Nydia Margarita Velázquez

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Nydia Margarita Velázquez

Nydia Margarita Velázquez, the daughter of a poor sugarcane cutter, is the first Puerto Rican woman to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Velázquez, a Democrat, won her seat in Congress in November 1992, after a grueling and controversial Democratic primary that pitted her against long-time incumbent Stephen J. Solarz and a crowded field of Hispanic challengers. Velázquez now represents the 12th Congressional District in New York City, a heavily Democratic and Hispanic district that was created in 1992 to encourage the election of a Hispanic representative. The district of just over 500, 000 people encompasses poor and working-class neighborhoods in Queens, Manhattan, and Brooklyn. However, because many politicians and officials feel that this district was configured on the basis of race, it is likely that the district will be ruled unconstitutional and redesigned.

As a Puerto Rican woman raised in a hardworking rural household with few modern conveniences, Velázquez brings a unique perspective to national politics. She was born March 23, 1953, in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico. Once famous for its sugarcane industry, Yabucoa is located in a lush valley on the island's southeast coast. Velázquez and her twin sister were among nine children raised by Benito and Carmen Luisa (Serrano) Velázquez, who lived at the edge of town in a small wooden house surrounded by sugarcane fields and the Rio Limon River.

To support the family, Carmen sold pasteles, a traditional Puerto Rican food, to cane cutters in the fields. Benito, who had a third-grade education, cut sugarcane and later became a butcher and the owner of a legal cock-fighting business. A local political leader, Benito founded a political party in his town and, significantly, passed on to his daughter Nydia a strong social conscience, according to the New York Times. During Nydia's childhood, dinner conversations often revolved around workers' rights and other political issues. "I always wanted to be like my father, " she said in an interview with the New York Times.

Eager to learn, Velázquez convinced her family to allow her to start school at the age of five. She proved to be a bright student, skipping several grades to graduate early and become the first in her family to receive a high school diploma. At 16, Velázquez was already a freshman at the University of Puerto Rico in Rio Piedras. She graduated magna cum laude in 1974 with a bachelor's degree in political science. After teaching briefly in Puerto Rico, she won a scholarship to continue her studies in the United States. She left the island, with her family's reluctant support, to enter New York University. Velázquez earned a master's degree in political science in 1976, then returned to the University of Puerto Rico in Humacao to teach political science. Leaving Puerto Rico again in 1981, she became an adjunct professor of Puerto Rican studies at Hunter College at the City University of New York, where she taught for two years.

In a September 21, 1992, interview with Newsday, Velázquez revealed that she left Puerto Rico for more reasons than simply to advance her education and career. "I was harassed when I was a professor at the University of Puerto Rico, when the [conservative] New Progressive Party took power in Puerto Rico, " she said. Velázquez said that she was accused of being a Communist and leftist. She eventually made her home in New York, but her career in politics and public service has subsequently included work in both the United States and Puerto Rico.

She received her first taste of New York City politics in the early 1980s. In 1983 she served as special assistant to former U.S. Representative Edolphus Towns, a Democrat from Brooklyn. As a special assistant, Velázquez was in charge of immigration issues, and part of her job included testifying before Congress on immigration legislation. In 1984, she was appointed to the New York City Council, filling the vacancy left when former councilman, Luis Olmedo, was convicted on charges of federal conspiracy and attempted extortion. At the age of 31, Velázquez became the first Latina to serve on the council.

After losing her council seat in the next election in 1986, Velázquez returned to Puerto Rico to serve as the national director of the Migration Division Office of the Department of Labor and Human Resources of Puerto Rico until 1989. In that year the governor of Puerto Rico appointed Velázquez secretary of the Department of Puerto Rican Community Affairs in the United States, a cabinet-level position that functions as a major link between Puerto Rico and the U.S. government. Responsible for the New York City headquarters and four regional offices, Velázquez advised the Puerto Rican government on Puerto Rico's public policy and its commitment to the Puerto Rican community in the United States. She exercised her political influence in 1989 when Hurricane Hugo devastated Puerto Rico. Velázquez personally called General Colin Powell, head of the joint chiefs of staff, and shortly after, the commonwealth received a promise of federal assistance. During her tenure as secretary, Velázquez also led successful voter registration drives that led to the registration of more than 200, 000 voters in Puerto Rican communities in the Northeast and Midwest; and in 1991 she initiated Unidos contra el sida (United Against AIDS ), a project to fight the spread of AIDS among Puerto Ricans.

Velázquez's close ties with the Puerto Rican government came under scrutiny during her 1992 bid for Congress. Her critics charged she was more concerned with Puerto Rican politics than with the problems of her constituents— an accusation she repeatedly denied. During the campaign, it was disclosed that Velázquez, while working for the Puerto Rican government, had personally supported the pro-commonwealth position in the fierce ongoing debate over the island's colonial status. During the race, she took a neutral stance on whether Puerto Rico should become a state or nation or continue as a commonwealth. "My responsibility as a member of Congress is to support whatever pledge Puerto Ricans make to resolve the situation, " she told Newsday. Acknowledging that she is concerned about Puerto Rico, she related to a Newsday reporter during the campaign: "I say that, yes, we have been oppressed and disenfranchised for too long."

Velázquez's bid for Congress came at a time of national efforts to bring Hispanics and other minorities to the polls. The 12th Congressional District was one of nine new districts created in 1992 to increase minority voting power under the Voting Rights Act. The district includes a patchwork of Hispanic neighborhoods in three boroughs, including Corona, Elmhurst, and Jackson Heights in Queens, the Lower East Side in Manhattan, and Williamsburg, Bushwick, Sunset Park, and East New York in Brooklyn. According to the New York Times, the average income in the district is $22, 500, more than $10, 000 less than the state average. Some 22 percent of the people are on public assistance, and 27 percent are non-citizens. While a majority of the district's population is Hispanic—including Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Colombians, and emigrants from other Spanish-speaking countries—the region also includes whites, blacks, and Asian Americans.

Former Representative Solarz's Brooklyn district, which was heavily Jewish, was dissolved by the redistricting process. As a non-Hispanic, Solarz was criticized for seeking to represent a district designed for minority leadership. But he insisted that he was the best person for the job. "I categorically reject that only a black can represent a black district, or a Hispanic an Hispanic district, " he told the New York Times. Although Solarz was a respected foreign policy expert in Congress, he was one of many legislators caught in the House bank scandal in the early 1990s, after it was revealed that he had written 743 overdrafts, according to the New York Times.

The 1992 Democratic primary in the 12th district was a bitter battle, pitting five Hispanic candidates against the popular Solarz, a nine-term Congressman. Velázquez ran an old-fashioned, grassroots campaign, pounding the pavement, making phone calls, and garnering support from family and friends. She could not afford much campaign literature or television advertisements. Although she raised just a fraction of Solarz's campaign fund of over $2 million, she had the endorsements of New York City Mayor David Dinkins, the Hispanic union leader Dennis Rivera, president of Local 1199 of the Drug, Hospital and Health Care Workers Union, and the Reverend Jesse Jackson. Dinkins's support was in part a political thank-you for Velázquez's 1989 voter registration efforts, which helped Mayor Dinkins win the Hispanic vote in the mayoral election.

Still, with four Hispanic opponents, one of her biggest challenges was to unite the district's diverse and politically fractured Hispanic community. Not only did Velázquez have to prove that she could represent all Hispanics in her district—not just the Puerto Ricans—she also had to fight the prejudice that often separates Puerto Ricans raised on the island from those with roots on the mainland. Even Velázquez's supporters describe her as controversial. "I think that Nydia just provokes very strong opinions of love and hate from people because she's so passionate herself, " said Luis A. Miranda, Jr., president of the Hispanic Federation of New York City, in an interview with the New York Times.

Velázquez won the September 15 primary. Soon after, she returned to Puerto Rico and her hometown, where she was given a hero's welcome. According to an account in the New York Times, she rode into Yabucoa in a pickup truck, accompanied by Mayor Angel Luis Ramos and a state senator. A loudspeaker proclaimed: "She's back! Our Nydia Velázquez, who will be the first Puerto Rican woman in Congress, is back in Sugartown!" Velázquez told the crowd that she dedicated her victory to her mother and the women of Puerto Rico. In an interview with Newsday, Ramos commented, "She represents a good example for the children. She came from a poor family and went to public school."

The low point of the 1992 campaign came in early October, when an anonymous source sent information to news organizations detailing Velázquez's attempted suicide and hospitalization the previous year. The incident was given much attention by the New York Post, which broke the story, and spread to the national media. Velázquez never denied the charges. Instead, she held a press conference where, surrounded by friends and family, she acknowledged that she had suffered serious depression as the result of personal problems, including her mother's illness and a brother's drug addiction. "In 1991, in a troublesome period of my life, I attempted to commit suicide, " said Velázquez, as reported by the New York Times. "It was a sad and painful experience for me, and one I thought was now in the past." She noted that she was "appalled" and "outraged" that privileged medical information in the form of confidential hospital records had been released to the public, in violation of state law.

Velázquez's supporters must have recognized their candidate as a survivor who had overcome personal adversity and proven her potential to lead their communities. Velázquez, at the age of 39, defeated both Republican and independent challengers in the November election, taking more than three-quarters of the vote. At her election-night party in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, surrounded by "Fair Housing" signs, Velázquez said, in Spanish, that her victory was important for herself, her parents, and her people in the 12th District. "For you, I'm going to fight to gain better jobs, better lives, and better opportunities, " she said.

As a non-traditional politician, Velázquez does not fit the standard conservative or liberal labels; instead, she often calls herself progressive. She hopes to concentrate her congressional career on the problems confronting her urban district, including jobs, the economy, child care, and housing. She supports federal construction projects to create jobs and government loans to help small businesses. Shortly before her election-day victory, Velázquez told the New York Post that she wanted to improve the educational system and stem the tide of crime and drugs. On the international front, she opposes Jewish settlements on the West Bank and favors increased economic aid to Latin America.

Velázquez also plans to prove that Hispanic women can serve proudly in the political arena. "We are the ones who go out and collect signatures, but when it came to the final process, we were not good enough to run for office, " said Velázquez in USA Today. She is one of 47 female representatives in the 103rd Congress. "New blood is good, " she told the New York Times on election day. Along with providing a new voice for Hispanics in Congress, she pledged to work with other minority and progressive members of Congress to improve the quality of life for all people in the nation's inner cities.

On December 11, 1995, the New York Times published a letter that Velásquez had written to the editor on the subject of bilingual education. She claimed that since Spanish-speaking citizens are the fastest growing minority group in the United States, the effects of English-only legislation would be problematic, as people would be unable to understand warnings in emergency situations and fail to receive immunizations against contagious diseases, which would endanger public health. Furthermore, she asserted that "Multilingualism is a tremendous resource to the United States because it permits improved communications and cross-cultural understanding. On the other hand, she concluded, "English-only measures undermine the economic competitiveness of the United States as well as represent an unwarranted governmental restriction on self-expression."

Further Reading

Newsday, September 21, 1992, p. 37; September 26, 1992, p. 10; September 27, 1992, p. 18; October 10, 1992, p. 13.

New York Post, November 4, 1992, p. 4.

New York Times, July 9, 1992, p. B3; September 7, 1992, pp. 21-22; September 27, 1992, p. 33; October 10, 1992, p. 25; October 29, 1992, p. B7; November 2, 1992, p. B1, B4; November 4, 1992, p. B13; December 11, 1995, p. A16; September 8, 1996, sec. 1, p 45.

Noticias del Mundo, November 4, 1992, pp. 1A, 4A.

USA Today, October 27, 1992, p. 2A.

Washington Post, October 9, 1992, p. A12. □