NEW YORK (AP) — When someone asked longtime community activist Joel Magallan a couple of years ago when New York City would see its first Mexican-American elected official, he figured it would take another decade. Then along came Carlos Menchaca.
The 33-year-old community organizer, a Texas transplant-turned-Brooklyn resident, put together a coalition of ethnic and community groups — with Mexican mothers in his neighborhood as some of his most enthusiastic volunteers — unions and progressive organizations that helped him unexpectedly defeat a Democratic incumbent in the primary for a city council seat.
In such a heavily Democratic city, that made him a shoo-in for the general election last week, and he'll take office in January.
Menchaca's victory gives a new political presence, as well as inspiration, to an ethnic group that is one of the city's fastest growing and the third-largest Hispanic community behind the more well-established Puerto Rican and Dominican transplants. More than 328,000 people of Mexican descent live in New York City, a number reached just in the past two decades from big population increases, the U.S. Census Bureau says.
While other ethnic groups have been able to turn geographic consolidation in the city into voting bloc electoral power, like Dominicans in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, the city's Mexican residents are more spread out, said Lehman College professor Alyshia Galvez, director of the City University of New York's Institute of Mexican Studies.
And compared to other ethnic groups, a higher proportion of Mexicans are in the country on shaky legal ground and ineligible to vote, she says.
Menchaca was unexpected, as well, said professor Robert Smith of Baruch College's School of Public Affairs. He's "not one of the traditional Mexican leaders from the city's community," Smith said. "He wasn't an immigrant leader who worked his way up to community leader and then ran for office."
The El Paso, Texas, native went to college in California and moved to New York City in 2004. Running for office wasn't even in his plans as recently as last summer, Menchaca said.
Openly gay, Menchaca had been working as a liaison with the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities for City Council Speaker Christine Quinn's office when Superstorm Sandy struck a year ago. He got involved in his neighborhood recovery efforts. And "it gave me a whole new way of thinking about how important government was," he said.
Once he decided to run, the Mexican community "played a role in every part of this campaign," he said.
"Our first, most fierce volunteers were many of the mothers that lived in this community, that couldn't vote, undocumented, but wanted to get involved in political action, for the first time most of them, because they wanted to elect the first Mexican-American," he said.
Those mothers brought their American citizen sons and daughters, making sure they were registered to vote, and knocked on doors for get support for Menchaca.
Magallan, the executive director of Asociacion Tepayac de New York, remembers how surprised he was when he saw the first-time candidate's campaign website, having never even heard of Menchaca.
"I called him and said, 'OK, Carlos. I don't know you ... It doesn't matter. You are the first Mexican-American running, so we have to support you," Magallan recalled.
Menchaca's district covers working-class Brooklyn neighborhoods, including Red Hook and Sunset Park, and has a sizeable number of Mexican residents, along with Chinese and Puerto Rican populations. The 38th District incumbent he beat in the primary is a Puerto Rican woman.
Magallan said Menchaca's victory galvanized the community and energized Asociacion Tepayac's voter registration push among Mexican Americans. He is "the beginning, and we have to follow," Magallan said.
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