The New Pa. district maps offer Latinos a chance to legislate their communities.

Another neighborhood of opportunity is Lancaster’s new 49th, which covers Lancaster City. Latinos now make up 40% of the population there.

Spanish American Civic Association CEO Carlos Graupera says he’s seen the community build.

“We are the largest group of owners, new owners in the city. We are the largest group of social entrepreneurs in the city,” Graupera said. “We started electing as a community, people to council and city hall and city council and school board.”

Janet Diaz is one of them. She is the first Latina to win a city council seat.

Janet Diaz.

She is now a candidate for the new 49th House District, which is 38% Latino. It is a district currently represented by Rep. Mike Sturla (D-Lancaster). But, he is campaigning to represent the new 96th district, which covers the northern half of the city of Lancaster, including Manheim Township and the borough of East Petersburg.

Diaz built support even though she never received the Democratic Party’s endorsement.

“We have to elect someone from the Latino community,” Diaz said. “Sometimes Latinos don’t go to people because they don’t speak the language clearly, or they have an accent and they feel uncomfortable, but by having me, they’ll know I’m approachable. “

Yesenia Rodriguez collects signatures to get elected House District 116 –a new vacant neighborhood that spans the town of Hazleton, who is 60% Latino. The new neighborhood will be 37% Hispanic.

She left the Dominican Republic for the United States when she was 14 and spoke no English. She shows up, she said, for the same reason Opportunity Zones were created — “believing that our community should be represented by someone who understands their struggles.”

More choice vs split vote

In the May primary, Diaz will face Ismail Smith-Wade-El, a young black candidate favored by more progressive Democrats. He is also a member of the city council.

Kareena Rios, who serves on the Lancaster School District Board of Trustees, has supported both candidates in the past.

“They’re both running to potentially represent me at the state level, which is really exciting. And for me, I think it’s, yeah, I never would have expected something like this,” Rios said.

Lancaster’s 49th District and Hazleton’s 116th are examples of new frontiers with large Latino populations and no incumbents. It was drawn to open the field to new candidates of color who might not be able to compete with an incumbent, according to the Legislative Redistribution Commission.

Fernando Treviño is the Pennsylvania director of All on the Line, a constituency advocacy group. He said with open districts like the 49th in place, Latino leaders have a big task ahead of them.

“Here, the serious and complicated conversation that Latino leaders will have is to choose a Latino candidate, so there is no competition in the community,” Treviño said in Spanish.

He says too many candidates in districts designed to be predominantly Latino can split the vote and make it easier for a non-Latino candidate to win.

The state Supreme Court upheld the new maps this month after facing a number of legal challenges, meaning the reshaped districts are here to stay.

The primary is scheduled for May 17. At least six candidates of Latin American descent are vying for seats in the state legislature to represent growing communities across the Commonwealth. They are pushing to file their petitions by the 28th.

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