Some day, when they write the early 21st century history of the South Coast, they will talk about what happened when the latest wave of American immigrants came of age politically.

And when they write that history, they will talk about the 2021 redistricting process. 

The bitter defeat of efforts to bring the working-class cities of Fall River and New Bedford into one congressional district will be forgotten by that time. And maybe the beating hearts of America’s two largest Portuguese-American communities will even be thumping as one district by the time the history is written.

But what will mostly be remembered historically and politically about 2021 will be that it was a watershed moment for the South Coast with the creation of a majority-minority state legislative district in New Bedford, as well as the creation of a second legally recognized minority-influenced district. While in Fall River, two of the city’s three House districts now have significant minority populations, 32.9% and 25.3% respectively as of the 2020 federal Census.

This past Sunday night, the immigrant groups from the two cities that made the new districts possible gathered at the humble Panthers club in the near North End of New Bedford to celebrate.

A clown entertains some of the children on Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021, at a celebration for the work local immigrant groups did advocating for legislative and congressional districts where Latino, Black and other minority residents of New Bedford and Fall River will have a bigger voice. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

They sat at big round tables and feasted and listened to speeches, danced and watched a clown play with their kids. It was as if they were at a big wedding for a common relative. There were representatives from the Coalition for Social Justice, Centro Communitario de Trabajadores, Cosecha Massachusetts, the NAACP New Bedford, the Brazilian Association of the Southcoast, United Interfaith Action, and the Immigrant Assistance Center. There were Guatemalans and Salvadorans, Cape Verdeans and Brazilians, Dominicans and Puerto Ricans, the Maya K’iche’ indigenous and Cambodians all gathered together.  

Dax Crocker, the leader who coordinated the redistricting effort, said that groups and people who had previously been working separately were able to marshal their resources in a way that the Legislature’s redistricting committee had to pay attention to.  

“The creation of the district itself was to show the community the political power that they already have but that hadn’t been recognized,” he said. “So now they indeed can elect a person of their choice, a candidate of their choice, whatever race that candidate is, he will be a candidate of the minority community.”

Crocker was hired through grants won by the Coalition for Social Justice and his team went out and found the immigrants where they live and work, teaching them how to work the political process. “We found people, and we talked to people, and we called people, and we pushed people,” he told those at the Sunday gathering.

But he explained how it was the powerful witness of the people themselves who testified at the public hearing, their stories about their lives, their needs, and perhaps most importantly, where they live, that reached the committee members. 

One of them was Eduarth Ventura, the 17-year-old son of Adrian Ventura, the director of Centro Communitario, an immigrant worker’s rights group that has successfully advocated for safer working conditions, more just overtime pay and other issues at places like New Bedford’s seafood houses and tire recyclers.

Eduarth told the Joint Special Committee on Redistricting that the district where he lives should include the nearby neighborhoods where people like himself also live. 

“Eduarth, you changed my life, you impacted me,” Dax recounted. “You said, ‘Next year, I’m going to be 18 years old, I want to vote for my district. I need you to give me a district where I can vote for someone that is of my choice, of my choosing.’ ”

Crocker, a Guatemalan immigrant himself, came to the city by the way of the Episcopal City Mission. He had been working in traditional religious ministry in Arizona when he witnessed how American children were placed in foster case when their undocumented parents were returned to Mexico as the result of the law in that state. He re-geared his ministry toward community organizing and eventually found work alongside his fellow Guatemalans — again among New Bedford’s large Central American diaspora.

Also on hand Sunday was Shane Burgo, the 28-year-old Cape Verdean-American city councilor-elect. Burgo, a member of many city advocacy groups, including the NAACP’s executive and education committees, talked about how important it was to him to testify before the committee about the need for minorities being in districts where their voices will be heard.

“Part of the reason why I ran for office was to uplift our communities, and speak up where I can, to make sure that we have the representation where we need it,” he said.

Crocker said that members of the groups, called the Drawing Democracy Coalition, returned again and again to the redistricting committee, arguing for tweaks to the district maps that would most fully include New Bedford minority residents in the same districts.

“They went back and forth changing those maps so many times until they gave us the maps we wanted,” he said.

Perhaps no one was more moved by the celebration and the work of the Drawing Democracy Coalition than Adrian Ventura.

“My dream is to continue to be united, and hopefully stay united, and continually united, and bring our voice even louder for the future.”  

Sony Fernandes

He talked about the many years he has lived and worked in the city without understanding that state and federal districts could be drawn in which members of the Black and Latino communities could either be the majorities or big influencers. He apologized for what he called his “broken English” but there was nothing broken or unclear about what he said.

“I lived here 25 years in New Bedford. This is the first time, to open the eyes of what happened, to what the politicians are doing,” he said.

The Brazilian association testified before the committee mostly on the ill-fated effort to unite Fall River and New Bedford in a single congressional district. But at the celebration, its director said they understood the importance of the immigrants sticking together. Brazilians, unlike Portuguese of European descent, are considered a legally recognized Latino minority although many of them don’t identify that way.

“It’s just the beginning,” said Sony Fernandes. “So let’s continue the fight. And bring justice for the community.” 

The new immigrants have no boundaries, no race, no color, she said. 

“My dream is to continue to be united, and hopefully stay united, and continually united, and bring our voice even louder for the future.”  

Email Jack Spillane at jspillane@newbedfordlight.org.

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