Article by Yadira Gonzalez | May 23, 2022
Queens-native Juan Ardila first got involved with politics after his mother, a Honduran immigrant, was almost deported. He wanted to help his neighborhood, where problems like his own were ubiquitous.
“Making sure, as someone who’s been through it, that you’re being empathetic to the community,” Ardila said.
Ardila announced his campaign for Assembly District 37 in February. The district encompasses his own neighborhood, Maspeth, as well as Long Island City, Sunnyside and Ridgewood –neighborhoods with a Latino plurality.
Ardila joins other Latinos of Queens trying to correct systemic underrepresentation in government – a process that recently became more difficult because Congressional and State Senate district lines, approved by the New York State Legislature earlier this year and favorable to Democrats, were found to be unconstitutional and were thrown out after a Republican court challenge.
The court appointed a special master to draw new lines, and his plan, approved on May 21, is less favorable to the Democrats and to minority-rich areas in New York City. The legislature’s proposed districts would have eliminated one Republican-held congressional seat and added two State Senate seats within New York City.
While primaries for the state Assembly and some statewide offices will be held as scheduled in June, the complex legal dispute led to the postponement until August of primary elections for the State Senate and for Congress. It has also threatened the candidacy of some aspirant Latino politicians.
Kristen Gonzalez announced in February that she run for the new State Senate District 17 that was added to New York City by the state legislature. District 17–containing a 38% Latino plurality–would have encompassed all neighborhoods between Long Island City, Richmond Hill and Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
Once these lines were deemed unconstitutional, Gonzalez was unsure about the fate of District 17. Once the new lines were confirmed, Gonzalez announced that she would instead be running for State Senate District 59–a much smaller district encompassing Astoria, Greenpoint and a part of Lower East Side Manhattan with a 17.4% Latino population.
What this means for Greenpoint, Ridgewood, Long Island City, and South Queens we won't know until May 20, when the new or current maps are approved.
Until then, we'll be talking to voters, building pressure for Good Cause and Build Public Renewables — which must pass this year. pic.twitter.com/BXxrp1HiDz
— Kristen Gonzalez (@Gonzalez4NY) May 6, 2022
Left representing disjointed communities in disparate districts, candidates like Gonzalez may be unable to improve representation for Latinos. But even the tossed-out new districts may not have addressed all the inequities in representation. Not long after the state legislature released its reapportionment plans, the Census Bureau published an evaluation that revealed its 2020 American Community Survey undercounted 5% of the Hispanic or Latino population nationally. With so much of the population overlooked, some advocates say they doubt how accurate the reapportionment can be.
“There’s no way that if you didn’t count 200,000 Latinos, the maps that are done are going to be good for our community,” said Frederick Vélez III Burgos, the National Director of Civic Engagement at the Hispanic Federation, a nonprofit advocacy group.
To avoid this underrepresentation, some groups have offered tangible solutions that could guide officials toward better representation, such as the Unity Map Coalition. The coalition was formed in 2021 by advocacy groups Latino Justice, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Center for Law and Social Justice. The groups created maps for congressional, state senate and assembly districts in New York City that would have empowered minority voters by acknowledging population shifts and maintaining majorities.
Cesar Ruiz, a legal fellow and attorney for Latino Justice, said the coalition’s main goal was to work together to protect the voting rights of each community that it represented.
However, the legislature rejected both the Unity Map and the plans from the Independent Redistricting Commission, a bipartisan group tasked with drawing fair district lines. The Democratic majority in the Assembly and Senate ultimately devised its own lines – which have now also been rejected.
“The maps that we see are not reflective of the concerns of the community members completely. Rather the focus was protecting incumbents,” Ruiz said.
Organizations like Latino Justice and Hispanic Federation say the officials’ disregard for Latino voices exacerbates the disconnect between Latinos and the government.
“Latinos and Latinas from both parties say, ‘These are the things that you can do to engage Latinos better,’ and they’re still not done,” Burgos said.
More candidates of Latino origin are stepping forward this election cycle, trying to close the gap between the legislative body and Latino communities.
Gonzalez, 26, grew up experiencing what she called a “tale of two New York’s” She commuted to preparatory schools on Manhattan’s Upper East Side from her home in Jackson Heights, Queens, that she shared with her widowed mother, a teacher and immigrant from Puerto Rico.
A desire to right the inequities she witnessed between the two neighborhoods led Gonzalez to Washington, where she was part of the last class of interns of the Obama administration. She then worked for U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) during the Trump administration. Eventually, she realized that the only way to truly support her community was through work on the local level.
Back in Queens, Gonzalez joined her community board and helped found the Western Queens Community Land Trust, a nonprofit that fights gentrification and promotes equitable land use. Throughout the pandemic, she led efforts for Mutual Aid NYC, building community resource libraries and launching an internet-for-all campaign.
As a State Senator, Gonzalez hopes to create housing for all, build publicly owned renewable energy and provide universal health care, according to her campaign website.
We want to make clear that the battle is still uphill.
New district lines mean tens of thousands of new doors to knock and volunteers to recruit.
Whether you have $27 to chip in or 3 hours to knock on doors, we need you.
Join our email list here:https://t.co/NG91L60EH8
— Kristen Gonzalez (@Gonzalez4NY) May 20, 2022
Ardila hopes to build on the work of current District 37 Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan, who is retiring after 37 years in office. His plans include tenant protection, access to affordable health care and expanding education programs to include 3-K and bilingual learning.
“Setting people up for success, working-class people, is going to be my biggest ambition for what I want to accomplish,” Ardila said.
Latina trailblazers, as Ardila calls them, paved the way for his entry into politics. Women like Tiffany Caban, Catalina Cruz, Jessica Ramos and Julia Salazar are among the Latinos in the legislature, bringing the diverse perspectives of their communities.
“We cannot just hope that the system will do right for us. We need to be proactive,” Burgos said.
Despite the inadequacies present in the new redistricting maps, Latinos continue to assert themselves in community building.
“La lucha sigue,” Ruiz said. “The fight continues.”