It was billed as a press conference but Tuesday morning’s gathering marking historic political gains for Hispanics in Connecticut was more of a party.
“A fiesta,” said Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, who hosted the gathering at the state Capitol complex, where a band played traditional Puerto Rican songs before the political speeches.
The event celebrated the election of Connecticut’s first two Latino state senators, Andres Ayala, a Democrat from Bridgeport and Art Linares, a Republican from Westbrook.
Linares said he was proud to be among the first Hispanics elected to the state Senate. “My core values really stem from my family’s history,” he said, telling the story of his parents’ journey from Cuba to the U.S.
His father was too busy working to teach his young son to speak Spanish fluently, Linares said. “But what he did teach me was that no matter who you are or where you come from, if you work hard, you can achieve anything in this country,” he said. “I believe in the American dream.”
Ayala gestured to a group of politicians that included Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra and newly elected state Rep. Hilda Santiago of Meriden. “What a great day it is, to see all these great leaders behind me,” he said.
Ayala credited growth among the state’s Hispanic population as a key reason why the state did not lose a seat in Congress after the 2010 U.S. Census.
Moreover, Ayala said, the rise of the Hispanic political class is driving the national conversation on key issues. “Conversations, policy issues have changed in this country because of the participation of Latinos across these United States,” he said.
Hispanics across the nation are a key voting block, and that’s true in Connecticut as well, Segarra said. “This is a proud moment,” he said.
There are about 157,258 Hispanic voters in the state, although the number is imprecise, Merrill said.
The majority of those voters — 81,285 — are registered Democrats; about 62,000 are unaffiliated and 12,973 are Republicans, according to Merrill’s estimates.
More than half of those voters are younger than 44.
Merrill took note of the more than 22,000 Hispanics newly registered to vote in 2012. She called the spike “a very healthy number [and] one that shows greater political participation than ever before.”
The numbers mean “that anyone who’s serious about running for office in Connecticut must listen to the voices of our Hispanic community,” she said.
The gains represent a milestone, Merrill said, but ultimately they are ”just a snapshot on a long journey. Six percent of the state’s elected officials are Hispanic…but nearly 14 percent of the population is Hispanic, so there’s still a gap.”