A New Era for Puerto Rican Leadership: Exclusive Interview with Melissa Mark-Viverito

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MMV-MEDIts not easy getting an interview with Melissa Mark-Viverito, New York City’s first Puerto Rican Council Speaker, even when we both want it to happen. When we first tried to finalize a time, the tragic East Harlem explosion occurred. The Speaker and her office immediately assisted in aid efforts, even serving as a command post for first responders. After that, it was the National Puerto Rican Day Parade in a year of fundamental reorganization and renewed commitments, a process the Speaker had a major role in. Nueva York is indeed a busy place to help run and Mark-Viverito is front-and-center to address our community’s needs.

We finally caught up with the Speaker interacting recently with her district residents at a public event in La Marqueta. We re-expressed our interest in an interview and were soon granted our request. Our conversation, though short, addressed a number of relevant topics to our community such as gentrification, “Stop and Frisk”, Puerto Rican political leadership, and whether Mark-Viverito wants to be New York’s first Puerto Rican and woman mayor.

Starting our conversation about the place we met, La Marqueta and El Barrio, one of the city’s historic Puerto Rican communities, Mark-Viverito had this to say: “We want to revive the important legacy of La Marqueta as a space that nurtures and validates our collective history in the neighborhoood. We’ve received strong support from the Governor and Mayor to have different agencies lend us their support and resources, and we’re starting cultural programs in la placita so that it can be a place where people can gather. Programs taking place from Thursday to Sunday will help in this, and we’ll be inviting vendors to be part of these activities and also to be part of the space inside La Marqueta so they can sell their products. We also have a farmer’s market three days a week with young people from the neighborhood that we’d like to expand by inviting farmers from upstate.”

“All of this together is creating a buzz of activity, re-energizing that space, and reaffirming our cultural values,” Mark-Viverito continued. “It’s going to take time, but we’re starting to lay the foundation.”

Though such efforts will aid in preserving the spirit of El Barrio’s community history, the complex process of gentrification, which pushes out the very residents responsible for this spirit, remains an issue. “It’s an ongoing battle,” the Speaker said. “Longtime residents in our communities that are finding themselves with limited options to stay, and feel they have no other place to go and are being displaced, is obviously alarming. We have a responsibility to do as much as we can to try to figure out how to stem that tide, but we’re also faced with limitations.”

“When it comes to private land, there are limitations to our intervention. We have greater influence when we’re talking about city-owned land,” she continued. “There’s also the issue of existing rent-regulated units and making sure that tenants aren’t being harassed by landlords. We also have Section 8, which unfortunately has seen a disinvestment from the federal government and so less vouchers are available to our community members. It’s really a multi-pronged challenge, and we’re trying as hard as we can but we also have limitations. But in the areas where we have some sort of leverage in the City, and have an ability to influence, we’re looking to do that, and I know that I’m looking to do that. Obviously in Manhattan, which is prime real estate, the neighborhoods, especially in northern Manhattan, are feeling the heat. That’s where the pressure is really strong right now.”

Switching gears, we asked for the Speaker’s thoughts on Stop-and-Frisk. “I’ve been a strong voice as a Council Member and even as an activist on police reform,” Mark-Viverito said. “I’m very proud of the work that the Council did in the last session to raise the debate on Stop-and-Frisk. We saw two pieces of legislation pass that are in place right now, one on the issue of racial profiling, and the other on the issue of an Inspector-General. Also, there was a Federal decision that came down regarding Stop-and-Frisk, and so we’ve seen an incredible shift and lessening in the number of Stop-and-Frisks and in the number of arrests resulting from them. And we haven’t seen this have a negative impact in the rate of crime in our neighborhood – that’s important.”

“Obviously the unfortunate homicide of Eric Garner is problematic and continues to raise the question of what additional reforms can be put in place to make sure officers that need to be held accountable are held accountable,” she continued. “We need to make sure we implement reforms so that our communities feel safe, feel the police are collaborating with them, and that their rights are being respected. We also have to be fair. The NYPD is the largest police force in this nation, and turning that police department around is not going to happen overnight. Commissioner Bratton has started to implement some changes, and we need to figure out if those changes are taking hold and are making an impact. That’s not going to happen overnight, so we have to be cautious in the criticism that we engage in. Not to say that we don’t need to be critical, because we need to be, but we also need to be realistic in the expectations we have.”

As a Puerto Rican elected official, the Madame Speaker also responded briefly to our query regarding the possibility of developing an agenda promoting unified efforts among Puerto Rican political leadership. “It’s in the best interest of any community to be as united as it can be to put forth an agenda that really addresses its concerns,” she said. “I’m very focused on my neighborhood and the City, but also, as a puertorriqueña born and raised on the island with family still there, I have an interest in the issues and concerns that affect the island, and in how to utilize this platform to give voice and support to those issues.”

“Every community has its challenges,” the Speaker continued. “I think there are issues that cut across lines that we can unite around, like social justice, creating sound educational systems, and creating enough affordable housing. Those are things that impact every community in a positive way, and so we need to be united around that.”

Upon hearing our final question asking whether she would consider following in the footsteps of other Puerto Rican New York City officials and run for Mayor, potentially becoming the first woman in the position, Melissa Mark-Viverito laughed. “I knew that was coming,” she said. “I don’t close doors, but I don’t know what the future holds,” she went on to say. “I’m very focused on the here and now. I have three and a half years left as Speaker and Council Member, and I can’t run again. I want to continue to be influential, I want to continue to be able to use my experience and voice to empower our community, but I don’t know what the future holds for me. I don’t know what my next step will be, but I won’t close any doors and will leave every option open.”

We at La Respuesta magazine look forward to seeing how the first Puerto Rican Speaker of the New York City Council continues to serve the city still boasting the largest urban population of Puerto Ricans outside the island. According to the Speaker, efforts will continue to focus on “implementing progressive policies and legislation that is going to move communities and individuals forward,” and “being very inclusive of the vast majority of our New York City residents, which is something I don’t think was happening in the last administration.” While there were certainly many questions left unasked in our brief conversation, we appreciate the Council Member giving our publication the opportunity to engage her directly.

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Andre Lee Muñiz

Andre Lee Muñiz is a Boricua born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. His family settled in the Brownsville-East New York section of Brooklyn in the late 1950s/ early 1960s from the Puerto Rican towns of Caguas and Añasco. As a public housing resident near Coney Island, Andre Lee attended local public schools and Kingsborough Community College. At KCC, he earned a minority student transfer scholarship to NYU, going on to earn a B.S. and M.A. degree, while also developing his interest in Puerto Rican history and culture. 

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