State Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez and Boston City Councilor-at-Large Felix Arroyo provided leadership advice and spoke of the importance of civic engagement at an event hosted by Emerson AMIGOS Tuesday night.
The event, titled “This is How We Get Politically Involved,” was organized by Emerson’s Latino group as part of the Hispanic/Latin American Heritage Month 2012.
During his speech to an audience of 14, Arroyo—elected to the Boston City Council in 2009 and re-elected for a second term in 2011—stressed the need for students to become more politically involved.
“Politics will happen to you, and if you are not at the table, you are on the menu,” Arroyo said.
According to the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute — a Chicago-based organization devoted to leadership development and participation of Latinos — nearly one percent of the elected officials in the country are Hispanic. The nation’s latest census reported that Hispanics constituted 16.7 percent of the country’s total population.
“We are in an election year, so the goal of this event was to bring someone Latino to tell us why it is important to vote and give us some insight of what it is like being in their shoes,” said Juan Castillo, president of AMIGOS and a junior film production major.
Sanchez, a democrat who grew up in Mission Hill’s public housing, began the discussion by focusing on immigration, voter ID laws, and the changes he has seen in the Latino population throughout the state.
“Carrying messages is very difficult within our community,” said Sanchez. “I think our experiences are different, and we have different views on things.”
The empty chairs around the Multipurpose Room hinted to the poor turnout of the night and were proof that the challenge of engaging the population in political discourse, as Sanchez said, can be hard to overcome.
“I wish more people would have attended,” said Andrea Garza, vice president of AMIGOS. “Knowing how we can get involved in politics, whether we are American or not, empowers us.”
Sanchez represents the Boston communities of Mission Hill, Jamaica Plain, and Roslindale. He advised students to be open-minded when engaging with the communities they are involved in.
“Think about how to communicate effectively and don’t get stuck,” said Sanchez.
During the event, the politicians emphasized their similar background: both are sons of Puerto Rican immigrants and community organizers, both grew up in Boston, and both had initial interests in finance before devoting themselves to public office.
“Jeffrey’s story is my story, just change the name of the characters,” said Arroyo, drawing laughs from the audience.
Arroyo spoke about immigration topics and, in response to questions from the audience, he shared his views on health care and urban gentrification in Boston.
During his speech, Arroyo took a moment to address the various backgrounds of students in the audience and the difficulties of being a minority when attempting to have a career as a politician.
“You are going to get into places where you are going to be the first,” Arroyo said. “Make sure you are not the last.”
The event was open to all students, both undergraduate and graduate.
“I thought [sic] it would be an interesting story, so I came to hear what they had to say,” said Yuan Yuxiao, a graduate student studying journalism.
Arroyo, whose father was the first Latino to be elected as a member of the city council in 2003, said he feels strongly about the aspiring generation of Latino leaders who, like himself, continue to move up the ladder.
“Don’t be selfish enough to think that the change you want to see has to happen in the time you have in this world,” he said.
Donovan Birch Jr. — vice president of EBONI, Emerson’s Black Organization with Natural Interests, and a sophomore political communication major — said Arroyo’s advice stuck with him.
“Sometimes in EBONI we are expecting things to happen right away, and we don’t think how we might be making Emerson better for the subsequent generations,” Birch said.
Alicia Pellegrin, a junior journalism major, said she attended the event to learn about how leaders representing minority populations obtained positions as politicians.
“I am really interested in politics, and it’s good to see Hispanic leaders, because we don’t have a lot of them,” Pellegrin said.