Speaking up for Hispanics and Puerto Rico: a conversation with Puerto Rican Senator Carmelo Rios

Carmelo Rios is a senator for the Puerto Rican district of Bayamón and is the immediate past president of the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators (NHCSL). In conversation with CPI’s Brian Zuluaga during Hispanic Heritage Month, he spoke about his views on government legitimacy, emphasizing the importance of serving the entire community. “We’re public servants, we’re human beings, and we have many issues that look alike regardless of whether we’re white, black, Hispanic, from Asia-Pacific, or Native American. We have a lot of things in common.” 

Engaging with constituents during the pandemic

According to CPI, trust and government legitimacy go hand in hand, but trust-building looks different this year than it has in the past. Senator Rios feels that COVID-19 has changed the way politicians relate to their constituents. “Normally, we’ve engaged through what we call caravanas, when we get into cars and spend hours rallying around communities to spread the word and having town halls to listen to constituents’ concerns. And now this pandemic has given us some time to reflect because we’re not campaigning door-to-door anymore.” 

For now, he will focus on interviews with radio stations, and TV and “doing phone calls like they used to do in the 80s and 90s”, but also connecting with constituents through videoconferencing technology. “So those are the things that we’re doing right now to engage with the community, to understand what’s going on, and for them to give us feedback.

“Some people that feel that President Trump hasn’t been fair with Puerto Rico. Yes, we did have all those thousands of millions of dollars, but Puerto Rico was entitled to that money because of hurricane Maria, the earthquakes, and the pandemic. And when you ask many people in Puerto Rico, they say ‘we’re being disbarred, disenfranchised from the federal government, just because we live in the middle of the ocean.’ However, there’s an empathy with the local government that wasn’t there before. 

“We’ve just had our primaries. And for the first time ever, we’re voting by mail. And some people are skeptical about it, but we have 50,000 people out of our 2 million electorate who are voting by mail. Then you have the early voting. And we have, for the first time, over 170,000 early voters. So that tells me that people are engaged with government. They want to know what’s going on. They’re paying attention to the election; they’re looking at the issues.”

Building trust with residents through the caucus of Hispanic lawmakers

Senator Rios then spoke about his experience of being president of the NHCSL, and how he tried to rebuild Latino communities’ trust in government. “When I first went to NHCSL, I was amazed at the many topics that we faced. Immigration is a big issue, of course. We went three times to the Mexican border in Arizona to examine the many problems there. However, we’re not a single issue community. Healthcare is another major issue for us.”

“At NHCSL, we had a number of pharmaceutical firms come to the table. We asked them tough questions about drug pricing, affordability, access to medication, and medical trials.” The lack of diversity in medical trials is a major concern for Hispanic legislators “because our genetics are different, and the medication for cancer, diabetes, and others are being tested on the white population but not on minorities. Many of the minorities don’t participate in trials, either because they don’t look for them or because of a lack of information. But we have to participate; we have to become part of the solution when it comes to healthcare.” 

I think people now realize that, as the NHCSL keeps growing, as Hispanics become more educated and go to university, we become not only staffers for the White House, but we’re actually leading the campaigns. We’re getting elected, we’re empowering women, and we’re talking about issues other than Latino issues.

“Of course, I’m worried about COVID-19. I had it, although I was one of the lucky onesI had no major complications. I lost my taste-buds, but I had no fever, and it was mild stuff. No one wants to get sick from COVID, but on the whole, I’m more worried about chronic diseases, because they are always there.” Hispanic legislators also need to address the health problems suffered by farmworkers. “They’re working in the fields, which are being irrigated with poison, and the workers get sick, and they don’t know why. And then there’s the problem of food deserts, and people needing food banks.” 

However, Senator Rios sees some cause for optimism. “I think people now realize that, as the NHCSL keeps growing, as Hispanics become more educated and go to university, we become not only staffers for the White House, but we’re actually leading the campaigns. We’re getting elected, we’re empowering women, and we’re talking about issues other than Latino issues. We’re complicated. We have a culture that we’ve brought to this nation. We’re proud of our culture, and we’re willing to help with these issues because we are part of this nation, but at the same time, we are who we are. And we’re not going anywhere, so you’d better cope with us.”

Representing Latino communities

When he became president of the NHCSL, Senator Rios was surprised to find that some caucus members spoke no Spanish, despite representing large Spanish-speaking communities. The questions then are: “how do you engage? How do you jump the barrier of understanding?” His answer is that “it’s about the message, it’s about performance, and it’s about identifying with the community.”

There’s one thing that works for people, and that’s telling them the truth. That’s the only way they’ll respect you. And you might not agree on everything, but you’ve got to have a couple of issues that people can relate to.

“But what about me as a Latino representing my community, how do I engage?” he asks. “Be legitimate, be yourself, be real, care about the issues, learn about the culture. Talk about the difference. Stand your ground. Don’t be a swinger on an issue. People will respect you when you say what you think and stand up for what you believe. And that’s the key for people to understand and gain trust in what you do. I’m engaging with them and learning from their experiences.” 

Telling voters the truth

Senator Rios is also asking questions of himself. “What is it that needs to be done? What can I do for you on your issues? People want to know what you stand for. OK, I’m running for the Senate. How do I deliver the message? How do I get into the half a million people that I represent? How do I get people to leave their homes and risk their health to come out and vote?”

Even though you may be the only one in the room who believes in that issue, you’ve got to get your point across. You have to speak outeven with a heavy accent like mineyou have to speak out, you have to speak up.

His response is straightforward. “There’s one thing that works for people, and that’s telling them the truth. That’s the only way they’ll respect you. And you might not agree on everything, but you’ve got to have a couple of issues that people can relate to. When you divide people, when you put them in segmentsyou’re an immigrant, you’re Catholic, you’re Protestant – that’s when you get in trouble. 

“So, if I were advising fellow politicians what they can do for the Latino community, understand that we’re not one-dimensional, we’re multicultural. The Latino agenda is built on the back of many workers, farmworkers, people who step up to the plate and say ‘I’m here.’ People who gave their lives for the betterment of others. Regardless of where you come from, what’s important is what you do, how you behave, what you bring to the table, and what you bring to this nation.” 

“I’m proud of my Puerto Rican heritage, and it’s no different for Latinos around the world. We’re ourselves. When you talk about how to engage with communities, it’s about telling the truth, standing up for who you are, delivering the message without hesitating. Even though you may be the only one in the room who believes in that issue, you’ve got to get your point across. You have to speak outeven with a heavy accent like mineyou have to speak out, you have to speak up.”

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