Panel airs history, struggles of Holyoke’s Hispanic residents

  • Orlando Isaza, 74, of Easthampton, photographed at Nuestras Raices on Main Street in Holyoke on Friday. When Isaza was on the board of the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts in 1992, it provided a grant to start the urban agriculture organization in South Holyoke. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Orlando Isaza, 74, of Easthampton, photographed at Fiesta Cafe on Main Street in Holyoke on Friday, Oct. 11, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • This Aug. 1, 1971 photo from the Springfield Union shows residents of Ward 1 of Holyoke marching on City Hall in peaceful protests against alleged police brutality and a curfew imposed by then mayor William Taupier's administration. RUSSELL CONNOR/SPRINGFIELD UNION

  • From left, Betty Medina-Lichtenstain, Orlando Isaza and Miguel Arce, all longtime activists in Holyoke, speak at a panel discussion on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019, titled "Latinx History of Holyoke." CHRIS YURKO/HCC

  • From left, Betty Medina-Lichtenstain, Orlando Isaza and Miguel Arce, all longtime activists in Holyoke, speak at a panel discussion on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019, titled "Latinx History of Holyoke." CHRIS YURKO/HCC

  • Miguel Arce, a longtime activists in Holyoke, speaks at a panel discussion on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019, titled "Latinx History of Holyoke." CHRIS YURKO/HCC

Staff Writer
Published: 10/13/2019 11:54:57 PM

HOLYOKE — In 1992, a group of Hispanic residents from Holyoke’s Ward 1 sued the city over the at-large components of its City Council and School Committee elections. The group, Vecinos de Barrio Uno, argued that the at-large system violated the Voting Rights Act by diminishing minority representation in elective government.

The U.S. District Court originally sided with the plaintiffs, ordering the reduction of at-large seats on the City Council from eight to two. However, the city won on appeal when the case was remanded back to the court, which after subsequent testimony ruled in favor of the defendants. Eight of the 15 seats on City Council were at-large until 2017, when a 2015 ballot question went into effect and removed two at-large seats from the council.

“This court has no illusions about what one writer has called ‘the lumpish, Jabba-the-Hutt immobility of racial prejudice in this country,’” Judge Michael Ponsor wrote in his final decision. “Certainly, it exists in Holyoke as elsewhere. Equally certainly, however, it is much less a factor now than in the past, at least in Holyoke’s political life.”

Since that ruling, the panelists said, there has been only one Latino elected to an at-large seat in the City Council.

Vecinos de Barrio Uno vs. City of Holyoke was one of several moments in Holyoke’s history shared by three prominent figures in the city’s history at a recent panel at Holyoke Community College, who spoke about injustice but also resistance on the part of the city’s Hispanic community.

“Institutions were not responsive to the needs of the community,” said Orlando Isaza, a longtime social activist in the city and one of the panelists. Isaza was also a plaintiff in the 1992 lawsuit after he had previously run unsuccessfully for an at-large City Council spot.

The panel was titled “Latinx History of Holyoke,” using the gender-neutral form of the adjective, and Isaza was joined by two other Holyoke icons: Betty Medina-Lichtenstain, the executive director of Enlace de Familias, and the educator and activist Miguel Arce.

Isaza said there have also been victories for the Latinx community in Holyoke, too. He remembered when the City Council approved a trash-burning facility in South Holyoke in 1984. The community protested, knocked on doors and built a coalition that successfully lobbied against the facility being built in the neighborhood.

“The trash company was crushed,” Isaza said with a laugh.

Arce said that the battle against racism and discrimination is a team effort fought by those who are committed to social justice and ready to get out and knock on doors, just as neighbors did to oppose the trash incinerator.

“There’s no one magic bullet that would win the battle,” he said. “These things are accomplished with a lot of work … It’s year after year, decade after decade.”

For large parts of the talk, projected behind the panelists was a 1971 Springfield Republican photo showing residents of Ward 1 marching on City Hall in peaceful protests against police brutality and a curfew imposed by then mayor William Taupier’s administration.

The panelists shared memories of how they have fought against false narratives and negative perceptions of their community created by those outside of it.

Medina said activists challenged the Holyoke Transcript-Telegram, saying the city’s newspaper of record — which shuttered in 1993 under the ownership of Newspapers of New England — would only show up to cover the Puerto Rican community when something bad happened.

“But when there’s a celebration, you’re not there,” Medina recalled saying.

Medina herself won a large victory when she became the first Puerto Rican woman to hold public office in the state when she won a seat on the city’s school committee in 1985.

Medina said the city’s schools, whose students are 81 percent Hispanic according to state education department numbers, have never received the funds they need in order for students to be successful.

“Whether it was 30 years ago, 10 years ago or today,” she said.

Isaza added that the system of funding school districts with property taxes leads to people in poor communities being underserved.

“That needs to be resolved if we’re going to have a good educational outcome for all,” he said.

As the event moved to a question-and-answer period, Arce responded to an audience member inquiring about what people could do to address the lack of political representation from the city’s Latinx community: “Run for political office.”

With at-large seats accounting for six of the City Council’s 13 members, the panelists said the body continues to favor the “upper wards” at the expense of minority communities.

“The majority of people who vote in Holyoke are homeowners,” said the event’s master of ceremonies, Myriam Quiñones, the coordinator of multicultural academic services at HCC and the wife of current Ward 4 Councilor Jossie Valentin. People in the lower wards are more transient, she said, meaning that the city’s Latinx population is disproportionately absent from political office in a city where they form a slight majority of all residents.

A member of the audience noted that there are three Latino at-large candidates for City Council this year, and reminded people that if they really wanted to help those candidates they could only vote for those three instead of using the maximum six votes.

“Bullet vote,” Isaza said. “That’s a critical thing to do.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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