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Angelo Falc�n


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NiLP Commentary Masthead  

Latinos and Hurricane Sandy:

Some Thoughts from the Eye of the Storm

By Angelo Falc�n (November 4, 2012)


Angelo Falcon BW

It was a little ironic. As I was home in Brooklyn preparing to see this past week's installment of the television series, Revolution, my cable went out. This show about the apocalyptic consequences of a permanent global electrical power blackout itself was blacked out! Hurricane Sandy had descended on New York and tuned parts of it and of the rest of the northeast and Caribbean into scenes from the television show and worse.


As it turned out, my cable and Internet connections eventually returned and I never lost power, so I was very lucky. As the media reported, New Jersey got the brunt of it, with cities like Hoboken literally under water, in New York lower Manhattan in almost total darkness, Breezy Point in Queens in flames, and over 110 dead. The region's public transportation system came to a standstill and at best was severely disrupted, car traffic became unbearable an gas in short supply. Hospital patients, including premature babies, and residents of coastal areas had to be evacuated or rescued if they didn't leave and found themselves stuck in high rises and isolated neighborhoods.


As I turned to television for updates on this situation, it reminded me of 9/11. Then as now, as political leaders like New York Mayor Bloomberg, New York Governor Cuomo and New Jersey Governor Christy assembled their emergency teams for the cameras, the absence of Latinos in these key positions became obvious once more. In a city like New York, where two-thirds of the population is composed of people of color, you couldn't tell by the Mayor or Governor's entourages.


Now, in a crisis such as this or 9/11 you are not supposed to speak about things like this. These are times, after all, when everyone needs to pull together regardless of race, ethnicity, social class or geography. The focus needs to be on unity and cooperation, where the people's resilience needs to be stressed and drawn upon. Those premie babies that had to be evacuated and the nurses who rescued them did so as human beings and not as Blacks, Whites, Latinos or whatever. During 9/11 it was clearly unpatriotic not to think so.


But it is in extreme circumstances such as the current one created by Hurricane Sandy that certain things come into full relief, as we witnessed in the case of Katrina. As the Latino community witnessed in the aftermath of 9/11, despite this general call to unity there were, as Annette Fuentes documented, "cracks in the mosaic." For Latinos, the persistent underrepresentation in major policy positions in government, as well as in both the private and nonprofit sectors, have serious consequences for how relief efforts and resources are distributed and the rate in which different communities recover. In New York City, the reality is that while Latinos make up about 29 percent of the population, we unfortunately make up over 40 percent of the city's poverty population.


The priority now is in getting things working and restoring basic services again. Mayor Bloomberg raised eyebrows even at this basic level with his efforts not to cancel the New York City Marathon and plans to divert much-needed resources away from storm relief to this sports event, efforts he had to abandon after much public and media criticism. In the meantime, within the Latino community, events were being canceled and rescheduled to assure that storm relief received the priority it required. Some are calling on New York's Latino state legislators to cancel their annual Somos El Futuro junket to Puerto Rico scheduled for November 7th-11th and its charity golf tournament being held, of all places, at the Trump International Golf Club in Rio Grande!


It is perhaps premature to talk about being in the aftermath of Sandy, as Cuomo, Christy and to some degree Bloomberg (did you see the spoof of his sign language interpreter? Not the SNL one, but the original)) as well as President Obama, have distinguished themselves as dynamic leaders in these life-or-death disaster relief efforts. It was important for the Latino community to see such leaders as New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez accompanying Christy as the President visited scenes of destruction in New Jersey, a rare instance of a high profile Latino presence during this crisis. It was good to learn that Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. was on the phone with the President and to hear from other Latino elected officials who were actively involved in the relief efforts.


Looking ahead, as we experienced as a result of 9/11, the Latino community could be at higher risk of being disproportionately shortchanged in the rebuilding efforts that follow. Already many have observed how the focus of disaster relief efforts and media attention seemed to be Manhattan at the expense of the outer boroughs and New Jersey. For Latinos, this, even if only on the level of perception, is a problem since in the last decade or so the city has seen a significant shift of the Latino population away from Manhattan and into the outer boroughs. This is where the attempted hoarding by the Bloomberg Administration of generators and other resources into Central Park to support the now canceled NYC Marathon was a shameful symbol of a Manhattan-centered Mayor.


Coming as it did virtually on the eve of the Presidential election, Hurricane Sandy has prompted important discussions about the role of the federal government and of global warming. Because the two leading Presidential candidates have such different positions on these two issues, Sandy has provided a real world test of their views. The President's pro-active role in getting FEMA and the federal government focused, bringing high praise from previously critical Republican Governor Christy put Mitt Romney in an awkward position, having raised questions about the future of FEMA and the federal commitment to disaster relief. And the opportunity that Mayor Bloomberg took to tie his endorsement of President Obama to his acknowledgement of global warming as a social problem brought that issue back on the public agenda, having been largely ignored during the Presidential campaign. With more than two-thirds of Latinos indicating they would be voting for Obama (and probably closer to 90 percent or more voting for him in the New York area), these are both vindications of Latino community positions.


However, the role of the federal, state and local governments in the Sandy recovery efforts can become an issue for the Latino community. Because of lack of adequate Latino representation at the tables where such decisions are made about such critical resource allocations, this has historically been a problem. Latinos, for example, are the most underrepresented group in federal government employment; although over 13 percent of the US civilian labor force, Latinos make up only 8 percent of federal government workers.


This involves not only the question of the responsiveness of government agencies to Latino neighborhoods, but also that of the nonprofit sector such as the Red Cross, United Way, foundations and others who play such a critical role in providing these services and resources on behalf of government and individuals. During relief efforts following 9/11, the Latino community felt marginalized by this sector.


One major problem in this regard has been the widely acknowledged fragility of the Latino nonprofit sector, which has for so long been undercapitalized and underdeveloped by government contracting and other policies and practices that favor larger, non-Latino institutions. In recent weeks we have seen this in terms of Bloomberg policies toward Latino nonprofits and even Latino businesses. These policies have had a long-term effect in compromising the effectiveness of Latino institutions and limiting their resources at a time when the Latino presence and needs are growing dramatically. This is a serious problem during so-called "normal" times, made all the more dangerous during the crisis we are currently facing.                                                                                            


As we witness a geographic uneven development of disaster relief efforts within the northeast United States, it was also troubling to see the media virtually ignore the devastation of Sandy on the Caribbean. Haiti was especially hard hit as were Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and other Caribbean nations. Given the large Caribbean presence in the northeast, this was surprising as it indicates another way in which Latino and other Caribbean communities were disproportionately affected.


The Associated Press recently released the results of a poll they conducted that found that anti-Latino and anti-Black sentiments have grown over the last four years and have reached majority status with the American population. This promoted me to see this as further evidence of a "post-racial illusion." As we experience such horrifying catastrophes as the havoc and misery visited upon on by Hurricane Sandy, we need to drop all pretensions and prejudices to help each other as human beings, period.


As part of the broader community, Latinos are joining others in heroic acts, as first responders and in ordinary ways helping those in need. We also have our share of unscrupulous grocery store owners and others engaging in opportunistic price gouging, of looters and people hoarding gasoline. It has also not gone unnoticed that while the English-language media has been interrupting its programming to update the public on the effects of the hurricane and relief efforts, the Spanish-language broadcast media was loath to interrupt their precious telenovelas. As in the broader community we are seeing our fair share of heroes and villains in this crisis, so is the case with the Latino community.


There is this universalist aspect to our current reality. But we cannot in the process ignore the realities of racial, social and other inequalities and how they unequally impact on different communities. By papering over these inequalities with a na�ve color-blindness that is mostly promoted by more privileged Whites, we only exacerbate and prolong those inequalities. This post-racial illusion affects communities like Latinos in debilitating ways, like a never-ending social hurricane we have been experiencing before Sandy. To those affluent people who have experienced no electricity, no hot water, inoperative elevators, poor public transportation, and other inconveniences, there are many Latinos who can justifiable say, "Welcome to our world, folks."


Will Hurricane Sandy result in greater empathy for the plight of the poor and working people? Or will it just result in the affluent thinking of themselves more as the real victims? Maybe the result of the Presidential election on Tuesday will give us a clue.


Angelo Falc�n is President of the National Institute for Latino Policy (NiLP), for which he edits The NiLP Network on Latino Issues. He is a resident of the Los Sures neighborhood of the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, New York, where he is currently preparing to see the next episode of the television series, Revolution, to get hints at what next to expect in his life. He can in the meantime be reached at .