Saturday, August 23, 2008

Hispanic Commission - Make It Real

On Aug. 23, 2006, the City Council held its first regular meeting since the untimely passing of Council President Ray Blanco.

Blanco died on July 28, 2006 and with him died a degree of passion for serving the people that has seldom been seen since. Ray had a lot of ideas and was determined to reshape the governing body into a highly functioning group of legislators. He had already succeeded in seeing passage of the Civic Responsibility Act and the establishment of the Plainfield Advisory Commission on Hispanic Affairs.

It is this last legislation that Plaintalker would like to discuss today. The entire ordinance can be seen on Councilman Rashid Burney’s web site under Plainfield Codes, Boards and Commissions, pages 119 through 121.

The commission was to have seven members, including a mayoral appointee, a council member and five members of the public appointed by the mayor with the advice and consent of the City Council. No members were ever appointed.

One main duty of the commission was to advise the mayor and council on “the needs, concerns, accomplishments and contributions of the Hispanic community as well as the impact of legislation or the lack thereof and its effect on the Hispanic community.” This was supposed to be done by more or less taking its pulse through meetings with significant groups and leaders. The commission was charged with making an annual report to the mayor and council.

Four other aspects of the commission’s work were:
-To identify parts of city government which interact with the Hispanic community and to find ways to improve and expand services “through greater participation of qualified Hispanics in policy-making positions.”
-To improve communications among the mayor, administration, council and the Hispanic community by using available resources more effectively.
To identify and analyze important issues and recommend strategies for response in ways that encourage and support continued development of the Hispanic community.
-To educate Hispanic residents about opportunities to serve the community and to engender active participation on city boards, commissions and “political bodies.”

The most obvious start here would have been to appoint members to the commission.

At present, the council most often hears about concerns and needs of Hispanic community from Flor Gonzalez, president of the Latin American Coalition. Gonzalez attends almost every council meeting and speaks on issues ranging from the safety of the largely Latino taxi cab drivers in Plainfield to the plight of families whose breadwinners have been deported, leaving women and children without resources. The whys and wherefores of the latter situation can be debated indefinitely, but the fact is it is happening and affecting city residents.

As an individual, Gonzalez sees problems of the Hispanic community on a daily basis. One of her grimmer tasks has been to help identify homicide victims and arrange for burial in their native countries. On a happier note, she organizes an annual Latino festival.

Another woman in touch with the Hispanic community is Carmen Salavarrieta, a Piscataway resident who for a time served as one of the mayor’s greeters in City Hall. Salavarrieta takes toys and medicines to Central and South American countries ravaged by earthquakes or other disasters. She was involved in the housing discrimination case in Bound Brook that resulted in a $600,000 settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice. She is quick to bring attention to her causes through Hispanic media. But as Maria Pellum has reported in the Crescent Times, she has stirred some resentment among Plainfield Latino leaders because she doesn’t live in the city, yet political leaders showcase her at public events.

Flor and Carmen may be highly visible in different ways, but there are other Latinas and Latinos in leadership roles. Pellum often uses her blog to advocate for more understanding of Hispanic concerns in the schools and Renata Hernandez is president of Parents Empowering Parents. Christian Estevez serves on the Board of Education. There are others on city boards and commissions, but given the increasing Latino population, is there enough representation? Of the incoming kindergarten class in 2007-08, 55 percent came from Spanish-speaking households. The Hispanic population stood at 25 percent in the 2000 census and surely has increased since then.

By ordinance, the commission is to be dissolved a year after U.S. Census reports show the Hispanic population has reached 45 percent and a minimum of 35 percent of city voters are Hispanic. It is intended to be a transitional tool. The population level may emerge in the 2010 Census, but at present only 10.1 percent of Latinos in New Jersey are registered voters, so the proportion of 35 percent in Plainfield may take longer. Click here for a report from the Pew Hispanic Center.

Burney’s recent proposal to have city forms available in both English and Spanish met with criticism in online news forums. But other governmental entities already provide information and forms in Spanish, recognizing that recent immigrants need some help in getting acclimated to American society. Obviously, a non-English-speaking person can’t serve on the Planning Board, but might need to know the city’s rules for property maintenance.

Ray Blanco’s love for the city and its people shines throughout his political legacy. The Plainfield Advisory Commission on Hispanic Affairs is one part of that legacy. What we have now is two often-clashing figureheads and a smattering of others who represent the Hispanic community. What is the harm in honoring Ray by making the commission real, not just a piece of paper? How long can a vital and vibrant part of the Plainfield community be disregarded? Plaintalker awaits your opinions.

--Bernice Paglia


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ray Blanco was a hero to the optimistic,enthusiastic spirit of Plainfield. The Latino population as well as other immigrants of Plainfield have been the saving grace of the Queen City. Their vitality has brought enahnced commerce and revitaliztion of an old housing stock. When Ray passed this collective spirit softened. An activated PACHA would be a sign to all Plainfielders that there is an inclusive and compassionate citizenry and a government that is sensitive to the needs of all its people.

12:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, Bernice,

I am glad that you are bringing this issue to the forefront. I served as Ray's Campaign Manager when he ran for Councilman At-Large. Soon after he was sworn in, he proposed the Commission on Hispanic Affairs. I remember the contentiousness of the city council meeting in the spring of 2005 at which many people spoke out against the commission, some speaking out of profound ignorance, some who simply wanted to politicize the issue, and some out of plain old prejudice. I remember those of us who spoke in favor of the commission, and I was among those who were happy to see the commission established. Unfortunately, Ray passed before it had a chance to really get going. Some of those who opposed the commission advocated instead for the reactivation of the Human Relations Commission. I believe that was re-established (?) but I haven't heard anything about that commission, either. One of the things this administration said they would do was not allow boards and commissions to fall victim to inertia. Oh, well.


3:30 PM  
Anonymous Renata... said...

Hi Bernice - thanks for the mention, but I am most proudly an African American who is MOST PROUDLY married to a Puerto Rican who hails from Caguas, PR, and MOST of ALL I am PROUD to be the parent of and raising a Multicultural daughter who will be taught pride and passion for all of her ancestry.

4:48 PM  
Blogger Bernice said...

Hey Renata,
It crossed my mind while posting that you may be like me - a person with an Italian last name by marriage who is actually of Scotch-Irish-English descent.
I got the last name by marriage in 1958, had the choice in 1977 at my divorce to drop it but didn't, so still have the Italian last name.
While I was married, I certainly enjoyed learning a lot about Italian culture and especially food, but I do cherish my Celtic heritage most of all.

5:42 PM  
Anonymous Renata said...

LOL -- and so it is thus and so. My maiden name is a very non-descript (Smith)--go figure.

2:54 PM  

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