• The San Juan Daily Star

New York’s lt. governor pick says he is Afro-Latino. Some Latinos object.

Antonio Delgado, center left, before speaking at an event hosted by the Rev. Al Sharpton, center right, in New York, on Saturday, May 7, 2022. The three major Democrats running to become New York’s second-in-command have Latino roots, but Delgado’s claim to the heritage is being challenged.

By Jeffery C. Mays and Luis Ferré-Sadurni

In New York’s Democratic primary for lieutenant governor, one goal had unified two outsider candidates, Diana Reyna and Ana Maria Archila: vying to be the first Latino elected to statewide office.

Achieving that objective has now gotten more complicated.

This month, Gov. Kathy Hochul named Rep. Antonio Delgado as her new lieutenant governor and running mate, replacing Brian Benjamin, who resigned in April after being indicted on federal bribery charges.

In announcing the choice, Hochul heralded Delgado’s Afro-Latino ethnicity, and noted his membership in both the Black and Hispanic congressional caucuses.

Prominent Latino Democrats, who lobbied Hochul on the decision and have long pushed for greater representation in state government, were quick to celebrate an appointment that, once it becomes official, will make Delgado the first Latino to hold statewide office in New York.

But as the congratulatory statements began to circulate, so did questions about Delgado’s background, putting a spotlight on issues of ethnicity, self-identity and representation before the June 28 primary.

Asked about his Afro-Latino heritage at the news conference where he was introduced as Hochul’s choice for lieutenant governor, Delgado gave a winding answer. He said people had surmised that he was Afro-Latino because of his name, or perhaps because he briefly lived in Puerto Rico, where he played semipro basketball. He then seemed to suggest that his Latino heritage stemmed from his family’s ties to Cape Verde, a small island nation off the west coast of Africa that was once a Portuguese colony.

The answer mystified some of his supporters, and created an opening for his opponents to scrutinize his claims of being Latino.

Luis Miranda Jr., a founding partner of the MirRam Group, a political consulting firm, posted celebratory comments on Twitter about Delgado’s appointment when it was announced. But after hearing his remarks at the news conference, Miranda said he was “puzzled by his explanation on ethnicity.”

Delgado, in an interview with The New York Times, described the complexity of how he views his ethnicity. He said his mother grew up at a time when she felt safe identifying only as Black or white, but eventually embraced the Mexican, Colombian and Venezuelan ancestry of her father, whom she did not know.

“She became someone who identifies as a proud Black woman with Latino roots,” Delgado said. “And as I’ve tried to orient myself and my sense of identity through her, that is the entry point.”

Asked how he identified himself, Delgado said: “I am a Black American man with Cape Verdean roots and Latino roots. When it pertains to my Latino roots, that comes from my mom’s side, whose own story around her identity is multifaceted and complex.”

When Hochul picked Benjamin for the job, her choice was influenced by a desire to have her running mate be a person of color from the New York City area as a way to help broaden her appeal beyond her base as a white politician from western New York.

Delgado offered many of the same qualities, giving the governor a running mate with name recognition and the potential to appeal to downstate Black and Latino voters as she seeks a full term this year.

Archila, who has been endorsed by Rep. Nydia Velázquez, the first Puerto Rican woman elected to the House, and Reyna said they understood why Hochul would want a Latino running mate. Latinos are the second-largest ethnic group in the state and make up 19% of the population. But the two women questioned Delgado’s rationale for describing himself as Latino and cast Hochul’s decision as a political ploy.

“Gov. Hochul is being extremely opportunistic and simplistic,” said Archila, who immigrated to the United States from Colombia and whose running mate is Jumaane Williams, New York City’s public advocate. “I think he should say more than, I have an ancestor who once was born in Colombia.”

Reyna, whose running mate is Rep. Thomas Suozzi, said at a recent campaign event that a “last name does not make you Latino.” The first statewide Latino official should be “authentic,” have “lived experience” and a record of helping Latino communities, she told Encuentro New York, a Latino advocacy group.

“She tells us that her lieutenant governor is a member of the Latino community,” Reyna, who is Dominican, said of the governor. “This is not about identity politics. This is about being truthful.”

Hochul and her campaign have said little about the questions surrounding Delgado’s ethnicity. They referred to him as Afro-Latino in the third line of a news release announcing his appointment; an email sent out the next day about a fundraiser did not mention his ethnicity.

“He identifies as Afro-Latino,” said Jerrel Harvey, a spokesperson for Hochul’s campaign.

Camille Rivera, a Democratic political strategist who identifies as Afro-Latina, said Hochul had missed an opportunity to energize an important voting bloc that could help decide the general election. Among the issues Latino leaders say they want state government to address are affordable housing, child care and inequalities in health care.

“You have no statewide Latino representation, right?” Rivera said. “Here was an opportunity to actually lift up Latinos in a real way.”

There has been little scrutiny of Delgado’s Latino heritage. Several news articles over the years have identified him incorrectly as Puerto Rican. Some articles from 2018, when he defeated John Faso, the Republican incumbent, to claim the House seat representing the Hudson Valley and Catskills regions, referred to him as Black.

Asked whether he had ever corrected the record about being Puerto Rican before the news conference where he was introduced as lieutenant governor, Delgado said in a statement that he was “raised as a blend of heritages,” including “Latino roots.”

“That’s the background I grew up with and how I identify,” he said in the statement. “My mom’s maiden name is Gomez and she grew up identifying as having Latina roots.”

Days after Hochul named him as Benjamin’s successor, Delgado gave a 15-minute speech at the Harlem headquarters of Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. Sharpton said he was surprised that Delgado did not address the confusion about his Afro-Latino identity.

“I think it’s something he can’t ignore,” Sharpton said after Delgado spoke that day.

Instead, Delgado reminisced about growing up in a Black Baptist church and drew hearty amens and nods of approval from the mostly Black crowd. He talked about why he pursued a career as a rapper after graduating from Harvard Law School, an issue opponents tried to use against him when he first ran for Congress.

“I know the power of the culture,” Delgado said. “I am the culture.”

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