who was raised in D.C. and understands its history, I know about the unique relationship between Blacks and Latinos in this city and how we can work together to get things done for our peoples.”
Howard University political scientist Michael Fauntroy said Latinos are a growing force in the city and those non-Latinos tied to the past must change.
“People in D.C. have to understand that the Black-White paradigm has disappeared,” Fauntroy said. “We are living in a multi-racial city and a multi-racial country. It is no longer just Black or White and people need to adjust to that.”
Fauntroy said the Latinos should engage with other groups such as Asians and the LGBTQ community to achieve their goals instead of relying on African Americans exclusively.
“When Black people used to run for office in this city, it was always taken for granted that Latino support would follow,” he said. “That is not the case anymore, Black politicians will have to earn the votes of Latinos and Latinos must learn to bargain with Blacks or anyone else to get what they want.”