NEWS: Study Finds Latinos Underrepresented in City Government

latinosCommunity members parade down the street in East Somerville—where much of the city’s Latino population is concentrated—for Carnaval. Photo courtesy of East Somerville Main Streets.

In December, the Greater Boston Latino Network (GBLN) released a study on the lack of representation in the municipal governments of Boston, Chelsea and Somerville. The study, titled “The Silent Crisis,” found that while Latinos make up 10 percent of Somerville’s population, very few city positions are held by Latinos. Out of the 28 executive positions, none is held by a Latino person. (Portuguese-speaking Latin Americans from Brazil were not included in this study). Out of the 232 positions for city boards and commissions, only 4 appointments are Latino—a mere 1.7 percent.

Somerville’s Latino population differs from that of Chelsea or Boston, as it’s relatively small. In the past few decades, however, it’s been on the rise. During the 1980s, as violence swept through Central America, Somerville became one of many sanctuary cities. During that decade, the Hispanic population in Somerville quadrupled. This represented a trend across all non-white residents in the city. Between 1970 and 2000, Somerville went from being almost homogeneously white to having nearly a quarter of its population made up of black, Asian and Hispanic peoples. Somerville’s government, however, does not reflect these changes to its demographics.

“Usually, the city seems to look for white, middle-class people for these positions,” says Rene Mardones, the Lead Organizer at the Somerville Community Corporation, a group dedicated to preserving the city’s diversity and affordability. He notes that many board and committee positions are appointed by Mayor Joseph Curtatone’s office, and that Latinos are often passed over for these roles. For example, none of the appointees on the Union Square Redevelopment Civic Advisory Committee were Latinos from the community in question. “The city has a responsibility to open up to other groups … What we would like to see is more people from the community appointed to these committees.”

Map from the Silent Crisis

Map from the Silent Crisis

These committees have a huge effect on the future of Somerville’s neighborhoods, especially as the city moves forward. Take East Somerville, for example, where Somerville’s Latino population is largely concentrated. Housing costs in East Somerville have traditionally been lower, but over the past few years the neighborhood has seen a reduction in crime rates and overall improvements thanks to local organizations like East Somerville Main Streets. These changes have made the area more attractive as a whole, and especially to developers, which can lead to the displacement of lower income residents, which can include immigrants. As the GBLN study notes: “East Somerville is today the site of major developments such as Assembly Square Mall, new MBTA stops and the fastest rise in the cost of homes in the city.”

“The literature suggests that reflective representation in the bureaucracy matters a great deal,” says Jen Douglas, Ph.D., one of the study’s authors. The researchers looked into just how much representation, or a lack thereof, affected a community. One such study, on cultural subsets in multiracial Texas schools, found school systems that included more black and Latino teachers generally performed better on standardized tests. The higher scores were ubiquitous across racial lines, the study found.

Patricia Montes, the Executive Director of the immigrants’ rights organization Centro Presente, notes that the city is changing, which isn’t a bad thing. But, she says, the city needs to keep its more vulnerable population in mind. She’s seen the displacement of the Latino community in a very personal way: After six years in Somerville, Centro Presente was forced to relocate from East Somerville to East Boston last June due to rising rents.

“Hopefully this city can continue to change but still be able to sustain these immigrant and minority communities,” Montes says, “because we also want to live in a beautiful city, we also want to live in a clean city, but we also want to be able to afford it. It’s not an issue of wanting to stay but an issue of affording it.”

In response to the study, neighboring Boston created an Office of Diversity less than a month after it was published. The new office will recruit people of color to serve on boards and in leadership positions, and will also evaluate potential transfers. Led by Chief Diversity Officer Shaun Blugh, the department also promises to advocate fair policies for those communities and to accrue contracts with businesses owned by women and people of color.

It’s unclear if Somerville has similar plans at the moment; however, groups like the Somerville Community Corporation do run candidates for certain committees, and Mardones mentions organizations like The Welcome Project and the SCC’s own Leadership Development Instititute, which help immigrants not only adjust but excel in their new city.

Knowledge of and engagement in local politics will go a long way, too, says Montes. “We need to inform [Latinos], get them involved in the process and really teach them about the policies that can affect them.”

In the end, Latinos taking a proactive role will be just as vital to getting Latinos into office. As the study notes: “Recognizing that the simple inclusion of Latino persons in the bureaucracy is at once a fundamental and an insufficient step toward active representation, we conclude with strategy recommendations to maximize the potential for Latino city workers to become active representatives and for bureaucracies to transform in ways that serve Latino and all residents more effectively.”

This story originally appeared in our March/April 2015 print edition.

Clarification: An earlier version of this story referred to The Welcome Project as a program. It is actually a nonprofit organization. You can learn more about the work they do here.