City Paper is not for tourists
Ted Loza is the D.C. Council’s Latino connection. The problem is that there’s only one of him.
Ward 1 D.C. Councilmember Jim Graham is practicing his Spanish.
“Seis-cero” He pauses. He is saying the number of the apartment he is about to visit to Ward 1 Latino Liaison Ted Loza.
“Seis-cero-tres,” finishes Loza.
“You never let me practice,” Graham grumbles.
On a brisk November Friday evening, Graham and Loza are in Columbia Heights, touring a once-grand apartment building that has fallen into disrepair. They’ve come at the invitation of a group of African-American and Latino tenants who say that basic upkeep and services have been neglected since a new landlord took over, three years ago.
Graham and Loza make an odd couple, fashionably speaking. Graham, 56, is dapper in a bow tie and yellow coat. The 35-year-old Loza has longish hair and a goatee. As they take their tour, they cluck sympathetically as the residents point out each problem: A child could easily fall through a large sixth-floor window with a missing pane. Water damage has marred ceilings and walls. Residents complain that they must heat their apartments with their ovens. One woman arrives with a Polaroid photo of a rat she trapped in her kitchen.
Graham promises to schedule a city building inspection. Loza suggests that they also schedule a visit by the city’s health department to test the children in the building for lead exposure. He makes notes and translates for Graham and the building’s Spanish speakers.
The next day, Loza attends a meeting of another tenants association as Graham’s representative. This building is in Mount Pleasant, and its residents are almost entirely Latinos. The meeting is conducted exclusively in Spanish. The association has set up a meeting table, complete with white tablecloth and flowers, in a basement laundry room. Over the gurgling of the washing machines, residents complain about an upcoming rent increase, a mouse problem, lax security, and inadequate hot water.
A few weeks before the meeting, Loza put the president of the tenants association in touch with a lawyer. Now, the residents are deciding whether to negotiate with the landlord or go to court. Loza makes a brief speech on behalf of Graham’s office, offering to help mediate the dispute.
Similar gatherings occur frequently in Ward 1, where poor building maintenance and rising rents have become problems for many low- and middle-income tenants. Loza says about a third of his job is spent at such community meetings, with the remainder of his time spent at the office.
Often, however, the question for Loza is “Which office?” Graham, whose ward hosts the District’s largest concentration of Latinos, isn’t the only councilmember relying on his employee’s services; Loza has found himself in the position of de facto Latino liaison for the most of the D.C. Council.
Loza’s quandary simultaneously reflects the political standing of the District’s Latino population and the manner in which power flows in a ward-based system. Latino activists and social-service agencies have remarkably strong ties to Graham’s office but much weaker ties to other councilmembers’. Those other councilmembers, observe Latino leaders, have shown less involvement in the Latino community. This situation leaves Graham’s office, and Loza in particular, as the D.C. Council’s nerve center for Latino issues, even as the Latino community moves beyond the ward’s boundaries.
Born in Ecuador, Loza came to the United States in 1979, when he was 13. He spent his teenage years in Arlington and moved into the District in his 20s. He worked in the D.C. Office of Labor Relations until July of last year, when he set up a meeting with Graham and convinced the councilmember to hire him. The councilmember, Loza relates, “was someone whose politics interested me a lot. He gave me a 15-minute meeting. I walked in with a résumé in my hand…and we ended up staying for an hour, and that’s how this love story started.”
The two men seem to have a close rapport. Loza speaks reverently of Graham, and it is evident that Graham needs Loza. Adams Morgan and Mount Pleasant are the heart of the District’s Latino community. In 2000, the U.S. Census Bureau counted more than 18,000 Latinos in Graham’s ward, figures that place the Latino community at close to 22 percent of its population.
Leaders of Latino social-service agencies in Ward 1 are almost uniformly supportive of Graham. They cite his visit to El Salvador this past summer and his bilingual community meetings as symbols of his openness to the Latino population.
More concretely, Graham has channeled a significant amount of money to Latino organizations. Ana Maria Neris, executive director of the Educational Organization for United Latin Americans senior center in Adams Morgan, credits Graham with helping her agency obtain funding to renovate its building. “Because of his connections and contacts, we were able to get a $250,000 grant and a $150,000 loan from the housing department, plus a $50,000 grant from the Public Welfare Foundation….We would not have been able to do this alone. We feel as if we owe $450,000 of the project to him.”
The burgeoning of D.C.’s Latino population, which now stands at 8 percent after the 2000 census, means that Ward 1 is no longer the only ward boasting a substantial Latino community. The 2000 census counted approximately 45,000 Latinos in the city, which marked an increase of 37 percent in 10 years. Ward 1 still has the most Latino citizens, but neighboring Ward 4which stretches across the north of the city from Rock Creek to Fort Tottensaw a whopping 145 percent increase over the past 10 years, with more than 9,000 Latinos now residing within its boundaries.
Such growth has yet to bring about a corresponding rise in political clout, however, and many Latino activists argue that the community’s influence in District government has stagnated. “The pattern is a pattern that has been pretty systemic over the years,” says longtime District Latino activist B.B. Otero. “There isn’t a significant effort at legislative and administrative levels. Jim [Graham] has made an amazing effort, has made a point to be part of the community. But, by and largeand I’ve been involved in the community since the 1970sthe city does not see this as an issue, or as an area of priority.”
The D.C. Council has a Subcommittee on Human Rights, Latino Affairs, and Property Managementcomprising Graham, At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson, and Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian Fentythat deals with legislative matters affecting the community. On day-to-day questions about Latino issues, however, council staffers turn to Loza. “He’s really it for Latino issues at the city council,” says Jessica White, a communications staffer for At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil. “If anybody’s got some issue, they go to Ted.”
In an effort to test this hypothesis, the Washington City Paper placed calls requesting to talk with a Spanish speaker at the offices of D.C. councilmembers over the last few weeks. Calls to Mendelson and Brazil’s offices, as well as to those of Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson, Ward 5’s Vincent Orange, Ward 6’s Sharon Ambrose, and Ward 8’s Sandy Allen, were all referred to Graham’s office. A call to Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans’ office was referred to Graham’s office or the office of At-Large Councilmember David Catania. A call to Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous’ office was referred to the D.C. Council’s main number, where the call was then referred to Graham’s office. D.C. Council Chair Linda Cropp and At-Large Councilmembers Carol Schwartz and David Catania all have Spanish speakers on staff.
It should be noted, however, that representatives of several city councilmembers say they don’t get too many calls from the Latino community. Sean Gough, chief of staff for Fenty, and John Ralls, chief of staff for Evans, both say that calls requesting Spanish translation or relating specifically to Latino issues are relatively unusual, despite the fact that their councilmembers’ wards boast the second- and third-highest concentrations of Latino residents in the city.
Nevertheless, the questions and referrals that come in mean extra work for Loza, who estimates that he gets requests for help from other councilmembers’ offices every other week. “If I have 15 people I’m helping out at one time, if I have a 16th person who comes from a different ward, I can’t touch them,” says Loza. “I try to help them as much as I can. As someone of Latino descent, I feel obligated. At the same time, I can’t lose the focus that those constituents that I was hired to help are in Ward 1.”
Arnoldo Ramos, former executive director of the Council of Latino Agencies, sees the delegation of Latino issues to Graham’s office as typical of the city’s political establishment’s treatment of the community. “The culture is, they set up a token office,” Ramos says. “Then they send anything Latino to that office, and then they wash their hands of it. I am trying to describe the political culture of the District for anything that’s not black-and-white. In the distribution of resources and power, this is a black-and-white city.” In a demographic sense, however, Ramos observes that “the city is browning nicely.”
Others see structural reasons for such arrangements, rooted in the city’s ward system. Jeffrey Henig, chair of George Washington University’s Center for Washington Area Studies, argues that “a ward-based system gives a point of access to spatially concentrated minorities. By and large, to the extent that the Latino community has clout, it has been in Ward 1. On a citywide basis, their numbers are still small, especially in terms of voters. The Latino community in a political sense is not as organized as in some cities, and it doesn’t force its issues into the political arena. They could become a voice in more than one ward. It takes effortpolitical grass-roots organizingto convert numbers into influence, and it often takes time.”
But Latino leaders note that their community hasn’t had that time, because its growth is relatively recent. “I came here from Chicago,” says Neris. “We had elected officials, a settlement of 100 years.” In the District, she argues, Latinos “are still at that preliminary stage of development. We haven’t been here 50 years yet, even 30 years. I don’t think we have developed a degree of sophistication to overcome all of our small needs and come together.”
The ballot box has been a particularly difficult place for Latinos to make their numbers count. Although there are no official data on the ethnicity of the District’s voters, there have been some private efforts to estimate the number of Latino voters by counting Spanish surnames on the voter rolls, though this method is far from statistically accurate. After the 2000 elections, local businessman Max Salas counted 7,800 Spanish-surnamed registered voters on the rollsa paltry 2 percent of the roughly 350,000 voters registered that year. A similar effort conducted in 1998 by former Executive Director of the Latino Civil Rights Task Force Pedro Aviles found about 6,000 Spanish-surnamed voters on the rolls.
Low voter turnout, say some Latino activists, has been coupled with a more general sense of inertia in the community. “There are peaks and valleys of community activism vis-à-vis the council and the government,” says Aviles. “After the Mount Pleasant disturbances [in 1991], there was a period of five to seven years where we interacted strongly. But then, with the [financial] control board, there were so many moving targets that the activism has come down significantly,” says Aviles.
Ward 4 presents a significant challenge for Latino activists. Latino residents have been streaming into the ward, but the vast majority of Latino-focused social-service agencies and community leaders remain in Ward 1, and they deal primarily with Graham. Many of the Ward 1 activists say that they are just getting to know Fenty, who bested longtime incumbent Charlene Drew Jarvis in the city’s 2000 election.
“He has not yet named a Latino liaison,” says Ramos. “When approached, he’s very positive, and he seems receptive, but I don’t see him as…proactive. He needs to be pushed, cajoled, and seduced in that direction. The challenge falls on the community. He listens, but he has to be pushed.”
Nonetheless, Latino civic leaders in Ward 4 praise his accessibility. “I met him when he was working for Councilmember Chavous,” says Alberto Gomez, who lives in Ward 4 and runs a construction company in Southeast. “I knew him better when he was helping Chavous in his bid for mayor. We’ve been talking since he was running for [D.C.] Council. He communicates by e-mail every week. If I want to ask anything from his office, I can.”
Dr. Ricardo Galbis, who runs the Andromeda Counseling Center in Ward 4, says that Fenty is “much more approachable than Charlene [Drew Jarvis]. We haven’t asked for anything yet, but we want to start a [bilingual] hot line and a halfway house. We have high hopes for him.”
Fenty says that he’s making an effort to reach out to his Latino constituents. “I try to make myself as available as any councilmember to any member of my ward,” he says. “We have had 13 to 14 town halls on economic development, senior issues, utilities, all things important to the Latino community.”
Fenty adds that he is planning a town-hall meeting focusing on Latino issues on Dec. 13, consulting with Ward 4 residents about the topics to be discussed: “We want to let the community set the agenda….affordable housing, the budget of the Mayor’s Office of Latino affairs….I suspect that education will be a big issue.”
As for increasing his reach, Fenty pledges, “We will hire a Latino liaison, no question about it.” But the councilmember adds that he’s not interested in hiring just anyone. “We’d like to hire someone who has some connection in the ward,” he says. “But like all positions, it has to be the right person, and finding someone who will work these hours at low pay is tough.”
Loza, for his part, is getting tired of waiting. “A Latino liaison for that officewhen is that going to happen?…Fenty has demonstrated himself to be very supportive, but I don’t think he’s concerned enougha little bit of lack of foresight because we have perceived him to be receptive toward our needs….He came in with the promise of a Latino liaison at his office, and I know he’s working toward that, but when?”
In the meantime, Fenty’s office still relies on Loza. “We have a good relationship with Graham and Ted Loza,” says Gough. “A lot of times, when we are putting out fliers, Ted will do us a favor and translate.” CP