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Analysis: Prejudice, a Familiar Demon in Holyoke, Casts Pall over Election…

UPDATED 7/9/21 5:03PM: For accuracy & clarity.

Holyoke City Hall

Can Holyoke rise above the least of itself? (WMaP&I)

As Holyoke assembles perhaps its most diverse field of mayoral candidates ever, there have been reminders of how much progress the city must make. Over the holiday weekend, signs for mayoral candidate Joshua Garcia and city council candidate Israel Rivera were defaced with an anti-Hispanic screed. Specifically, the author assigned specific blame to Latinos for the city’s decline.

One can overinterpret what a single pile of cow excrement means. Yet, Holyoke may need to brace itself for the ugliness to increase. In addition to candidates of colors, the field includes women and a member of the LGBTQ community. There have already been subtle hints of sexism in the race, but city’s last elected mayor was gay and his predecessor was a woman. Credible Latino candidates may trigger those who fume about Holyoke’s demographics shifts.

“Confronting racism like this is precisely why I am running—not just as a Puerto Rican candidate but as someone who prioritizes pulling our community together,” Garcia said in a statement.

In his statement, Rivera said he had long heard such “gross” sentiments, but seeks to disprove them.

“I absolutely feel violated and targeted by this racism, but I use it to fuel me in my goal of helping to make Holyoke One,” he said. “Having more representation that looks like I do is a step towards that.”

The full contents of the vulgar screed apparently affixed to Garcia and Rivera’s signs need not receive the dignity of its full repetition. Nevertheless, the darkly nostalgic belch—which opened by calling Holyoke a “shithole”—lamented the city was no longer beautiful as it was in the 1980’s. It goes on to claim minorities get a free ride.

It does not explicitly name Latinos, but that group is by far the largest bloc in the city and its only sizable minority group. While immigrants from Latin American countries have come in recent years, Holyoke is one of the mainland’s most Puerto Rican cities. Unlike Springfield, it has not had a large non-Hispanic Black population historically.

Israel Rivera

Israel Rivera (via Facebook/Rivera campaign)

Nobody should confuse such views as representative of Holyokers broadly. However, such sentiments are not exotic either as Rivera noted. Residents of all stripes have reported of white people in grocery stores or other public venues openly blaming Puerto Ricans for the cities’ plight.

For years, Holyoke has been among the poorest in Massachusetts, sometimes swapping places with Lawrence or Springfield. (Other contenders include college towns whose poverty is something of a distortion due to the student population). However, these cities’ troubles are not the result of the new arrivals, but rather decades of disinvestment especially as political power leaked from their borders and into the suburbs.

Still, to see such bile expressed so openly is jarring. Springfield is no racial paradise. However, its political culture is such that not only pols but residents broadly recoil at overt racism. It doesn’t eliminate bigotry but it drives it farther underground—for better or for worse. Even decades ago, the infamous hams of Pearl Street provoked backpedaling and sincere outrage across the city.

Latinos constitute a larger share of Holyoke than they do in Springfield, but both cities are minority-majority. The difference is that Springfield has a significant Black population. Thus it has its own crucible during the Civil Rights era, if one less grotesque than Boston’s.

Still, this set in motion interest and incentives to bring African-Americans into the political system and civic culture. As the Latino population grew, the process essentially repeated itself. Some political godfathers—often white—claimed they could even deliver these votes for pols. Progress is slow and inadequate, but the odds are much lower—if not at all zero—anybody in or out of politics would publicly pin the city’s decline on Latinos while at Big Y. When it happens, it is cloaked with online anonymity or many, many beers deep at whiter watering holes.

Joshua Garcia

Joshua Garcia (via Twitter/@thegarciajosh)

As Garcia and Rivera’s statements indicate, however, the success of their city is not the province of one ethnic group. All good-faith Holyoke actors do and will work with whomever wants to better the Paper City. But the stakes in this election could also fuel the outwardly bigoted.

Garcia noted that these sentiments are more prevalent than most Holyokers want to admit. He is probably right. In terms of the Holyoke mayoral election, it may go no further than this vandalism. Several candidates have condemned the incident.

However, residents would be fools to think it couldn’t. No candidate for mayor would be brazen enough to directly echo such sentiments—even the most right-wing of the city’s electeds straddle the line—but there are dog whistles.

Nor may they be confined to race. As a proxy for unwanted change, race can be an easy target. However, subtle sexist jabs from both the right and the left have targeted at-large Councilor Rebecca Lisi, another mayoral hopeful. If her campaign catches fire, there is no reason to assume academic Gloria Roca-Caballero will be spared either.

So far there has not been any incoming aimed at School Committee member Devin Sheehan, who is the only openly gay candidate running for mayor.

There were homophobic incidents during the mayoralty of Alex Morse. Despite Holyoke’s body politic hosting several ostensible social conservatives, they never invested much in trying to wink at whatever anti-gay constituency still lurks in the city. The biggest exception that basically proves the rule was when controversy erupted at the end of Morse’s congressional campaign. As that situation flamed out, the councilors looking to make hay off of it appeared farcical at best.

The point is this could be a trying few months. Were the race to bog down in racial dreck, the principal loser will be the city itself.

“We were specifically targeted out of fear,” Garcia said. “Fear that under new leadership we as a community will connect, build and grow together and not divided between new and old or black/brown and right.”

The New/Old referenced the divisions at the height of the Morse wars. That era did not turn on prejudice, but it was a subtext—Morse successfully courted the Latino vote. Moreover, this deprived Holyoke of meaningful, substantive debates.

As the Paper City emerges from the pandemic, it cannot afford to give any quarter to these basest of feelings. Rather, it needs these debates and it needs them to happen with honesty. Then Holyoke must vote the best person to be its mayor.