Commentary

New legislative maps can restore representation for Pa.’s growing Latino communities | Opinion

Harrisburg has for decades gerrymandered the maps to diminish the influence and voice of Latinos and people of color across the state

State Rep. Danilo Burgos, D-Philadelphia, is one of a handful of Latino lawmakers in Pennsylvania (Capital-Star file)

By Erika Almirón

As a Latina born and raised in Pennsylvania, I have seen the real life impact of underrepresentation my whole life. I saw very few people who looked like me represented in positions of power and influence. So I have worked most of my life to try and get communities of color our fair representation and a seat at the table. Given this, I have seen first hand the real life impact of gerrymandering and the intentional effort of politicians to diminish representation in communities like mine.

When I was the executive director of Juntos in Philadelphia, I served immigrant and first generation Latino families across the state. I handled thousands of cases for families who needed help over the years ranging on issues from language access, utility shut-offs to panicked calls about police interactions, deportations and evictions.

As a bilingual organization well known in the Latino community, we often became a constituent services clearinghouse for people who didn’t know where else to turn.

Under better circumstances, most of these requests could have been handled by the person’s state legislator or member of Congress. But because of the severe underrepresentation in the current maps most of our elected officials don’t look like me, do not have bilingual staff, nor do they prioritize the needs of my community.

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Communities like mine deserve policies that reflect our needs, and my years of work in Juntos was about building the power of the people to get these changes through organizing. But we also need equal representation in the halls of power, because being underrepresented politically is equally as damaging. If those on the inside have not gone through what we have, how will they ever know what we need or fight for the policy changes we deserve. This is why I ran for Philadelphia city council at-large in 2019.

Gerrymandered districts across the state aim to silence the voice of our communities and have had a negative impact on the families who have lived there for decades.

This has not been by accident. Harrisburg has for decades gerrymandered the maps to diminish the influence and voice of Latinos and people of color across the state.

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But I see an opportunity today; Latinos have seen the fastest and largest population growth in Pennsylvania over the last ten years, more than any other community during this time. With more people it makes sense that we need to have more representation.

While we will always have more work to do, today we have the possibility to pass a Pennsylvania House map that can give us more seats at the table and gets us closer to real representation in Harrisburg.

The Legislative Reapportionment Commission’s preliminary House map undoes the nefarious work of Republicans over the decades by creating nine districts, including three open seats with no incumbent representatives, that could elect Latino candidates through what is called “opportunity districts.” We currently only have three Latinos serving in the House.

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In places such as Allentown, Lancaster, and Reading where Latino communities are driving a renaissance and contributing to newly vibrant neighborhoods the problem of underrepresentation in the legislature is even greater. The preliminary House map creates new seats in all of these communities so we can have a seat at the table in Harrisburg when decisions are being made.

Allentown, the third-largest city in the commonwealth, is a majority Latino city. Yet, it has no Latino representation. The new LRC maps creates a majority Latino seat along with a Latino plurality seat, and it adds an additional seat for the city bringing the total number of seats to three. Certainly a fair amount for the third biggest city in Pennsylvania. Reading maintains one Latino majority district, creates a new Latino opportunity district, and sees another district increase its Latino population by ten percent. And in Lancaster, Latino population growth has helped the city get a new seat, which is a Latino opportunity district with no sitting incumbent.

And like I said, there’s still work to do.

The preliminary Senate map diverges from the progress made in the House map. While the House map undoes decades of gerrymandering, the Senate map needs some serious work. The Senate protects incumbents at the expense of the Latino community.

There is not one Latino senator in the state and in places like Lancaster and Allentown, the Senate map takes strides to cut up communities to protect incumbents and dilute the power of the cities’ growing Latino population.

The Latino community is driving growth across Pennsylvania but our needs are not prioritized politically or structurally. Representation matters. We need people who understand what our families go through and who build up offices that can tend to our needs.  We must have people who look like me in the halls of power to fight for the issues that matter to us.

Only then will we be able to say that we are finally starting to address the structural and political inequities in Pennsylvania.

Erika Almirón is a long-time organizer and nonprofit leader from Philadelphia. She is the former executive director of Juntos, a community and immigrant rights organization. She was a candidate for Philadelphia City Council in 2019.

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