MERIDEN — Language access for Spanish speakers is becoming an increasingly significant issue for many of the Latinos running in the city’s municipal elections in November. Many of these proposals are coming from candidates who are relatively new to city politics and don’t have the long experience of other candidates on the ballot.
About 11% of the city’s population is foreign-born, according to a report released last month by DataHaven, a nonprofit organization dedicated to collecting, analyzing and sharing data. The largest number of immigrants living in the city are from Spanish-speaking countries like Mexico, Dominican Republic and Ecuador. DataHaven also noted that about 13% of Meriden residents speak English less than “very well,” which often makes it difficult for residents to access resources from government and local nonprofits.
The issue extends to the School Board race as a little more than 60% of the district was Latino in the 2022-2023 school year, according to information from EdSight, a data portal that provides information about schools and districts through the Connecticut governmental website. At the same time, 17% of the district were considered English Learners, up from 12% in 2013-2014.
Of course, language access isn’t the only issue for Latinos. Meet some of the Latino candidates who are campaigning on platforms of improving language access, increasing safety, and rallying more constituent participation.
Language access is a personal issue for City Council candidate Isabel Rosa-Kaiser. Her Puerto Rican mother didn’t speak English, so Rosa-Kaiser watched her struggle to find resources while also battling cancer. Later on, Rosa-Kaiser became increasingly involved with volunteering in her community as a way of honoring family members who have passed away. She sits on the city’s board of Aging and Disabilities and helps organize the American Cancer Society Relay for Life. She also collects medical supplies for disabled veterans in honor of her late father-in-law who was also a veteran.
Now that she’s been endorsed by the Meriden Republican Town Committee, Rosa-Kaiser is running for Area 1 City Council on a platform of improving bilingual communications, increasing public safety, finalizing construction plans for the new senior center and decreasing “frivolous” spending.
“There needs to be clear communications between the city government and community because of the large Hispanic presence,” said Rosa-Kaiser. “I feel that I can be a good resource for them seeing that a Hispanic woman is running for council.”
Her neighborhood is home to a large number of Spanish-speaking Latinos, and she said many of them have trouble communicating with the city in English. She added that many of the people in her neighborhood don’t know about city politics because of a lack of information and the language barrier.
“I think if you’re going to be chosen to represent an area, you should be making yourself accessible to your constituents,” she said. “If elected, I plan on personally mailing all of them, every single one of them, a letter letting them know that I am their Area 1 representative and here’s my contact number. Here’s my email in both Spanish and English and if they have any questions or concerns, they can reach out to me.”
Enileika López-Riddle was endorsed by the Democratic party Monday and is running again on a platform of increasing diversity and making it easier for parents to become involved in the education of their children —especially for Spanish-speaking parents.
“My main campaign is to show kids that there are people that look like them, that have started from the bottom like them, have had their struggles, and can make it,” López-Riddle said.
She ran for the Board of Education in 2021 and did not succeed. She decided to run again to show her two kids that their mom was able to not give up.
López-Riddle was born in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, and moved to Meriden when she was 6 years old. She went through a bilingual program that taught her English, which she described as a “home away from home.”
“When you don’t understand another language, it’s very hard to feel a part of something,” she explained. “When I was a part of the bilingual program, I felt a part of a home. My culture was there, my people were there and it just felt like we were both growing together learning a new language.”
She has since spent a lot of her time trying to build homes away from home for other people. She works as a health care practice manager for Hartford HealthCare and is the vice chairperson of City Council’s Human Rights, Racial Equity and Social Justice Committee. She explained that a sense of belonging is important for people to feel comfortable in their communities.
For incumbent Board of Education Member Elmer Gonzalez, being available for parent concerns has been one of the most important parts of his short term as a member. Gonzalez was part of one of the first Puerto Rican families that moved to Meriden in the 1960s and had to deal with the discrimination that was common in that time. Now that he’s on the board, he wants to make sure that parents are more involved with their students.
“One of my biggest issues is making sure that the Latino community understands what is happening with their children, first and foremost, not so much what’s happening in the school district, but what’s happening with the children, making sure that their children get the best education they can get by the best qualified teachers who are making sure that they’re safe.”
Gonzalez was nominated by the Republican Town Council to fill the seat vacated by fellow Republican Ray Ouellet, who left to join City Council in late 2021. He has since worked on increasing educator diversity by recruiting teachers from Puerto Rico.
After a year on the board, Gonzalez is seeking reelection on a platform of educator diversity, language access and parent involvement. The city is seeing rapid growth among its Latino students, especially new residents who are being enrolled in the bilingual program.
Diadette Hernández is running as a Democratic candidate for the Board of Education. She wants to improve parent communication and involvement. She said that having a Spanish speaker who understands the unique struggles of Latino parents would be helpful in improving communication between parents and educators. If elected, Hernández added she would also advocate for increased safety against gun violence and more support for neurodivergent children.
“My goal is to try to advocate for more parents to truly be involved in their children’s lives because study after study shows parents who are involved with their children’s education thrive better,” she said.
She left Aguada, Puerto Rico, when she was a baby and grew up speaking Spanish. Hernandez was enrolled in a bilingual program, struggled in school, but eventually graduated from AP classes. As a student, she said she was really involved in clubs and athletics without her parent’s knowledge because of the language barrier.
“As a student, I had to translate for my parents,” she said. “My parents had zero knowledge of everything I did until the award ceremony came and I had like 10 different awards and scholarships.”
Even though Hernández is active in the Parent-Teacher Group at Washington Middle School where her two kids study, she decided to run because she was passionate about how education can change lives. She described running for office for the first time as both “an honor” and “scary.” Despite all the new things she’s learning, she continues to campaign because she wants to make a difference.
“We have to be a voice for our children. If not, policies and procedures and things will be made for us. So in order to be a voice and an advocate, it’s important that we stand up,” she said.
Latino Communities Reporter Lau Guzmán is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Support RFA reporters at the Record-Journal through a donation at https://bit.ly/3Pdb0re, To learn more about RFA, visit www.reportforamerica.org.