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Diossa’s win highlights Colombian-Americans’ emergence in Rhode Island’s political scene

December 11, 2012

James Diossa’s victory in the Central Falls’ mayoral race is part of a broader emergence of Colombian-Americans in Rhode Island’s political scene.

2002 was a political watershed for the broader Latino community — a time when the white establishment recognized the increasing electoral importance of the growing bloc of voters. Dominicans were out front — people like state Senator Juan Pichardo (the first Dominican-American state senator in the US) and state Representative Grace Diaz (whose election was part of her narrative of chasing the American dream.) Latino voters on Providence’s South Side emerged as a vital ally for the likes of Lincoln Chafee and David Cicilline, and Angel Taveras made history in 2010 as the first Latino mayor of Providence.

Diossa, 27, won a decisive victory Tuesday night over former police chief Joseph Moran. According to unofficial results, Diossa received 1076 votes, compared with 650 for Moran. (Diossa supporters expect him to widen his margin of victory once a few hundred mail ballots are counted.) Pichardo, Diaz, and Taveras were among those who joined in the celebration of the mayor-elect.

During a jubilant campaign victory at La Casona restaurant on Broad Street. Diossa thanked his supporters in English and Spanish, and asked Central Falls residents to help him in leading the state’s smallest city — which is emerging from a nationally publicized bankrupcty case — toward better times.

“Will you stay involved, will you join with me in cleaning up throughout the city, and mentoring our students, and making contacts to bring new businesses to our city, and coming to city council meetings? Will you stay involved and make this truly a government of the people again. Will you?”

The crowd of supporters responded by shouting in unison, “Yeah!”

Central Falls, a predominantly Latino city, didn’t elect a Latino city councilor until 2001, when Ricardo Patino (who is of Colombian heritage) won a seat.

So why are Colombian-Americans, led by Diossa, gaining more attention now?

Gonzalo Cuervo, deputy chief of staff for Taveras and a campaign adviser to Diossa, has an informed perspective on that since his father was part of the first wave of Colombians to settle around Central Falls in the early-mid 1960s, to work in local textile mills.

In an interview broadcast Wednesday on RIPR’s Morning Edition, here’s how Cuervo explains why Colombian political participation in Rhode Island has lagged behind that of Dominicans:

“The primary difference between Dominican-Americans and Colombian-Americans is really cultural: Dominican-Americans carry with them a very, very intense willingness to participate in politics because of the political reality of their country; politics is considered by most Dominicans to be a national sport, and something that people are very passionate about, particularly partisan politics.

“Whereas in Colombia — as in many South American nations — politics is viewed as something that is either very elite or very corrupt, and the average person who doesn’t have the opportunity to feel the immediate  impact of the political system tends to be very turned off by politics.

 The growing political participation of Colombians in Rhode Island can be seen in activists like Cuervo and Anna Cano Morales, among others, and candidates like Sandra Cano (the top vote-getter in a race for an at-large school committee seat in Pawtucket) and Carlos Tobon, who almost unseated state Representative William San Bento of Pawtucket.

There are about 15,000 Rhode Islanders of Colombian heritage, most of them concentrated in the Blackstone Valley. Cuervo calls them the state’s fourth-largest subgroup of Latinos, after Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and Guatemalans.

While Colombians have had a level of involvement in local politics for some time, Cuervo explains their growing profile this way:

“The process of Colombian-Americans getting [more] involved in politics has been more a virtue of a new generation of Colombians who are bi-cultural and who are becoming interested in making a difference in their communities.”

That time-honored impulse toward civic engagement is part and parcel of small-d democracy.

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