Over the last two decades, an increasing number of immigrants from Latin American countries have settled in the picturesque northeastern U.S. state of New Hampshire. They've worked hard to find jobs and raise their children. But now, many of them have realized that improving their lives requires more than just earning an income: it means getting organized, becoming involved in their local communities and taking an active role in politics.
Around ten years ago, Hector Velez moved with his family from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Manchester, New Hampshire, where, he says, the weather is a little bit colder, but the living conditions are much better. "New Hampshire is probably the best state in the United States to live in," he says. "I'd never live anywhere else than New Hampshire, especially Manchester. New Hampshire ranks number 13 in schools. Manchester and Nashua rank as the 5th and 6th best cities to live in across the nation. There are a lot of opportunities for people who want to come and work and do the right thing. It's a great city."
Since he settled in Manchester, Mr. Velez says, he has noticed that the Hispanic community there is quite diverse -- and growing rapidly. According to the U.S census, 5,000 Latinos live in the city of Manchester, and 20,000 to 25,000 live in New Hampshire. But Mr. Velez says, "That's not the true number. Right now the Latino community, statewide, is anywhere between 35,000 to 40,000 people. People from Uruguay, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Colombia and Mexico make up a big percentage of the Latinos that are here. Now we are starting to see a big influx of people from Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Ecuador."
Last year Mr. Velez decided to run for public office. He says that because he was aware of his community's problems and willing to work hard to solve these problems, he gained his community's support and was elected to the State legislature.
"We need to start focusing more on education, getting our kids educated, getting them to not just think of high school, but college," he says. "We need to look at health. Right now within the minority community all over, we're talking about obesity, diabetes, and hypertension being true health issues that are affecting us." He says some Latinos who come to New Hampshire in search of a better dream have language barriers, so that is an issue. But beyond language, he is looking at economic development and how "Latinos engage themselves in the system here and make a better future for themselves."
Being a State Representative has been quite a learning experience, Mr. Velez says. "When I got elected, I started to see that what we don't see is what really moves and shakes the community," he says. "I started to see how legislation gets passed, how things that affect us at the state level really matter."
Mr. Velez wanted to encourage more Latinos to become active politically. Along with other Hispanic leaders, he came up with the idea of forming an advisory commission on Latino affairs on the state level.
On September 15th, New Hampshire Governor John Lynch established the Governor's Advisory Commission on Latino Affairs to advise him on legislation, laws to both improve the Latino community and integrate Latinos into the mainstream. Mr. Velez says the goal is to make "everybody feel that this is our state." The 19 commissioners from all over the state are "a good variety of people who represent the religious community, business community, health and human services, activists, police officers and state legislators, men and women."
The first Hispanic woman to be appointed to the New Hampshire commission on the Status of Women, Lillye Ramos Spooner, has lived in the state for more that 20 years. She says that she's excited about recent Latino efforts to make their voices heard. Ms. Ramos Spooner has been involved in mobilizing Latinos, especially women, to resister and vote. She says encouraging Hispanics to participate in each and every election is the way to bring about positive changes.
"One of the things we do very well in New Hampshire is voter registration," she says. "We go from door to door, street to street, mobilizing people to get out and vote. I'll give you an example. I went to a home of a woman that may be 60-something. She had never voted in her life. I said, 'Why?' She said, 'My husband wouldn't let me.' So the next question was, 'Where is your husband?' and he was at work. So I told her, 'I can pick you up and drive you to the polls.' And in New Hampshire, you can register the same day that you vote -- and she did. And that day she became a feminist. Even though you're one voice, when many voices come together, we do make a difference."
Chilean-American Artist Cornie Stahr says more aggressive campaigns are needed to get Hispanics, especially older ones, to become active in their local communities. "Latinos, in general, live a little bit afraid of going out of their communities, maybe for their legal status, or they might not feel at home," she says. "They always live very isolated. They live like in a ghetto. So, we are trying to let them to know that they have rights here, that they have a whole community supporting them."
Ms. Stahr believes that when Latinos are well informed about their rights, and encouraged to take advantage of the various opportunities available to them, their local communities will have more clout. That's what State Representative Hector Velez says is the ultimate goal of all the ongoing efforts to mobilize Latinos: to get together, talk about their concerns, and work together to ensure a better future for themselves and their children.