FEATURE

Speaking Up

New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito ’91CC made history by becoming the first Latina elected to citywide office. Now, in her final year as Speaker, history has taken a turn.

by Paul Hond Published Spring 2017
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Mark-Viverito wasn’t deterred. In 2011 she led a rally near Bloomberg’s house in protest of the more than fifty thousand pot arrests the previous year, nearly 90 percent of which involved Blacks and Latinos. And with the Obama administration ramping up deportations, she cosponsored a bill, one of the first in the nation, limiting the city’s cooperation with US immigration officials. (This posture would be reinforced in late 2014 through a Mark-Viverito-backed bill that removed federal immigration officers from Rikers Island.) According to Mark-Viverito, Congress’s “abject failure” to address immigration reform — to resolve a complicated, long-unattended issue in a fair, humane way — meant that cities had to step up and lead.

In 2013, the term-limited council Speaker, Christine Quinn, joined the mayoral race, and the speakership was up for grabs. Mark-Viverito was entering her own final term with a reputation as a hard-nosed progressive lawmaker, and emerged from the pack as one of two leading Speaker candidates. Her rival was Dan Garodnick, a Democratic councilman from the Upper East Side. With the council sharply divided, Mark-Viverito embarked on what she calls “a bruising campaign.”

“The [New York] Post was brutal,” she says. “There were constant attacks. I think there were elements of racism — me being Latina and portrayed as ‘other,’ as a foreigner — and a resistance in the power structure to my progressive vision. I was portrayed as a threat to some extent. I had to withstand a lot as opposed to the other candidate, so it was hard. I knew the goal was to knock me down. But I have a tough shell, and I didn’t allow that.” On January 8, 2014, with the chambers packed with spectators and media, Mark-Viverito stood before the council for the vote. By a unanimous decision of the fifty-one members, Mark-Viverito was elected Speaker. The room broke out in cheers.

In her post-election remarks, Mark-Viverito said, “I hope that as young Latinas and Latinos are witnessing this moment, they are able to dream that much bigger and are inspired to work that much harder, because we have broken through one more barrier.”

Seeds of Action

When Mark-Viverito entered Columbia in the fall of 1987, the College had just graduated its first coed class. Beyond the gates, New York was beset with racial strife, AIDS, homelessness, crack, violence, financial chaos, and corruption. Bernhard Goetz had recently been acquitted on attempted-murder charges for the shooting of four African-American men on the subway after one of them asked him for money, and October 19 saw the Black Monday stock-market crash. And on October 22, at the Portsmouth Rotary Club in New Hampshire, an impassioned crowd of five hundred people, some holding TRUMP IN ’88 signs, listened as Donald Trump, the forty-one-year-old New York billionaire, said, “If the right man doesn’t get into office, you’re going to see a catastrophe in this country in the next four years like you’re never going to believe. And then you’ll be begging for the right man.”

“I knew the goal was to knock me down. But I have a tough shell, and I didn't allow that.”

That first year, Mark-Viverito had no time for politics. Not that she wasn’t interested: her father, Anthony Mark, was a politically engaged ophthalmologist in San Juan; and her mother, Elizabeth Viverito, was a feminist activist who had started one of Puerto Rico’s first female-led law firms. Both parents had been born in New York City, in the district that their daughter would one day represent, and they had passed on to her a keen sense of social justice. But as an eighteen-year-old Latina from a high-school class of forty entering the Ivy League circa 1987, Mark-Viverito had more immediate concerns.

“It was a little overwhelming,” she says. “Trying to figure Columbia out and navigate it and find my footing took some time.”

She encountered antiPuerto Rican prejudice, too, something she wasn’t familiar with. Some was general, mostly variations on “they’re all on welfare and should get back on their boats and go home.” Some was personal. It got so that she considered leaving after her first year. But in the end, she says, “I decided to stick with it and push through.”

The experience led her to examine her identity and “figure out who I was.” She eventually became active with Acción Boricua, a campus group promoting Puerto Rican culture and education, “part of that greater movement at that time to try to diversify the curriculum, and put pressure on the administration to look at bringing in more faculty of color.” She also hosted “Caribe Latino,” a Latin-jazz and talk-radio program on WKCR.

Through her campus activism, she got to meet some of the city’s Puerto Rican leaders, like Richard “Richie” Perez, a founder of the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights. She would go on to meet two other key influences: educator and feminist Antonia Pantoja ’54SW and Lorraine Cortés-Vázquez, the future secretary of state of New York. “A lot of the seeds that were planted growing up with my family really flowered at Columbia,” she says. “And that translated into becoming active in the city.”

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