Ranks of Latino elected officials growing

Two members of the school boards in Marion and Auburn are part of a growing number of Latinos elected to offices throughout New York state.

In 2006, Assemblyman Peter López became the first Latino from north of New York City to win a seat in the state Legislature, having previously served as town supervisor of Scoharie, according to Michael Fondacaro, editor of "Noticias y Notas," an online newsletter about Hispanics in New York and New England. And last year, Brockport Mayor Connie Castañeda became the second Latina to become a mayor in New York state.

Such political representation continues to increase, according to information from Assemblyman Feliz Ortiz, chairman of the Puerto Rican & Hispanic Task Force, at http://somosny.org. On the state level, Hispanics represent 12 members of the Assembly and six in the Senate. Following November’s elections, the total number of Latinos holding elected office stands at 140, Fondacaro said.

"If another Latino will be elected north of the Hudson Valley, by all rights it should come from Rochester, which remains far ahead of the curve when it comes to Latino political infrastructure in New York north of the Hudson Valley," Fondacaro noted.

With the Census data showing Latino population growth in 57 of the state’s 62 counties — including Monroe — Hispanic political power should continue to grow, Ortiz stated. Locally, Latino elected representatives also include Rochester school board members José Cruz and Melisza Campos as well as City Councilwoman Jackie Ortiz.

"(However) while there will continue to be Latinos elected, don’t look for a succession of Latino mayors and town supervisors along Route 104 from Niagara Falls to Williamstown anytime soon," he remarked. "What we do have in the cases of the elections of these officials to any office — mayor, town supervisor and school board included — is that for the particular area, these are the right candidates coming along at the right time."

Earlier this year, Jose Hernández became the first Latino elected to the school board in Marion. Eli Hernández — no relation — serves on the Auburn school board and is the first Latino of Puerto Rican heritage to be elected to the board, while a fellow board member is of Mexican heritage, he said.

"I’m proud of that," said Eli Hernández. "I wear my culture … on my sleeve."

The fact that he is a Latino and was well-supported by parents and students throughout the district is another point of pride, he added. He moved to Auburn in 2001 and worked as Spanish teacher for a decade.

Serving as a role model has always been important to him because he grew up without a father in his life, he explained.

"Being us (Latino) was not a good thing," he said. "I experimented in straightening out my hair and trying to be something other than me. That was a struggle for my brother and I."

Those negative perceptions changed when he went off to Oswego College and became part of a Latino fraternity, said Eli Hernández, a Puerto Rico native.

"I became a different person," he noted. "Being Puerto Rican and being a Latino is a beautiful thing."

His college experience also helped him see the importance of "doing the right thing" because one’s actions reflect not only the person but others’ perceptions of Latinos, Hernández explained.

"I’m no longer just a father, husband … adjunct professor, teacher, school board member," he noted. "I’m all those things. … But most importantly, I’m Latino."

Eli Hernández, 38, said he credits his mother for her example of service to others as well as her focus on education and faith for setting him on the road to success. He and his three siblings graduated with bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

He and his wife have two young children, and he said he strives to balance family life with his job as a school administrator in Syracuse, an adjunct professor at LeMoyne College, his volunteer work as president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and school board service.

"I’m happy just to be … of service to the community and to be a role model," he said. "You can make a difference."

Diversity in government is important, noted Jose Hernández, and he is proud to be the first Latino elected to the Marion school board.

His father moved to the Wayne County area as a migrant worker and his parents met and married in Newark, where Jose Hernández was born. He and his wife moved to Marion in 1992 for the schools, explained and he works for the Wayne County Highway Department. Both of his children are now in high school.

So, the move to run for school board seemed a natural progression for him, he added.

Since taking office in July, he said that the school board position requires a lot of reading and preparation, but he is happy to be giving back to the community. His experiences as a parent provide an important perspective for the school board, he added.

"The biggest thing was to bring the school and the community back together like a family," remarked Hernández, 45. "All the board members … have (something) to bring to the table."

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