Latino children are the largest racial-ethnic group in Boston Public Schools, but the collective voice of their parents does not loom large in the system.
In fact, they’re barely heard.
Latino parents are underrepresented on school councils and don’t speak before the school committee at a level approaching their children’s plurality in the district, according to school department data. Latino students make up 42 percent of the district’s enrollment.
“We might be the majority, but we’re the silent minority,” said Julia Mejia, the executive director of the Collaborative Parent Leadership Action Network.
The relative silence of Latino parents is at odds with what they have at stake — Latino students have some of the worst outcomes in the district. And despite research showing that parent involvement in a child’s school can boost learning and improve behavior, Boston has over the years cut staff dedicated to engaging parents in general.
Missing In the Schools
State law requires that all schools have school site councils — made up of an equal number of parents and staff — to decide on that school’s budget, hiring and improvement plans. Parent membership on the councils should broadly represent the school’s parents, according to that law.
WGBH News examined district data for Boston schools where at least 50 percent of students are Latinos and found that parents with Spanish surnames constituted the majority of parent council members in 9 of the 35 schools. Another six of these 35 did not appear to have councils at all, and four schools did not have parents on their councils.
Not all Latinos have Spanish surnames, and some people who do have Spanish surnames don’t consider themselves Latino. WGBH News obtained from Boston Public Schools the names of parents on school councils for 96 out of 122 schools. The lists did not include race or ethnicity, so counting Spanish surnames was the best way to approximate how many Latino parents serve on these councils.
“We’re not there yet,” conceded Monica Roberts, chief engagement officer for Boston Public Schools. “I think our school leaders would say the same thing. It’s a place where we’re continuously working.”
While some schools don’t have school site councils, others have them, but don’t have as many parents as teachers, Roberts said.
“Some schools have very strong racial, ethnic, linguistic and socioeconomic diversity,” she added. “Others do not.”
Missing at the Podium
Parents with Spanish surnames don’t speak at school committee meetings in large numbers, possibly because they aren’t as involved in school site councils or their children’s schools don’t have them. Parents have to know their children’s school faces budget cuts, for example, before they can try to prevent the loss of funds.
During the 2018-2019 school year, 442 different people signed up to speak at the Boston School Committee’s weekly meetings. Based on a WGBH News analysis of BPS data, 27 of them were parents with Spanish surnames, making up 6 percent of all speakers.
Data Visualization: Emily Judem/WGBH News
When BPS surveyed parents online about the superintendent search in fall, 2018, and then again in April about the ultimate choice among three finalists, a total of six people completed surveys in Spanish, even though 27 percent of BPS students speak Spanish as their first language, according to BPS data.
“Public comment certainly isn’t the only way that we take input from the community on any plans or proposals that come through the committee or are put out there by the district,” said School Committee Chairperson Michael Loconto.
“The voices that we are constantly looking for are those that are not necessarily represented in public comment, so that we are ensuring that the policies that the district is putting forward for our review and approval are serving the students that this district serves,” Loconto added.
New Superintendent Brenda Cassellius was hired, in part, because of her vision for what she called “authentic engagement” of parents. In her first several days, she has made overtures to Latinos and Spanish-speaking parents by attending church services in Spanish, doing interviews with Spanish-language television media, elevating Latino administrators within Boston Public Schools and hiring a high-level Latina administrator who worked for her in Minnesota. But still, she faces great challenges overcoming what many describe as years of disenfranchisement.
Why Aren’t They More Present?
In interviews, Latino parents, academics, organizers, school committee members, teachers and former and current Boston school officials offered many explanations for why Latino parents are not well represented in school decision-making.
“Latino parents don’t have flexible jobs,” said Lilliana Arteaga, co-chair of the school site council at the Dante Alighieri Montessori School in East Boston. “They can’t take the time off to attend a bunch of meetings.”
“We’re not a homogenous group of people. And until we’re recognized as the dynamic group that we are, we won’t have much clout.”
Speaking in Spanish, Elsa Flores, a mother and parent educator in East Boston, said, “Some parents are afraid of deportation, and they worry about the schools cooperating with ICE” or Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Angelina Camacho, who has a son at the Hurley K-8 School in the South End, said, “We’re not a homogenous group of people. And until we’re recognized as the dynamic group that we are, we won’t have much clout,”
Camacho was the Latino co-chair of the Citywide Parent Council until recently, a role that no longer exists.
A Blind Spot?
Forty-two percent of students in Boston Public Schools are Hispanic, according to the state. More than a quarter of the district’s students speak Spanish as their first language. Most of the Latinos in Boston trace their roots to Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Colombia.
The majority of the Latinos in Boston Public schools are poor – 66 percent are “economically disadvantaged,” according to the state.
For the purposes of this story, Brazilian parents are not included as Hispanic. Although some might consider themselves Latino, as they’re from Latin America, the state uses the term “Hispanic” to identify children of Puerto Rican, Cuban, Mexican, Dominican, Central or South American descent. Brazilians typically classify their children as “other” on Boston Public School forms, said Citywide Parent Council member Danubia Carmargos Silva. She writes “Brazilian” on forms so that her child is counted as a Portuguese speaker.
“The district is still reluctant to acknowledge the change that has taken place in the demography of the student body at the Boston public schools,” said Miren Uriarte, a retired UMass Boston professor and former Boston Public School committee member. “There is a real resistance to really even admitting and lauding the fact that it’s a multi-cultural district.”
Uriarte says this blind spot prevents the district from creating adequate programs and services for Latino children and their parents.
The blind spot may be an artifact of Boston’s history of desegregation, in which black families demanded better schools for their children, and some white families and leaders resisted integrating schools through busing still sees itself as a city of black and white residents, still working through a history of school desegregation, said school committee member and UMass Boston professor Lorna Rivera.
That dynamic was at play, she said, during the superintendent selection earlier this year.
Rivera supported Cuban-American candidate Marie Izquierdo from Miami. Rivera thought Izquierdo would relate better to the needs of Latino students and all students learning English.
“I like Cassellius,” Rivera said, referring to new superintendent Brenda Cassellius, who is African-American and the former state education commissioner for Minnesota. Rivera said it bothered her when school committee members spoke of choosing Cassellius because she could work well with “the community.”
“What are we talking about here?” Rivera said. “Let’s be real. The community is Latino.”
Latino parents’ relative silence in the district, however, diminishes their influence.
After the superintendent selection, Rivera said a fellow committee member explained their vote for Cassellius, by saying, “Well, you know, I haven’t gotten any calls from Latinos.”
Immigrants who don’t speak English fluently complained about feeling disrespected in their children’s schools.
“In most cases, they look down on us as though we aren’t worth anything,” said Elsa Flores, who taught science and math in her native El Salvador before moving to Boston nearly two decades ago. “But they need to understand that they have their jobs because of us.”
Flores described her three sons’ dizzying trajectory through the city’s schools.
“We just want to be treated like we’re partners in our children’s education.”
When her eldest son entered Boston Public Schools, it was a few years after the state passed a law via a 2002 ballot question that essentially banned bilingual education, which some educators interpreted as outlawing any Spanish in the classroom.
When Flores saw her son struggle in class because he didn’t speak English, she approached the teacher and asked him to help.
“I can see my son doesn’t have the level of English necessary to keep up in this class. Could you please help him by speaking to him in Spanish sometimes?” she recalled asking him in Spanish. She said he responded by whispering, “Señora, I can’t help your son. I’m not allowed to speak Spanish in this school. If I speak Spanish, I could lose my job.”
She remembers the same son getting transferred to other schools without her knowledge and — even this last year — attending special education meetings to review a nephew’s individual education plans in which the school didn’t provide an interpreter, something schools are legally required to do.
“We just want to be treated like we’re partners in our children’s education. Unfortunately, in many schools, we’re not,” Flores said.
Know Your Rights
Even though Flores was a school teacher and has an advanced degree from a university in El Salvador, she said she didn’t have the courage to speak up in her sons’ schools. Then she learned from other parents and organizers that she had the right to object to a school placement, request her sons’ progress be evaluated or demand that documents relating to his educational plan be provided in Spanish.
Some educators, parents and organizers think the district should do more to help Latino parents who didn’t grow up in the mainland United States understand the expectations of parents in American schools.
“Give them the tools to turn around and say, hey, these are the things you promised us. How do we get them?”
When Angelica Infante-Green, now state education commissioner in Rhode Island, interviewed for the commissioner job in Massachusetts two years ago, she made the case for training low-income and immigrant parents. She was not offered the job.
During the job interview, when asked how she would increase parent participation, she said she would start with trusted community groups to teach them parents’ rights in schools.
“Give them the tools to turn around and say, hey, these are the things you promised us. How do we get them?” she said.
Julia Mejia, who has trained immigrant parents, said some people think “we don’t care. But the reality is that we don’t know that the American education system is very different than in our homeland. Here we’re supposed to have a voice, we’re supposed to participate, but I don’t think much is being done to help educate parents about their role in closing the achievement gap or about their rights.”
Mejia – who is running for Boston City Council – also helps schools and the state design strategies to better involve parents.
When Latinos Had A Voice
Puerto Ricans and Cubans began arriving in Boston in large numbers in the 1960s and 1970s. Factories and farm owners lured Puerto Ricans directly from the island to Boston. Puerto Ricans had U.S. citizenship and could work legally. They also accepted low wages. Cubans came to escape Fidel Castro’s revolution.
When they moved here, their children didn’t have an easy time. Boston Public Schools didn’t have adequate programs for teaching children who didn’t speak English. As a result, thousands of Puerto Rican and Cuban children didn’t go to school, according to a 1969 investigation by The Task Force on Children Out of School.
In 1971, lawmakers stepped in with a law mandating schools teach children in their native language for a few years while they transitioned to learning full time in English. The law charged the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education with creating parent groups to be involved in the bilingual programs.
There would be a parent group representing each language. In Boston, where there were programs for multiple languages, they were managed under one umbrella group – the Bilingual Master Parent Advisory Council, or MasterPAC.
Meanwhile, Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. mandated the creation of school parent groups based on ethnicity and race and a wider Citywide Parent Council to monitor the integration of Boston Public Schools. He mandated the school district pay staff to support these groups.
Carmen Pola headed the Bilingual Master PAC. Pola, originally from Puerto Rico, had worked as a labor organizer and had been organizing Puerto Ricans to fight for better public housing conditions.
The parents of children in bilingual education were frustrated with how Boston was carrying out the program. There weren’t enough services, and the district had planned changes to the bilingual program, which parents thought would make it harder to monitor. The Supreme Court had recently decided the case Lau v. Nichols, which in 1974 established a child’s civil right to specialized language instruction if they had limited proficiency in English.
Pola and Alan Rom, a lawyer who was working for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, thought they could prove the district was violating students’ civil rights under the Lau decision and state law.
In March 1979, Pola led about 300 parents holding signs in half a dozen languages into the school committee chambers at BPS’ old headquarters on Court Street near City Hall, according to The Boston Globe.
Pola raised her hand to speak during the meeting.
“You’re not on the agenda,” the school committee chair said, according to Pola.
“I don’t understand what an agenda is,” she said. “But I’m here, and you’re going to do it, because you were elected by us in this city to listen to us, not to just sit there.”
Pola said school committee member John O’Bryant, an African American, made a motion to let Pola speak.
“We took over the school committee,” said Pola.
Over the next several months, Pola and Rom negotiated a voluntary agreement with the district that they called a “Lau Plan.” The agreement spelled out exactly how bilingual services would be delivered.
The Lau plan mandated student-teacher ratios for bilingual classes, pay from the district for parent advocates, and semi-annual district reports on the status of bilingual education. The plan also required approval from the Bilingual Master PAC before making changes to the bilingual programs.
“As a parent, I felt powerful,” Pola said.
The plan was modified a few times, but it lasted two decades, through several superintendents.
Under the plan, to help parents, Boston employed bilingual field coordinators for each language group present in the district. The field coordinators were expected to train parents about their rights, inform them of changes in the district, reach out if their kids were truant and even drive parents to meetings.
“As a parent, I felt powerful.”
In the early 2000s, urban school districts around the state ran into budget troubles. The cost of delivering an education was outpacing the state’s formula for reimbursing schools. In 2002, Boston faced a budget deficit of $45 million.
That same year, the school committee, during the tenure of Superintendent Tom Payzant, moved to rescind the plan and stop funding 12 staff positions that supported the Bilingual Master PAC. The school committee also cut positions supporting three other parent groups, including the Citywide Parent Council. In total, the positions had cost $500,000, according to the Boston Herald.
“They don’t want parents trained in knowing their rights and forcing school districts to do things that they don’t want to do or pay for,” Rom said in an interview with WGBH News.
Payzant was unavailable to comment on this decision. Then-school committee chairperson Elizabeth Reilinger did not return calls or emails.
A few years after the school committee’s decision to cut funding for parent groups, the district hired a former parent organizer to run Boston’s office of engagement. Michele Brooks had big plans.
She started a “Parent University” to teach parents their rights and how to navigate schools. She gained national recognition.
“Parents were hungry to get information,” Brooks said.
But budget cuts quickly reined in her ambitions. Between her hiring in 2008 and 2013, her staff dedicated to parent engagement dropped from 23 to 13, according to an Education Week interview with Brooks in 2013.
Focus on parent engagement across the district also took a hit, Brooks said.
“When deficits come, folks want to cut the things that they think are not vital, and family engagement always is on the chopping block,” Brooks said. “The district has chosen to really focus on instruction, instruction, instruction and not the engagement of families. They’re not leveraging families as a way to really help students achieve.”
Michael Loconto, chairman of the school committee, said, “The core things that we do in our schools — it’s teaching and learning. And so that’s the thing that we need to put at the forefront, given the resources that we have.”
When Brooks retired in 2015, Monica Roberts took over Boston’s office of engagement.
Roberts will have five staff members next year dedicated to helping school principals, teachers and families, in her words, “meet the baseline in terms of having a functioning school site council and school parent council.”
Parent University has shifted from holding large conferences for parents to school-based clubs for parents and children, because parents didn’t want to be away from their kids. Roberts’ team includes three people to carry out Parent University.
A task force within Boston Public Schools that monitors the progress of English learners in the district and the services available to them has raised concerns about parent participation for parents of all English learners, not just Latinos.
The task force looked at three schools over two years and talked to 30-40 families, according to task force member Cheng Imm Tan.
“A lot of ELL parents have a hard time getting involved,” Tan said. “They don’t understand the system, and they don’t feel welcomed.”
For at least three years, the task force has recommended holding principals accountable for family engagement and the resources to support them. They have asked the district to include family engagement when evaluating a school leader’s job performance.
“It has not moved an inch,” Tan said.
If there are no resources to help the principals engage families, then it’s not fair to hold them accountable, she added.
“There are people in the district who want to do right by kids,” Tan said. “But English learners are always put on the back burner, because there are always crises to be solved.”
In recent years, racial tensions at Boston Latin School, transportation challenges, changing school start times, former Superintendent Tommy Chang’s abrupt departure, closing schools and the plan to modernize the district’s buildings have dominated the headlines and the agenda of the Boston School Committee and district central office.
Family Friendly Schools
At one school, Boston has a model of family engagement that many parents say is working.
At James Otis Elementary School in East Boston on a Tuesday morning during the school year, dozens of parents were grabbing coffee and danishes before heading to their children’s classrooms.
Parents of children at the Otis School in East Boston attend a meeting of the Academic Parent Teacher Teams (APTT). The APTT provides a data-focused partnership between teachers and parents to help strengthen student learning. A translator (standing center) translates for Spanish speaking parents. (Meredith Nierman/WGBH News)
During the last few weeks of school, they came in for special meetings with teachers about their children’s academic progress. But unlike many parent-teacher conferences, the information was easily understood.
A Spanish interpreter huddled with a group of mothers and fathers at one table. At another table, two mothers compared reports.
Parents learned whether their children were reading at grade level and whether they were doing what’s expected in math. They received a packet of materials to work on with their child over the summer. Such meetings happen three times a year at the Otis.
“These meetings are really good,” Caterin Ferrufino said in Spanish. “I can see the progress my son is making, and they give us materials to help if there are any problems.”
Ferrufino, who is originally from Guatemala and has been in Boston for 21 years, moved her son to the Otis after her daughter had a good experience there.
The teachers and the principal are very accessible, she said.
These mothers say they make a point to take off work to attend these special Tuesday breakfasts, called Academic Parent Teacher Team meetings, to go over their children’s academic progress. But they cannot make it to other Tuesday breakfasts, when parents get together and learn about the MCAS or about the exam schools.
This welcoming and supportive environment, parents say, has helped Latino parents get more involved.
The Otis has a school site council with seven parent members — four are Latino.
In 2011, Michele Brooks started an initiative called Family Friendly Schools. The Otis was the first school in the district to be certified. Only three schools in the district have followed suit: McKay K-8 in East Boston, Patrick J. Kennedy Elementary School in East Boston and Mozart Elementary School in Roslindale.
Requirements for certification include having a school site council, a plan for engaging families that connect to classroom instruction, and a more than 50 percent response rate on surveys asking parents how they feel about their children’s school.
Roberts calls certification a “high bar.” Her goal is for half to be “family friendly” in the next five years, but accomplishing that will depend on resources.
With the district lacking a Bilingual MasterPAC, school-sponsored advocates and many “Family Friendly” schools, a few small organizations have stepped in to fill the void.
St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in the South End has been organizing parents at the Blackstone Elementary School for the last several years. This year, those parents participated in a march to the Boston school headquarters in Dudley Square to protest budget cuts. Their mothers were some of the few parents who testified in Spanish before the school committee last year.
The lead organizer, Rafaela Polanco, is a case study in what happens once an immigrant mother learns more about the American system.
Rafaela Polanco, a parent, recruits mothers to join a program called “Parent Mentors” or “Madres Mentoras.” The program places mothers into classrooms at the Blackstone School in Boston so that they can help the teacher while also learning how the school functions. (Meredith Nierman/WGBH News)
When her son entered school in Boston, she wasn’t interested in spending time there. She wanted to meet the teacher and find out what he was learning. That was it.
“The reason I didn’t get involved in the school was that I felt intimidated,” Polanco said in Spanish. “Intimidated because I’m an immigrant, because I don’t speak the language. And I thought my voice couldn’t be heard. I’m an immigrant. I’m Dominican. How important can I be?”
But she changed her mind after meeting a St. Stephen’s organizer who told her how important parent participation is.
“When I met other parents, I realized that there’s an enormous line of families who feel the same,” Polanco said.
Now she recruits mothers to join a two-year-old program called “Parent Mentors” or “Madres Mentoras,” which places mothers in classrooms at the Blackstone so they can help the teacher and learn how the school functions.
The hope is these mothers will be better advocates for their children’s education and join school site councils to influence the direction of their schools.
Joining a school site council can be challenging, even with an understanding of parents’ roles in education and support from experienced organizers.
Claritza Rodriguez wanted her children to retain their ability to speak Spanish. She’d seen other parents lose touch with their kids as they learned in English-only schools and didn’t develop their first language.
She was pleased when she got spots for two of her five children at the Hurley K-8 School in the South End, a dual-language immersion school whose mission is to graduate children who perform at “high academic levels” in English and Spanish, and who “appreciate and understand the contributions of numerous cultures to our society.”
After a few years at the school, she ran for the Hurley’s School Site Council.
“It seemed like my vote was important, that I could improve the school for our children,” she said in Spanish.
Once she got on the council, the school seemed less welcoming to immigrants like her. Rodriguez — who is from the Dominican Republic — said she was the only parent there who couldn’t speak English well. She says she understands English but doesn’t speak it fluently.
The meetings were conducted in English and “no one translated,” she said.
Claritza Rodriguez, 32, wanted her children to keep speaking Spanish so she enrolled them in the Hurley School, a dual language school in Boston’s South End. After a few years at the school, she ran for the Hurley’s School Site Council. (Meredith Nierman/WGBH News)
Meeting after meeting, she said, no one translated, even though there were a number of bilingual staff in the meetings.
“I felt rejected,” she said. “I felt like they show a preference for the American parents.”
Rodriguez didn’t run for the council the next year.
The school now offers Spanish interpretation during meetings, according to organizers who helped parents petition the school.
The Hurley does a good job welcoming families and including them in events, Monica Roberts said. The school is good at recruiting parents for leadership roles and is now thinking about how to retain them. But of the seven parents on the Hurley’s School Site Council, only one has a Spanish surname. Nearly three-fourths of the students are Latino.
“So we get folks there. How do you make sure we retain that and ensure some strong diversity?” said Roberts. “They are a school that’s really thinking thoughtfully about … how do we do the foundational work that gets families comfortable with being here in our building and participating?”
Roberts recommends that school councils focus less on fundraising, since not all families feel they can contribute or know people who can.
Hurley parent Angelina Camacho says schools like the Hurley that attract both wealthy parents and parents with much less, have a challenge.
School leaders “have to accept and be appreciative of the assets some parents have, because they’re afraid of losing those resources,” she said.
Annually, parents at the Hurley raise about $100,000 a year for projects like creating the school library, restoring sports fields and professional development for teachers.
Camacho said those parents “need to be told, ’Their dollars matter for all of the kids, but their voices do not carry for all of the children.’”
Parents on the Hurley’s school site council did not return emails or phone calls seeking comment.
A Different Way
Given the uneven social dynamics in schools, parents without fundraising skills or who don’t master English may always be at a disadvantage when it comes to influencing the direction of their children’s schools.
It might be time for the district to help parents organize, especially marginalized ones, said Camacho.
“We have a responsibility to stand in the gap until the playing field is leveled,” she said.
Camacho likes the idea of going back to the model that existed in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s when the district paid for parents and other staff to organize parents full-time.
District support for a parent organizer might not be the crucial ingredient for Latino parents to become more engaged, says Uriarte, who’s been researching the Bilingual Master PAC.
She does agree that parents need to feel safe to speak out and would feel safer as part of a group taking collective action.
But for Uriarte, the key is whether the district is open to hearing independent voices of parents that challenge the district.
“Many parents don’t have the time or energy to do things that are not going to be effective,” Uriarte said. “If they see the structures created disrespect them, they can’t get a word in edgewise, they don’t understand what’s going on, they’re going to disconnect.”
A New Leader
Presented with many of these concerns from parents, advocates, and academics about Boston Public Schools’ perceived lack of commitment to parent engagement, Cassellius sounded eager to work with parents, but noncommittal about changing actual evaluation standards for school leaders.
“Well, we’ll be ramping that up,” she said about parent engagement, in an interview with WGBH News. “You know that is a huge focus of mine. I just don’t think that we can do this work without parents and without their voice.”
If that requires providing “more advocacy and more training … we’ll provide that.”
“I just don’t think that we can do this work without parents and without their voice.”
Cassellius didn’t commit explicitly to evaluating principals’ job performance based on parent engagement, but she said she expects principals will treat parents as “true partners” and said district administrators will be working more closely with school heads “to see if diversity and inclusion is happening at the school site.”
Cassellius also hopes to use places of worship — and even consulates — to reach parents.
And if parents don’t approve of what she’s doing, Cassellius says they’ll be “safe” to complain and challenge the district.
Whether one superintendent can turn around years of relative silence and amplify the voices of Latino families remains to be seen. But the future success of Boston’s Latino children may depend on it.
Our coverage of K through 12 education is made possible with support from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.
Shynnah Monge-Cueto took out thousands of dollars in loans to go to college; her guidance counselors didn’t tell her she could have applied for a full-tuition scholarship to Northeastern University.
They have driven the state’s population growth for decades, helping form the backbone of a booming economy.
But Latinos in Massachusetts, a rich mix of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Brazilians, and more, fare worse than Latinos in any other state by several measures.
The median income for Latino households statewide is just $39,742 a year, while white households bring in $82,029 — the largest gap in the country, US Census data show. Only a quarter of Latino heads of household own their own homes in the state, compared to 69 percent of whites — the largest divide nationwide.
Households in Massachusetts, by comparison, have a median income of $46,381, and 34 percent own homes.
Language barriers and immigration status play a major role in the inequity — here and across the country — making it difficult for Latinos to progress beyond low-wage jobs or speak up about unfair treatment.
But there are added challenges in Massachusetts: a high cost of living and a majority of jobs that require college education, along with long waiting lists for English classes and a 15-year-old law — effectively overturned a few months ago — that eliminated bilingual education from most public schools. There are also relatively few Latino leaders and nonprofits, leading to low levels of civic engagement.
Puerto Ricans, the largest group of Latinos in the state, struggle more than most, with fewer of them working or in school than among other Latino sub-populations.
Then there’s Boston’s history of discrimination against black people, which dominates discussions about race.
“There’s that feeling of, you’re African-American or you’re white, but there’s no in-between,” said a Boston Police Department officer of Puerto Rican heritage who asked not to be identified. “We’re almost like the folks that nobody pays attention to.”
As a number of Latinos put it: They feel invisible here.
In Boston, Latinos are responsible for nearly all the population growth over the past few decades, accounting for 92 percent of the increase between 1980 and 2015, according to the Boston Foundation, and now make up 20 percent of the city’s population.
Martha Frias, 53, moved to Boston from the Dominican Republic four months ago, after a nearly eight-year effort to join her mother and siblings here. Frias was a pharmacist running her own shop in Santo Domingo, but here, she hasn’t been able to find work.
Knowing it would take time to become a licensed pharmacist in the United States, Frias prepared for her move by training to be a cook and a hair stylist. She also took English classes, but the focus was on grammar, and she found herself at a loss to understand much of anything once she got here.
Still, she landed a spot in an English class at South Boston en Acción, and despite the uphill battle ahead of her, she’s hopeful.
“There are more opportunities for me here,” she said in Spanish through an interpreter.
In reality, however, she may not have as many opportunities as she would elsewhere.
Massachusetts has the worst inequality between white and Latino residents of any state, according to a study by the financial news site 24/7 Wall St. that looked at income, housing, poverty, unemployment, incarceration, and educational attainment.
Undocumented Latinos, estimated to be about 63,000 statewide, struggle more than others, afraid to speak up about wage theft or even to go to the emergency room for fear of deportation. But even Latino immigrants who are here legally and speak perfect English can be reluctant to advocate for themselves or file discrimination complaints, said Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, a civil rights lawyer and member of the Greater Boston Latino Network, a collective formed in 2013 to promote Latino leadership.
“As newcomers to this country, we are trying not to rock the boat,” said Espinoza-Madrigal, who came to the United States from Costa Rica when he was 9.
In Boston, 42 percent of public school students are Latino, but because of the state law, only a handful of schools offer dual-language programs, despite the fact that a third of all students are considered “English learners.” In November, Governor Charlie Baker signed a bill allowing school districts to teach students in their native language while they learn English, although schools can choose to continue English-only instruction.
Wilmer E. Quinones-Melo didn’t speak English when he arrived in Boston from the Dominican Republic at age 10 to live with his father. But his father, who worked three cleaning jobs and also didn’t speak English, wasn’t around much, and he struggled in school.
“It was hard for me to communicate with teachers,” said Quinones-Melo. “The only thing they would say is, ‘Grab a dictionary.’ ”
It was only after he started working with English and Spanish speakers at the Roxbury nonprofit Sociedad Latina that he became fluent. Now 23, Quinones-Melo has an associate’s degree from the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology and is planning to get his bachelor’s. But he can’t help but wonder where he’d be if learning English hadn’t been such a barrier.
Many Latino immigrants can only afford to live in low-income neighborhoods with low-performing public schools, meaning their children have less access to advanced placement classes and savvy guidance counselors who can help them get into college.
Shynnah Monge-Cueto’s guidance counselors at Brighton High School didn’t tell her that, as a Latina with good grades, she could apply for a full-tuition scholarship to Northeastern University. Her parents, both born in Puerto Rico, didn’t go to college — like more than 60 percent of Latinos over the age of 25 in Boston — and didn’t know how to help her navigate the maze of applications and financial aid forms.
Above all, no one tried to steer Monge-Cueto toward an affordable school. So when she got into Pine Manor College in Chestnut Hill, where the tuition is currently nearly $30,000 a year, that’s where she went. “I just went with the first college that accepted me,” she said.
She took out thousands of dollars in loans, even though she didn’t fully understand the financial implications. Three semesters in, with bills mounting, she dropped out. Today, at 26, she’s working toward her associate’s degree at Bunker Hill Community College — and is $13,000 in debt.
Monge-Cueto and her family are among the more than 350,000 Puerto Ricans living in Massachusetts. In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, more than 2,000 Puerto Rican students and their families have sought shelter here, too.
Puerto Ricans are US citizens, and many of them have lived in mainland United States for decades, but they have had less success than other Latinos in the state, according to an analysis of 2016 Census data by demographer Phillip Granberry at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Only about half of Puerto Ricans age 16 and older are in the labor market, 12 percent are unemployed — nearly three times the state rate — and a fifth of 18-to-24-year-olds are considered “disconnected youth,” neither working nor going to school.
Being from a US territory might play a role in why Puerto Ricans struggle, said Maria Idali Torres, a UMass Boston anthropology professor and research associate at the Mauricio Gastón Institute for Latino Community Development and Public Policy.
Puerto Ricans often feel like second-class citizens, dependent on the United States but without access to the advantages that other Americans have, said Torres, who is from Puerto Rico. In the 1950s and ’60s, American industry descended on the island, gobbling up farm land and transforming the local economy. Many agricultural workers ended up on government assistance; others flocked to New England. But when farm jobs started dwindling here, too, they turned to the government for help.
“The US created a cycle of internalized dependency,” Torres said.
Overall, Latinos in Boston are overrepresented in low-paying occupations, making up more than half of building and grounds maintenance jobs but only 5 percent or less of jobs in engineering, law, and finance, according to the Boston Foundation.
This divide deepens as demand for English classes climbs and funding stagnates. Currently, there are more than 16,000 people on waiting lists for these classes in Massachusetts, according to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education — a wait that can take as long as two years.
The problem is compounded by the lack of Latino advocacy groups around the region — many of which are fairly new. Several have closed within the last few years, including ¿Oíste?, the only statewide nonprofit aimed at getting Latinos involved in politics.
“It’s so important for all of us to see ourselves reflected in our public institutions,” said Espinoza-Madrigal, of the Greater Boston Latino Network. “We need to be reflected in the halls of power in City Hall. We need to see our kids sitting in classrooms at Boston Latin School.”
There have been a few gains. Last year, Governor Baker formed an advisory commission on Latino affairs, and state Representative Jeffrey Sánchez, the son of Puerto Ricans who moved from the island to the mainland, was named chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. And there is hope that as the children and grandchildren of Latino immigrants grow up and move into professional positions, they will have more opportunities to become civically engaged.
But even in Lawrence, where Latinos make up more than three-quarters of the city’s population, a significant portion of the professional class, and a majority on the City Council, in addition to claiming the mayor’s office, there aren’t many Latinos running nonprofits that serve the Latino community.
Some who had done so previously quit because they felt ignored or “tokenized,” said Joan Kulash, executive director of the nonprofit Community InRoads, who started a program with the YWCA in 2013 to get more Latinos on nonprofit boards. One new Latina board member walked into her first meeting and was told, “Oh, you must be in the wrong meeting. They’re meeting down the hall.”
“They” was the Latino recipients of the services the nonprofit offered, Kulash said.
The cultural complexity of the Latino community also keeps it from being more cohesive. Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Salvadorans, and Colombians are all expected to speak in one voice — recent immigrants and the thoroughly Americanized alike.
“Latinos are not a monolithic community,” said Aixa Beauchamp, cofounder of the Latino Legacy Fund, established by The Boston Foundation to invest in organizations serving Latinos.
Navigating cultural differences in the business world can also be a challenge. Reinier Moquete spent much of his childhood in the Dominican Republic and went to night school while working 60 hours a week before founding Advoqt Technology Group in 2012. He doesn’t share many life experiences with others in the Greater Boston tech community.
In an attempt to make the field more accessible, Moquete, 38, is launching a course designed to take women and people of color from entry-level tech jobs to security analyst positions that pay $90,000 a year. Few of the enrollees can afford the $25,000 cost, however, so Advoqt has given scholarships to nearly everyone.
“It’s not going to happen organically,” he said. “It has to be a very deliberate, very focused, very aggressive pursuit.”
The administration of Mayor Martin Walsh has made modest gains in the hiring and appointment of Latinos in city government, but Latinos are lacking in key leadership roles, according to a report released last week by the Greater Boston Latino Network.
Walsh joined the directors of the Latino-led agencies who make up the network at the report release event, and pledged to do more to diversify city government.
The report, titled “The Silent Crisis II,” followed up on a 2014 report and found that Latinos, who represent 19 percent of the city’s population, are underrepresented in leadership positions in city government, holding just 10.5 percent of executive positions and 5.1 percent of positions on city boards and commissions. Of the six Latinos who hold one of the 57 executive positions in city government, five of them are concentrated in Health and Human Services, headed by Felix G. Arroyo.
The report authors noted a slight increase in Latino hires during the more than three years of the Walsh administration, but said more work is to be done to make city government truly representative.
“There has been some progress,” said Tufts University professor emeritus James Jennings, one of the report’s authors. “Not as much as we would want, but some progress.”
The report follows up on a 2014 report GBLN commissioned that underscored the lack of representation of Latinos in civic life in Boston and Chelsea. In Chelsea, where Latinos make up 62 percent of the population, there was greater representation among elected officials, but a similar gap between percentage of the population and representation in city government. In both cities, the Latino populations suffer higher rates of poverty, lower incomes and lower rates of home ownership.
Since 1980, Boston’s population has grown from 562,000 to nearly 680,000, with 92 percent of that growth coming from the Latino community. Walsh said the well being of the city’s expanding Latino population is vital to the city’s future.
“If we don’t adapt our power structure to reflect that change, our city will not be ready for the future,” Walsh said.
The apparent underrepresentation of Latinos in leadership positions is mirrored in other levels of city government, with Latinos making up just 12 percent of city employees, not including the Police and Fire Departments.
While municipal jobs have for many been an entryway into the middle class, Latinos and other people of color have long been shut out of the word-of-mouth networks through which municipal jobs are often filled.
The concentration of Latinos in leadership positions in Health and Human Services and at the Public Health Commission, agencies headed by Felix G. Arroyo and Barbara Ferrar, suggests that hiring people of color as department heads does make a difference.
In 2014, GBLN members announced their findings at City Hall. This year the announcement was made at the Hyde Square Task Force, a youth development agency in Jamaica Plain. And in 2017, city government bears more of Walsh’s mark than it did in 2014.
Shortly after he became mayor Walsh appointed a Chief Diversity Officer tasked with helping city departments find candidates of color to fill job openings. But in the initial formation of the office, there were no Latinos on staff. Earlier this year, Walsh appointed Tania Del Rio as diversity outreach director in the office.
In his remarks, Walsh highlighted efforts his administration has made, including the creation of a diversity dashboard, which tracks the city’s workforce by race and rate of pay (the Police and Fire Departments are not on the dashboard) as well as a recent neighborhood career fair that attracted 94 percent people of color.
The Office of Diversity has instituted an alert system for city departments engaged in the hiring process, Walsh said.
“If the applicant pool is too imbalanced, our Office of Diversity is immediately notified so they can do targeted outreach to make sure whatever job is posted in this city builds opportunity,” he said.
GBLN member Ivan Espinoza-
Madrigal said efforts to include more Latinos in city government will have to be deliberate and sustained.
“There is no silver bullet for this,” he told the Banner. “It has to be incremental steps across the board. Every small step matters. In the Police Department, the Fire Department, the public schools, in City Hall — collectively the small steps will make a difference.”
Under the Walsh administration, 90 percent of new firefighters and 75 percent of new police officers have been white. Espinoza-Madrigal, who is executive director at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, was scheduled to hold a forum Tuesday on Police and Fire Department hiring with the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers, the Boston Society of Vulcans and the Boston branch of the NAACP.
When asked about the scant representation of Latinos on boards and commissions — just 5.1 percent — Walsh questioned the importance of the bodies.
“There’s 350 boards and commissions in this city,” he said. “We probably have way too many boards and commissions in this city. I’ll make recommendations, but I’m not going to be fine-tuning every single board and commission.”
The report, authored by Jennings, Miren Uriarte and Jen Douglas, listed several key finding:
There is no particular effort to increase Latino leadership as part of governing in a way that can better address the challenges facing Latino communities. Nor are there explicit strategies in place to support existing Latino appointees in adopting an advocacy role or becoming active representatives of Latino communities
Latino appointees in Boston are few in number relative to the presence of Latinos in the population. Among executive positions, an increase from five to seven Latinos executives was achieved, largely through the presence of a concentration of Latino leaders in the Health and Human Services cabinet.
There are no Latino leaders in the critical areas of education and economic development and just one working in the areas of housing and land use. On boards and commissions, the story is of a small number of Latino appointees spread thinly across a minority of entities. While Latinos are dotted among a substantial number of managerial entities, they have scant presence on regulatory and fund-allocating bodies.
Just one of the Latinos currently in an executive position in the City has responsibility over substantive work related to housing, and no Latinos oversee work in the areas of education and economic development.
Walsh warned against an adversarial approach to diversifying city government.
“What we don’t need is people pointing fingers at each other,” he said. “I think it’s important for us now, at this particular moment in time, that we have an opportunity to work together, to move forward, to advance this report. I ask people here today, as we move forward, let’s not turn on each other. Let’s work together to make sure we continue to advance the needs of the people in our city.”
Boston is still lagging in Latino leadership roles at City Hall, according to a new report that calls for more Hispanics in power positions, but Mayor Martin J. Walsh said he can’t be entirely responsible for turning the tide and called on community leaders to put forward more qualified candidates.
The Silent Crisis II report, released by the Greater Boston Latino Network yesterday, follows an earlier report on Latinos in government from three years ago and shows some progress, Latino leaders said. But they said the city needs to take more action to get members of Boston’s Latino population — nearly 20 percent of the city — into leadership positions, particularly on boards and commissions that require only a mayoral appointment.
“The city has to do a better job of recruiting people,” Patricia Montes, executive director of immigrant advocacy group Centro Presente. “There are a lot of Latino people in the city that have the capacity and desire to participate and represent the goals of our community.”
According to the report, Latinos across 57 executive positions increased between 2014 and 2017 from five to six. But across the city’s 59 boards and commissions, Latino representation dropped from 28 to 24, with Latinos holding 5.1 percent of all board and commission seats and 7.9 percent of seats appointed at Walsh’s discretion over the past three years.
Walsh said increasing diversity at City Hall remains important and he will look into the decline in board members. He said City Hall needs to take a more active role in appointing Latino members, but that he did not have time to focus on every appointment.
“I’ll make recommendations, but I’m not going to be fine-tuning every single board and commission, I don’t have the time to do that,” Walsh said. “We probably have way too many boards and commissions in the city of Boston, to be honest with you.”
GBLN Steering Committee member Alex Oliver Davila said the organization is linking its website to the city site showing vacancies on boards and commissions, and focusing on boards covering issues such as economic development and housing that were crucial concerns for the city’s increasing Latino population. Walsh said department heads should meet with Latino leaders like the GBLN to get a sense of potential applicants, but that those leaders should have people ready to recommend.
“I think the onus and burden in some cases will fall on the Latino community in providing applicants for those boards,” Walsh said.
Three years after researchers warned Mayor Martin J. Walsh about the lack of Latino representation at City Hall, Latinos remain underrepresented in positions of power in his administration, a report released Thursday said.
Only six of City Hall’s 57 Cabinet chiefs, department heads, and other executives are Latinos, and just 24 of the city’s 467 seats on boards and commissions are held by Latinos, according to the report.
The “Silent Crisis II” report was both an assessment and rebuke of Walsh’s diversity efforts, praising the mayor for slight gains — but saying they were not enough. Walsh has promised to have a city government that is reflective of the city’s increasing diversity.
The report was commissioned by the Greater Boston Latino Network, a collection of community-based organizations promoting Latinos in decision-making positions in government. It also examined the Latino leadership gap in Chelsea.
“There has been some progress in both cities, not as much as we want,’’ said James Jennings, one of the study’s researchers and a professor emeritus at Tufts University. “There’s a continuing gap between the growing Latino community and appointment to leadership positions in both cities.”
The report comes as Walsh presses for second term and stakes out communities of color as a key constituency. Walsh had been fending off criticism on the lack of people of color in large city departments. His main competitor, Councilor Tito Jackson, is an African-American who has made increasing the city’s workforce diversity a campaign issue.
Since Walsh took office 12 percent of the mayor’s hires are Latino or of Hispanic origin, and 11 percent of the workforce is of Hispanic descent, city officials said.
Walsh, flanked by the researchers at a press conference Thursday, acknowledged some progress in Latino leadership at City Hall but said it “falls short.” He said that Boston needs more “Latino leadership in our city and in governments across the board.”
“What I’d ask people here today, as we move forward, is let’s not turn on each other, let’s work with each other to make sure we can continue to . . . advance the needs of the people in our city and in our Commonwealth,’’ he said.
The new report follows a 2014 analysis that also revealed few Latinos in Boston, Somerville, and Chelsea governments.
The Latino organization has maintained that active representation is necessary to promote policies and strategies for the betterment of underrepresented racial and ethnic communities.
The report said that despite the fact that the Latino population in Boston continues to surge, few Latinos have “decision-making” authority in Boston’s government.
Walsh said that since 1980, the city’s population has grown 21 percent to about 680,000 people. Much of that growth comes from Latinos, who represent nearly 19 percent of Boston’s population, he said.
“If we don’t adapt our power structure to reflect that change, the city will not be ready for the future, and that’s something that’s really important for all of us,’’ he said.
According to the report, Latinos serving in Boston executive positions increased by just 3 percent over the past three years, and their membership on the city’s boards and commissions declined from 7 percent to 5 percent, further widening a Latino leadership gap, the report said.
The report said that there were 29 new appointments to executive positions from 2015 to 2017, but only four were Latino.
“Since 2014, the number of Latino Cabinet chiefs grew from one to two, and the number of Latino department heads grew to four,’’ the report said.
Only two Hispanics are serving on the school committee. Both were appointed by Walsh. Forty percent of the system’s 57,000 students are Hispanic, data show.
Vanessa Calderón-Rosado, of the Latino group, said the report highlights the importance of grooming another generation of leaders.
The group wants “to narrow our focus on education, economic development, housing, those things we see as really important to giving Latinos greater opportunities,’’ she said.
The study’s researchers were Jennings; Miren Uriarte, sociologist at the University of Massachusetts Boston and Walsh school committee appointee; and researcher Jen Douglas.
The researchers also interviewed Chelsea’s City Manager Thomas Ambrosino. They found that while Latinos represent nearly two-thirds of Chelsea’s population, only 24 percent of the government’s executive positions and just 13 percent of seats on boards and commissions were held by Latinos.
Ambrosino said the report’s summary of Chelsea is fair, and his administration is working to increase Latino leadership.