Manipulation of Congressional Districts
In Massachusetts, the number of Portuguese-Americans in the state Legislature fails to reflect the percentage of Portuguese-Americans in the state. Rhode Island, on the other hand. manages to have a larger percentage of Portuguese-Americans in its state legislature than within its general population.
Assessing three different experiences of political representation and ways to boost representation and citizenship was the theme of a colloquium at UMass Dartmouth Friday organized by the Center for Portuguese Studies and Culture and the Ferreira-Mendes Portuguese-American Archives.
While no clear answers emerged, a number of ideas were debated.
Former state Sen. Edmund Dinis had one word for participants: gerrymandering. He rolled out a color map of Massachusetts congressional districts on a table and argued that redistricting has always been manipulated to prevent a strong SouthCoast (and thus Portuguese-American) candidate.
"Both parties have worked to deprive us of a congressional seat, they cut us so we can't win," the 83-year-old said, explaining that a congressional district including New Bedford and Fall River alone has never existed.
"They keep control in Boston," he said.
"Who draws this map is all of us in the Legislature," said Rep. Antonio F.D. Cabral, D-New Bedford. "The influence that you might have in the state Legislature is very important."
Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., who represents the 21st Congressional District, described a different experience, saying that at one time his state had eight Portuguese-Americans in Congress. The state currently has three.
While the Portuguese-American community there is much more dispersed than in SouthCoast, it is well-established for example, owning 50 percent of the dairy industry, Rep. Nunes said. Gerrymandering hasn't been a major issue. In 2002, Tulare County was redistricted to form a cluster, for example, providing an advantage.
"It gave a Portuguese-American a chance to win," Rep. Nunes said.
"Actually, California should be a study for us," Rep. Cabral said.
Two Portuguese-Americans from Rhode Island, Sen. Daniel DaPonte, D-East Providence, and Joseph Amaral, R-Tiverton, explained that the state's compactness facilitates involvement.
"The predominant party in Tiverton is Portuguese," Rep. Amaral said.
While political influence remains elusive, evidence is starting to mount that Portuguese immigrants who have become American citizens are voting at higher percentages than the general population. Yet many others are not choosing to become American citizens and thus become eligible to vote.
James McGinchley of the Portuguese-American Citizenship Project presented data showing that the Portuguese consistently vote at higher rates than the population at large, whether that is in Massachusetts or California.
The project cross-checks registered voter lists with data collected from Portuguese churches and clubs.
"What we've done is just simply notify you that you're all voting," he said.
However, what's lacking is connecting those who have a voice with those who have influence, he said.
"All this stuff about invisibility ... is not deserved, and is sort of a self-imposed problem," he said.
By Joao Ferreira
Standard-Times staff writer
Angela Costa Simões
Manager, Corporate Public Relations
Channel and Education