Fraga Leads Discussion On Challenges Faced By Immigrants in Politics
By Anne Levin
In her book People Like Us: The New Wave of Candidates Knocking at Democracy’s Door, author Sayu Bhojwani recounts stories of immigrants who serve in American politics and the stumbling blocks they have had to overcome in their governmental careers.
Princeton Councilwoman Leticia Fraga, who is of Mexican descent, can relate to these stories. She read the recently published book after agreeing to engage Bhojwani in a discussion of the book at an Author Talk at Princeton Public Library tonight, Wednesday, November 28, at 6:30 p.m.
“It resonated with me immediately,” said Fraga, who was sworn in last January as the first Latin American to serve on Princeton Council and is the former chair of the Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund. “Reading it was almost empowering, because I could see that it wasn’t just me who had been having this experience.”
Fraga relates a story from early on in her term. As a member of the town’s economic development committee, she attended an event in which Gov. Phil Murphy came to Princeton to sign a resolution related to economic development. “Other elected officials were sitting at the front, and I went to sit with them,” she said. “Just before the governor arrived, one of his aides came up to me and said I couldn’t sit there. I didn’t know the protocol, so I got up. It was demoralizing. At the end of the event, the aide came up to me and said she was sorry she had to move me, but those seats were for elected officials.”
Too shocked to respond in the moment, Fraga said the experience made her realize that there was no one to guide her on how to handle such a situation. “I realized I have to be more assertive and just really man the ropes myself,” she said.
Bhojwani is a political scientist and immigrant of Indian descent. She was New York City’s first commissioner of immigrant affairs and is the founder of South Asian Youth Action. She earned a doctorate in politics and
education from Columbia University, where her research focused on immigrant political participation. Bhojwani is currently a visiting scholar at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University and a Woodrow Wilson visiting fellow at the Council of Independent Colleges.
The elected officials recounted in her book come from across the country. In Anaheim, Calif., a previously undocumented Mexican American challenges the powerful interests of the Disney Corporation to win a city council seat. A Muslim Somali American in Minnesota unseats an incumbent in the state’s house of representatives. “These are some of the foreign-born, lower-income, and of-color Americans who have successfully taken on leadership roles in elected office despite xenophobia, political gatekeeping, and personal financial concerns,’” reads a description on amazon.com.
“Some of the experiences shared in the book by newly-elected officials confirmed for me that I’m not the only one,” said Fraga. “Whether intentional or not, and I’m not blaming anyone, at times I felt I was not seen as a serious candidate. Even after I was elected, there were instances where I felt I was overlooked. But it’s an experience, and I’m learning from it.”
At the most recent Council meeting on November 19, Fraga reported that she had attended a gathering of the National Association for Latino Elected Officials in Washington. She was among 77 people at the event. “It was terrific, something I wish I had had on day one,” Fraga said. “They covered everything from how to conduct meetings to ethics, governing, and social media. I think this kind of thing would benefit everyone who ihas never been in office before — not just in government, but on the school board, maybe. It’s something I definitely want to explore.”