So, if you’re a Puerto Rican living in a Chelsea tenement next to a burned-out hulk of a building that was torched, and if you have no prospect of a job and the welfare bureaucracy is giving you a hard time, the arrival of your cousin from the island could be an occasion both joyous and traumatic. “We are the bottom line of the bottom line,” Arroyo says of Latinos, “and among Latino Americans, the Puerto Ricans are the bottom of that.” When you’re that far down, organizing a precinct politically just doesn’t have the same urgency as finding a warm apartment or a hot meal. Aura Luz Garfunkel, a Greater Boston Legal Services attorney, says that most of the Latinos she has seen in Chelsea and Dorchester are perhaps worse off than her black clients. “They’re so far behind,” she says. If they’re not concerned with politics, what concerns them? “Heat. They’re worried about food. About how to pay the rent. About huge utility bills. They worry about not being able to get answers to their questions. They can’t communicate. When they can and do, there’s this terrible self-effacement that they feel.”
The people whom Rita Gonzales Levine, a social worker and administrator, talks to at Alianza Hispana, a social agency in Roxbury, “are feeling the basic survival issues—food, clothing, shelter, a minimal income.” Those who have lost welfare benefits blame neither local nor state pols, but rather the Reagan administration, even though the state plays a major role in administering public assistance. Like Aura Garfunkel and other middle-class, bilingual Latinos working in social services, Rita Levine spends a lot of time battling the bureaucracy.
The days are long gone when lining up the vote of a batch of newcomers directly translated into the delivery of food and a few buckets of coal. It’s a lot harder for the poor these days than 50 years ago to perceive any direct connection between voting and getting a piece of the action. Once it was the precinct captain or ward heeler who brokered; now, with local, state and federal bureaucracies in charge, the brokers are often social workers and legal-service attorneys. You don’t elect a social worker, a teacher or a legal-services attorney, but those very people, dealing daily with the bureaucracy, are the ones who worked hard last year to get the vote out for Dukakis and Senator Edward Kennedy.
“The only power we have is through the ballot,” says Maria Sanchez, a social worker who spends her time off registering her Latino neighbors in the sprawling Mission Hill projects. When Sanchez arrived there, nine years ago, very few were registered. She began knocking on doors, driving around with a loudspeaker on her car encouraging neighbors to register and to vote, and taking people to the polls. Now, she estimates that about 75 percent of potential voters are registered. To her, there is a direct connection between voting and getting services. “Politicians have told me that people in public housing don’t vote. The funding comes to neighborhoods with registered voters who vote. I can’t tell a person to vote and she’ll get food the next day. I’m talking in general—politicians are concerned with neighborhoods that do vote.”