Political activist and human services leader Gladys Vega said this week that the ‘Dear Friend’ political endorsement letters she sent out during the recent City Election were being misrepresented as an identity politics gesture and did not endorse Latino candidates over white or black candidates simply because of race or ethnicity.
“In certain districts where there were all Latino candidates I endorsed, I did ask Latino voters to vote for Latinos, but that wasn’t the case in every district with every letter,” she said. “In those certain districts I wanted them to vote for Latino candidates. There’s a large population of Latino residents in those areas and there’s nothing wrong with that. In the districts where I endorsed only Latinos, I did ask Latino voters to vote for Latinos. That wasn’t the case in every district. In District 5, if you see all the letters, you’ll see we endorsed Henry Wilson (an African American), and we didn’t endorse in the School Committee race with Bobby Pereira and Kizzie Reyes. I didn’t put that sentence in that letter. We said there are two great candidates and to come out and vote for who you want. Other places, I didn’t feel like the other non-Latino candidates were worth my endorsement. I said in those letters I wanted Latino voters to vote for those Latino candidates in those districts…I have no regret asking Latino voters to vote for Latino candidates in those districts.”
Vega added also that many of the candidates in those districts where the phrases appeared were her friends or family members, such as in District 8 where Yessinia Alfaro-Alvarez – a long-time friend and co-worker – appeared on the ballot. Another example is in District 7 where she endorsed Luis Tejada, who she said she has known for 30 years and wanted to support and endorse.
“Some of them happen to be my friends and my family members and they happened to be the Latino candidates in that district and I would do that again,” she said.
The ‘Dear Friend’ letters sent out by Vega were in Spanish and were mostly non-controversial, simply indicating her endorsement as a community leader and asking people to remember to vote. Such letters are nothing new to politics in Chelsea or elsewhere. However, one key phrase has grabbed the attention of some in the community and especially residents and candidates who are non-Latino.
That phrase stated, “No Se Olvide, Vote! Por los candidatos Latinos este Martes, 3 de Noviembre.”
Loosely translated, it means, “Don’t forget, vote for the Latino candidates this Tuesday, November 3.”
Some have taken issue with that direct phrase, such as District 7 Councillor Clifford Cunningham, who lost to Yamir Rodriguez on Nov. 3 – a first-time candidate who was endorsed by Vega. Cunningham has called for the Secretary of the Commonwealth to review the election activities and to monitor all future Chelsea local elections. Those two Council orders will be discussed next week at the Council meeting.
Vega said the phrase – which again, does not appear on every letter – should not be construed as a discriminatory remark. She clarified once again that it was only called for in the areas where all the candidates she endorsed were Latino.
“It wasn’t meant to sound good or bad,” she said. “I didn’t care for any of the candidates who were not Latino in certain districts. That wasn’t the case in every district…Those were the people I endorsed and I have no regrets.”
The ‘Dear Friend’ letters were paid for by the Roy Avellaneda campaign and Vega’s letter was just one of several strategic letters that Avellaneda put out during the campaign. Another letter, he said, came from former councillor Roseann Bongiovanni – a co-worker of Vega’s – and it endorsed him and another candidate. It was strategically sent to the areas where Bongiovanni had garnered the most support during her tenure, that being in Prattville and Admiral’s Hill – two areas that are known as mostly white or more racially-mixed. Vega’s letter was another piece of that and went out to the areas that were predominately Latino.
“That letter focused on Spanish voters and obviously Gladys Vega is very well known in the Latino community and focused on people who would recognize her as she is in the community, on Spanish-language television and radio,” said Avellaneda. “She is a known commodity there. Her letter went to Latino voters in Latino areas…Nationally you see senators and the president go to fundraisers or to a party to help raise money or support. In this effort, I paid for a letter. There’s nothing nefarious about it. It’s big boy tactics used on a local level.”
Avellaneda stressed it was a tactic he borrowed from the national campaigns in order to help district candidates that he preferred. As a former district councillor, he said he knows it is hard to rally people or fund-raise representing such a small area.
He said he could not speak for the contents of Vega’s letter, including the controversial phrase, but said he doesn’t shy away from it and doesn’t see it as a problem. He said it’s ridiculous to believe that ethnicity or race doesn’t play a part in political campaigns.
“A Latino was asking Latino voters to vote for a Latino in a city where we had no Latino representation and make up 70 percent of the population,” he said. “If they have a problem with that, I’m sorry. Record numbers of black voters came out for President Obama in huge numbers in neighborhoods that don’t typically vote in elections. Come on. Let’s be fair and right here. In the past I’ve worked with candidates of all colors and creeds and I don’t want this to turn into something racist. Let’s call it a rally call and it came in a district where there’s a large population of Latinos. We made that call in 3 of the 4 district races – and did so because the candidate was the best candidate on paper for that seat. Does ethnicity play a role to voters? Absolutely. There’s nothing wrong with that, but we can also say the best candidates in those races were the Latino candidates.
“No one said anything when we said to vote for Paul Nowicki (a white candidate who ran for state senate some years back), but now it’s divisive to say vote for the Latino so you can have one of your own up there?” he asked, in continuing. “It’s not divisive; it’s pride. Aren’t we proud of John Ruiz for being the first Latino heavyweight champion? Yes. We shouldn’t be ashamed of being a certain ethnicity and being proud of and supporting that ethnicity. Shame on those who make it that way.”
In the end, Vega said she felt that the situation was being blown out of proportion and she was being penalized for being politically active on her free time and in that time being a strong Latina voice.
“We did old fashioned politics – knocking on doors, talking to voters and identifying the vote,” she said. “Irish people voted for Irish people back then. It happens…I feel in the end I’m being picked on for my actions in my own free time.”