Angelo Falcon: Unabashed Defender of Latinos

David R. Jones, La Nueva Mayoria / The New Majority

This past April I was invited to come on WBAI-FM to talk about the nearly three-year campaign by advocates to implement half-priced bus and subway fares for the city’s working poor, also known as “Fair Fares.”

Angelo Falcon, the political scientist, innovator, prolific writer on ethnic and urban politics, and founder of the National Institute for Latino Policy (formerly the Institute for Puerto Rican Policy) – had suggested me as a guest for the radio station’s The Jordan Journal, a weekly program hosted by Puerto Rican activist attorney and scholar Howard Jordan. The show examines a range of issues, from immigration and the marginalizing of black and brown communities, to constitutional freedoms and public policy.

Shortly after doing the show I received this note from Angelo:

“Dear David, Great to hear you on The Jordan Journal. When I suggested to Howard to invite you to talk about the Fair Fares campaign, he swore you wouldn’t accept. I told him you’re hot on this issue and would do the show. So, I am glad you did!”

Un abrazo, Angelo

It would be one of my last correspondences with Angelo, a friend of more than 40 years who served on the Community Service Society Board of Trustees from 1988 to 1995. His death on May 24 was a tremendous loss to our city. As is so often the case, we tend not to fully appreciate or recognize the contributions of a person until after they’re gone. Angelo’s contributions were in many ways immeasurable.    

If you happen to be a black or Latino member of the New York City Council, you certainly owe a debt of gratitude to Angelo Falcon.

That’s because many of the present Councilmanic district lines that have been credited with producing an unprecedented number of minority council members (currently 11 are Latino, 13 are black and two are Asian; in 1982 only two were Latino) were drawn based on Angelo’s research. It was from that research that Puerto Rican Legal and Education Defense Fund (PRLDEF) lawyers Cesar Perales and Juan Cartagena made the legal case for re-drawing district lines to better represent the city’s black and brown communities.

In 1982, Angelo published two ground-breaking reports; one on the underrepresentation of Latinos in state government, and the other documenting the more than 400,000 Latinos eligible to vote in New York City but not registered.

These two reports represented the utilizing of a new tactic in the fight for political empowerment and self-determination in the city’s black and brown communities. Instead of street protests and demonstrations, which were the conventional means at the time of mobilizing constituencies, Angelo pioneered the use of statistically-based arguments to advance community-based policies. And his reach and impact would go well beyond government institutions into the media, academia and philanthropy, all with the objective of holding those in positions of power accountable, increasing the representation of Latinos in influential sectors and above all else, being responsive to community issues and needs.

“He felt very strongly that employment in city and state government was an entry point into the middle class for many communities of color. And if you created enough pressure from the outside, you could make a real difference,” said Howard Jordan, who has known Angelo since 1978.

Not ideologically rigid, Angelo looked at the facts as they were, and as anyone who has ever dealt with him can attest, he could be scathing in his presentation of those facts. This did not always sit well with the political class who were sometimes on the receiving end of his work. But it set him apart as someone who had a strong sense of integrity. He had a “no-prisoners” approach, and was willing to take on anyone, including mayors and governors, to get things done.   

Perhaps his most lasting impact was his leadership style which served as a template for how to use intellectual abilities and data to bring about social change. From his work on voter registration and Census surveys to his reports and papers on representation of Latinos in academic institutions, government and the judiciary, he made it possible for Latinos and other minority groups to advance in elective politics. And then he held them accountable.

Now that he’s gone, we can only hope those he mentored and counseled over the years are prepared to step up and carry on his work. That would be a fitting tribute to someone who sacrificed and did so much to forge a path for others to move forward. 

Issues Covered

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