Latinas become a factor in Seattle politics

A candidate for City Council and a candidate for School Board signal emergence for a minority among minorities.
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Seattle City Council candidate Venus Velázquez (top) and Seattle School Board candidate Maria Ramirez.

A candidate for City Council and a candidate for School Board signal emergence for a minority among minorities.

Among the interesting aspects of the generally unremarkable primary election on Aug. 21 was the success of two starkly different but well-qualified Latina candidates in Seattle races. Public affairs consultant Venus Velázquez, running for the seat on the City Council to be vacated by Peter Steinbrueck, cruised to the general election to face Bruce Harrell, receiving 43 percent of the vote in her race against four opponents. Meanwhile, Maria Ramirez, co-director of the advocacy group Campaña Quetzal, advanced in the primary for Seattle School District board position 6 to face Steve Sundquist.

The success of Velázquez and Ramirez comes as the historically small Latino populations in the Seattle metropolitan area are on the rise. The Latino population of Seattle has seen steady growth: from 3.7 percent of the city's inhabitants in 1990 to 5.3 percent in 2000 and 6.3 percent in 2005. Meanwhile, populations in many suburbs - particularly those south of Seattle - are much larger: In 2000, Latino populations stood at 10.7 percent in Burien, 13.6 percent in Tukwila, and 13.0 percent in SeaTac. To the north, Everett has seen its Latino population grow from 7.1 percent in 2000 to 9.3 percent in 2005.

Even these numbers, however, may not display the full magnitude of the demographic change. School district enrolments in the Seattle area show consistently higher percentages of Hispanic students than in the population at large. As of October 2006, 11.3 percent of students enrolled in the Seattle School District were Latino. In the Highline School District, which encompasses Burien, Des Moines, SeaTac, and Normandy Park, Latino students account for 23.6 percent of total enrollments. Statewide, Latino enrollments are growing faster than any other ethnic group in a large majority of school districts.

The first local instances of organized Latino political activism occurred during the late 1960s and early 1970s, spurred by student activism, the gains of the civil rights era, and the Chicano movement. Students at the University of Washington, many of whom came to campus from the farm fields of the Yakima Valley, started activist groups that coalesced into a local chapter of the national organization Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (MEChA). The wave of activism culminated in 1972 with the occupation of the unused Beacon Hill School building by a group led by Roberto Maestas. After a months-long standoff, the activists were allowed to lease the property from the Seattle School District for a nominal fee. They turned the school into El Centro de la Raza, a community center and support organization for the Latino community. It continues to play a central role in the city, both as a service provider and an activist haven; meanwhile, Maestas remains an influential leader in local Latino politics.

Following the creation of El Centro de la Raza, much of the energy that animated Latino activists shifted to a new direction. An array of new community organizations arose over the next two decades, many of them founded by veterans of the Beacon Hill School takeover and the student activist movements. Among the most successful is Sea Mar, a non-profit health organization directed by Rogelio Riojas, a veteran of the student activist movements and the creation of El Centro de la Raza. Founded in 1978, it now runs clinics in Seattle, Burien, Bellingham, Everett, Tacoma, and several other cities around Washington.

Despite Sea Mar's success both as a health-care provider and as an incubator of leaders, it has attracted comparatively little attention. CASA Latina, founded in 1994, has been far more prominent, in no small part because its services are oriented toward immigrants and day laborers. Currently, it runs a facility for day laborers centered in Belltown, which helps workers meet prospective employers and provides social services. In 2005, the organization considered a move to a site in the Rainier Valley formerly occupied by Chubby and Tubby; it ran into fierce opposition from residents and business owners in the area, and CASA Latina dropped the plans after finding that the site would have required extensive and costly refurbishments and upgrades. Earlier this year, the organization purchased a site in the Central Area, though it has again faced resistance from new neighbors.

Within the non-profit and activist world, a great deal of effort has focused on education. Statewide, the Latino/a Educational Achievement Project, founded in 1998, has advocated for the needs of Latino students. Within Seattle, education activists have focused on funding cuts to Proyecto Saber, a tutoring program for Latino students, and on raising student achievement. Maria Ramirez says that Campaña Quetzal originated in the concerns of a group of activists over the decline of Proyecto Saber, which she says has been "limping along with little support." Rather than allow the energy focused on this specific issue to dissipate, the group formed Campaña Quetzal and created a comprehensive plan for improving the position of Latino students in the Seattle Public Schools. Currently, Ramirez co-directs the organization with Adrian Moroles, a veteran of Sea Mar.

Ramirez doesn't have a background in specifically Latino community work; Campaña Quetzal has been her first foray into the field. A project manager at the King County Housing and Community Development Program, Ramirez became involved in education through working on parent-teacher associations and sitting on a district-wide committee on the racial achievement gap, before teaming up with Moroles and other activists to create Campaña Quetzal. Asked why she jumped into the school board race, Ramirez says that she thought the race "was lacking a candidate who really understood education" and cites her work on the achievement gap, bilingual education, and special education.

Though political activists and the institutions they have created remain strong, an increasing number of leaders has arisen from the business and professional world. The steady growth of the Latino population has resulted in an increasing array of economic institutions. Locally, the first major force for economic development in the Latino community was the Washington State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (WSHCC), founded in 1983 and focusing on helping small businesses. Aside from its economic development work, the chamber has also helped to produce politically talented leaders, including Velázquez and state Rep. Phyllis Kenney, D-Seattle.

An additional sign of the growing economic and demographic power of the Latino community came in 2006 with the launch of Plaza Bank, the first local bank created to serve Latinos. Two board members of the bank, Mike Sotelo and Pedro Celis, illustrate a different side of the networks of political and economic power growing within the Latino community. Sotelo comes from the construction industry and serves as president of the WSHCC board of directors. Velázquez, who has worked with Sotelo on projects in the past, says that he has emerged as "one of our most important community leaders," noting his role in fostering economic institutions and in supporting non-profit organizations. Celis, a software engineer at Microsoft, is the president of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly as well as a member of the WSHCC board.

Venus Velázquez is situated in something of a middle ground between the business and professional leaders and the activists. She grew up in St. Louis and came to Seattle in 1991 to study for a master's degree at the University of Washington. She says that her first forays into the local Latino community came via El Centro de la Raza, and she has worked with a dizzying array of groups and organizations. She says she both benefited from and was hampered by coming from outside. "I didn't know the landmines," she says, noting that there exist many personality struggles within the community.

Though she has worked with activist groups on many issues, Velázquez says that she differed from them in terms of style, wryly noting that she isn't one for demonstrations. Instead, she found her niche through working as a public affairs consultant, which allowed her to combine her professional career with community work and her personal values. This combination was in evidence most prominently in 2005, when CASA Latina hired her to mediate between the organization and Rainier Valley residents opposed to the planned relocation of the day-laborer center. She also has sat on the WSHCC board, and served as president.

Velázquez is deferential to the accomplishments and influence of the activist generation, saying flatly that without support from Roberto Maestas and Estela Ortega, also of El Centro de la Raza, she would not have run for City Council. She also describes Mike Sotelo and Pedro Celis as friends, saying that she disagrees strongly with their political stances but praising their work in the Latino community.

Ramirez and Velázquez are preparing for the general election on Nov. 6; both are facing strong opponents. Whatever the outcome of this round of elections, it is clear that the political and economic strength of the local Latino community will only continue to grow.


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