Washington DC
Is Washington DC's Latino population a 'sleeping giant'?
Despite a growing population, DC's Latino residents lack representation in local elected office.

 After decades of underrepresentation in local elected office, political insiders and candidates in Washington DC are calling for more to be done to organize the Latino community politically.

Census data from 2019 shows that 11.3% of District residents identify as Latino.

Other statistics show that approximately 28% of Latinos living in the district are of Salvadoran origin, compared to 20% Mexicans, 6.5% Honduran and 6.3% Puerto Rican.

Despite the growing number of Latinos living in DC, not a single Latino is represented in the District's 13-member city council, officially known as the DC Council.

Five Latinos ran for DC's at large council seats in the November 3 general election. A sixth, Peruvian-born, half-Argentine immigrant Martin Miguel Fernandez, unsuccessfully ran to represent DC's Ward 2, which includes the city's Central Business District, Federal Triangle, Georgetown and Foggy Bottom.

None were elected, and no candidate received a significant share of the votes.

"It is an open wound for our community that there has never been an elected DC Council member," said Joe Barrios, the President of the DC Latino Caucus, an affiliate of the DC Democratic Party. "The Latino community is a sleeping giant that is just starting to awaken."

Joe Barrios, the President of the DC Latino Caucus

The best performing Latino candidates, Colombian-born Director of the Office of Human Rights Monica Palacio, received approximately 13,200 votes. The winner of the two at-large council seats - Robert White and Christina Henderson - received 135,878 and 77,485 votes, respectively.

Obstacles for Latino voters

Barrios said that a number of issues stand in the way of greater political potency for Latinos living in the US capital.

As an example, Barrios pointed to a lack of "institutional support" which saw several qualified Latino candidates run as independents in a crowded electoral field with more than 20 other local candidates.

"They felt that that was the best way for them to have a chance," he added. "We at the Latino Caucus are really trying to build the community power necessary to really see to it that we can see a Latino Council member."

People who have made their permanent homes here should have a hand in who represents them in government.

Additionally, Barrios noted that DC's Latinos are spread throughout the district, standing in contrast to other cities that have areas with majority Latino residents.

"In some ways it's good because it's expanding us into other parts of the city where we might be able to compete politically," he said. "But it also does make outreach harder. You have folks that are not all in one place."

Another issue, Barrios explained, is a lack of voter registration material in Spanish.

"That's a big problem for our community and being able to access the benefits they are entitled to," he said. "We're increasingly pushing DC government agencies, and the council, talking about access to benefits, educational access et cetera."

Martin Miguel Fernandez, for his part, said he believes the main issues facing the community with regards to political representation are "organization and outreach".

Martin Miguel Fernandez, a former candidate for Washington DC's Ward 2 Council seat

"I don't think that any of the [DC Council] candidates ran the right type of campaign needed to win," he said, noting that he believes that only one candidate, Claudia Barragan, is a progressive.

"You think about people who may be really obvious allies for a Latino candidate running, and you think of the progressive community in DC," he added. "I would say she was the only progressive one out of that bunch."

Despite growing population, Latinos remain underrepresented in Boston Politics

Future Elections

In the future, Fernandez said he believes that two "types" of campaigns could lead to a Latino candidate being elected to local office.

In the first - which he described as a "big money, special interest" campaign - commercial developers and other well-funded interest groups would a campaign that is "all about identity."

"That would get a Latino on the Council," he said. "But they're going to be awful for social and economic progress."

We at the Latino Caucus are really trying to build the community power necessary to really see to it that we can see a Latino Council member

"The other way, which I would like to see, is a candidate who actually knows what they're doing, and has policy-wise done the work organizing and building solidarity with the Black community, the LGBTQ community, and even the Asian-American Pacific community in DC," he said. "I think that can be done. Other politicians like AOC have done a good job of that."

While in the short-term, Fernandez said he does not foresee any Latino candidate achieving success, he believes that other candidates can represent their interests and align ideologically with progressive-minded Latino DC residents.

An expanded Latino electorate?

Approximately 40% of the city's total Latino population is foreign-born and not US citizens - making them ineligible to vote.

A bill introduced in June by Council member Brianne K. Nadeau, however, would expand the term "qualified elector" to include permanent residents for the purposes of local elections.

"People who have made their permanent homes here should have a hand in who represents them in government," Nadeau said in a statement. "The District of Columbia has long been a place that has welcomed immigrants into our community," she added. "It's time to allow their full participation in our institutions."

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