Latino voters are making themselves heard in city halls and statehouses from Idaho to Florida, reshaping the nation’s political landscape and delivering a surge of support for Hillary Clinton in the homestretch of the presidential campaign.
In the nation’s capital, by contrast, their voice is barely audible.
As residents head to the polls this week, they will once again be electing a D.C. Council without a single Latino representative — despite a growing Hispanic population that now stands at about 10 percent.
The city has elected a handful of Latino advisory neighborhood commissioners and school board members, as well as Franklin Garcia, who serves as the District’s unofficial “shadow representative” in Congress. But a Latino mayor or council member has never held office.
“We’re still powerless in terms of political representation,” said Pedro Aviles, a longtime political activist and founding member of the Latino Civil Rights Task Force, which was formed after the 1991 riots in the city’s heavily Hispanic Mount Pleasant neighborhood.
“We’ve had deputy mayors, and we’ve had appointments to powerful positions in the District of Columbia. But we’ve never gotten anyone elected,” Aviles said. “There is participation at the political level, but it’s not enough.”
The reasons for that absence are rooted both in demographic realities that have hampered Latinos’ influence at the ballot box throughout the country and in the idiosyncrasies of D.C. politics.
Mirroring a national trend for a minority group substantially made up of recent immigrants, fewer Latinos are eligible to vote in the District than in the city’s population as a whole. Less than half of District Latinos are eligible to cast a ballot, compared with 76 percent of blacks and 85 percent of whites, according to the Pew Research Center.
Rapid development and rising rents have dispersed the District’s Hispanic population from its historic concentration in Columbia Heights, Mount Pleasant and Adams Morgan, leaving Latinos without a political power base in a single council ward.
The District’s small number of elected offices and insular political culture have also made it tougher for Latino politicians to ascend here than in neighboring Virginia or Maryland, said Joshua Lopez, a 32-year-old Petworth resident who ran and lost in 2011 for an at-large council seat.
The winner in that race was veteran District politician Vincent B. Orange, who lost his primary race in June and then resigned under pressure from the council in August because of his effort to take on a dual role as head of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce.
“There’s only so many seats you can go for because we’re not a state,” Lopez said.
Given the city’s limited and diffuse Latino population, he added, identity politics alone isn’t a sufficient foundation for a successful campaign. Whether in a ward or citywide, Lopez said, a Latino candidate would have to build an electoral coalition that includes other ethnic and interest groups.
“If you’re going to go at it as a Latino only, it would be very, very difficult to win on that platform,” he said.
Angela Franco, president of the Greater Washington Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said the problem of Hispanic political representation in the District was “a two-way street.” She said a talented candidate was needed — as well as the right political and demographic alignment — to elect the city’s first Latino council member or mayor.
“Honestly, from my point of view, there’s nobody who’s ready to take on that role,” Franco said.
Jackie Reyes, director of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s Office on Latino Affairs, said Bowser (D) is using the machinery of government to help Latinos even in the absence of Latino elected representatives.
Just last week, Reyes noted, the mayor’s office announced close to $1.3 million in grants for community organizations that work with Hispanics.
“We might not have the representation of public officials, but we have the structure to give services,” Reyes said.
The lack of Latino officeholders in the District contrasts with elected bodies elsewhere in the country. Nationwide, the number of elected Latino officials grew by 25 percent between 2004 and 2014, according to NALEO Educational Fund, a nonprofit group that advocates greater participation by Latinos in politics.
Last year, Seattle — a city whose size and Hispanic population are similar to the District’s — elected the first two Latino members in history to its nine-seat council. Just north of the District, Nancy Navarro is serving as the first Latina on the Montgomery County Council.
The District’s predominantly Salvadoran Hispanic population is young compared with those of cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Miami, with many tracing their roots to a wave of Central American immigrants to the city in the 1970s and 1980s.
Peter Tatian, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute who studies the District’s demographic trends, said Latino involvement in local politics could increase as an established second generation comes of age and guides its children through the city’s school system.
“We have a lot more Latinos who have been in the District a while now,” Tatian said. “Not only immigrants who are coming in, but people who are living here, having families here. And that’s changing the community.”
On a recent morning in Mount Pleasant — a neighborhood where pupuserias jostle with upscale coffee shops, and different types of newcomers, young and white, tote skateboards and yoga mats past clusters of men and women speaking Spanish — Jasmina Garcia said a Latino elected representative in the District’s government was overdue.
A 58-year-old housekeeper who speaks limited English and lives in Friendship Heights, Garcia said she thought an elected Latino in city hall would better understand and address problems widely experienced among those she knows, issues such as wage theft and the challenges of the immigration process.
“I don’t know who the representation is for Latinos in this city,” she said.
Walking her dog nearby, Gloria Sanchez, 51, said she thought many of her neighbors were still focused on the immediate concerns of first-generation immigrants.
“I think that the Latin families, their thing is just work, work, work. They don’t take the time to figure out what they can do [politically],” said Sanchez, who moved to the District with her family from El Salvador when she was 5. “They’re always busy and tired.”
Asked whether that might change in the years ahead, she paused.
“Maybe with this new generation,” she said. “Maybe.”
This story has been updated from an earlier version, which incorrectly stated that no Latino had held citywide office.