I am honored to serve as the chairman of the state Assembly Puerto Rican & Hispanic Task Force and work alongside my colleagues and Somos Inc. to host the Somos Conference in Puerto Rico.
Once again, our fall legislative conference meets to move an agenda forward that addresses the needs of the growing Hispanic population of our great state and beyond. With this in mind, the theme of this year’s important gathering is “Advancing the New York/Puerto Rican and Caribbean Connection.”
For 29 years, Somos has brought leaders in government, business, labor advocacy, education, health and other sectors together to discuss where things stand, what efforts need to be taken and what outcomes need to be achieved in order to promote economic and social empowerment for the Latino community. By carefully selecting these topics, inviting top experts in those fields to serve as panelists and committing to attainable goals, we have achieved crucial victories in various endeavors.
We have collectively sought to increase the substance of our discussions by narrowing our focus, including a greater variety of experts and highlighting next steps and action plans. We continue our strong support of increasing the educational attainment and academic achievement of Latino students via the great work of the Angelo Del Toro Youth Leadership Institute and the CUNY Model Senate program and various internships and scholarships. We have also added new initiatives, like partnering with the state Department of Labor to create a Somos Career Fair within the spring conference weekend, and launching the first-ever Collegiate Summit, attended by hundreds of college students, and we will soon launch the first SOMOS Graduate Mentorship Program.
In 2015, our conference led one of the largest mobilizations of Puerto Rican residents in the island’s history to advocate for fair federal treatment in health care funding. We helped launch the first partnership between the University of Puerto Rico and the State University of New York, while hosting the first SUNY/PRHTF Latinos In Higher Education Institute to promote greater diversity in the field of public higher education. We also worked with Gov. Andrew Cuomo to open the first New York office in Puerto Rico to help promote tourism and business cooperation between our mainland and island communities. All this work has helped to highlight the direct economic and social impacts New York could face if Puerto Rico’s challenges are not addressed by the federal government.
We continue to fight for issues, small and large, that affect our communities. Our advocacy to ensure indigent women and their children have access to the federal nutrition program called Women, Infants and Children led to our support of grocery store owners who were unfairly denied the ability to sell specialty formulas to mothers across our communities. Through high-level meetings and legislation, we have reshaped the regulations that were restricting access and fostered greater partnerships between the state Department of Health and its regulated vendors, while improving access to needy families.
We continue our advocacy for the DREAM Act, which would allow access to financial support programs for all our students in our higher education system, regardless of their immigration status. We have taken the results of our task force reports on childhood and elderly poverty to spur statewide legislative hearings; conference calls with impacted communities; a Poverty Working Group created by the Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie; and fought for $25 million in regional funding to combat the plight of poverty affecting Latinos at alarming rates across our state.
I am often asked, what is the “Latino agenda”? While there are clear, well-known goals our community has long advocated for, my answer is that ours is not a Latino-only wish list. Rather, let’s take a moment to view important populist issues with a Latino lens. Minimum wage is not a Latino issue, but we make up the greatest demographic in that wage classification. Poverty forgives no race or ethnicity, but more Latinos live in poverty than any other ethnic group. Paid Family Leave is not a Latino issue, but Latino workers are less likely to have access to this important benefit prior to the new state law requiring it. Obesity and diabetes are not Latino issues, but one out of every two Hispanics born after 2001 will suffer from those diseases.
While some of these items have been legislated, much work remains: Latino workers are disproportionately underrepresented in public- and private-sector workforces; Latinos are less likely to have employer-sponsored retirement accounts; Latinos make up the vast majority of workers injured or killed in non-union construction accidents, and so on.
Somos has been, and continues to be, an opportunity to celebrate our culture, to move a common agenda and to have all participants put on their “Latino lenses.” With this insight, it is my hope that we realize that Hispanics’ continued population growth and ever-growing social and economic impact require a seat at the table to best address the issues affecting all New Yorkers.
We thank all those who join us and encourage others to do the same. Somos una comunidad vibrante y juntos podemos mejorar el futuro de todas nuestras familias.
Marcos Crespo represents the 85th Assembly District and is the chairman of the Assembly’s Puerto Rican & Hispanic Task Force.
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