New York City Council Member Carlos Menchaca loves to grow spices and chilies to add to his home cooked meals — but when it comes to choosing his favorite Mexican food spot in Sunset Park, he doesn’t play favorites.
“That’s a hard one,” Menchaca chuckled. “I always order tacos al pastor with a side of Mexican rice and beans,” he said of his traditional go-to dish. It binds him to his Mexican roots and the vibrant immigrant community that has adopted him as their hometown hero.
“What I love about Sunset Park is that anywhere you go, Bush Terminal Park, the senior center, down 5th Avenue, or even 8th Avenue, you feel at home,” Menchaca, who also represents Red Hook, parts of Bensonhurst and Borough Park, told the Sunset Park Voice. “It’s a neighborhood of families.”
A large majority of those Sunset Park families hail from the neighborhood’s Mexican and Asian immigrant communities — the two largest ethnic groups in New York City, after Dominicans, according to Census data — which stood firmly behind Menchaca during his 2013 run for District 38 council member.
Menchaca made history as the first Mexican-American Democrat elected to serve in the New York City Council. His victory over an incumbent councilwoman signified the rise of Mexican Americans in the political landscape, putting the young trailblazer on the map.
“We grew as a family. They took care of me and I took care of them,” Menchaca said of his constituents.
The 35-year-old Manchaca already knew he wanted to go into politics while growing up in the border town of El Paso, Texas, described himself as a “feisty kid, wanting to know everything” to advocate for his family.
He witnessed his single mother, Magdalena, struggle to raise seven children on her own.
“I don’t know how she did it,” Menchaca said of the hardships the family faced. “We interacted with government all the time, and it made me passionate about understanding how the system could be better.”
The first in his family to graduate from college, Menchaca holds a degree from the University of San Francisco in performing arts and social justice. His experience in political activism led him to New York to join the Coro Fellows Program – where he learned the value of community-government relations.
Since then, he’s made it his mission to bridge communities and as a council member he introduced participatory budgeting in Sunset Park – a democratic process that allows residents to decide how to spend a public budget and where taxpayers dollars go to fund their neighborhoods.
Menchaca’s success at empowering disenfranchised communities through the initiative has garnered write-ups in The New York Times, DNAInfo, and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. In his first year of PB, two-thirds of the ballots in his district were cast in Spanish and Chinese.
“Whether you live or work here, your voice matters, and what we’ve been able to do through participatory budgeting is bring opportunities to invite everyone to the table no matter their age, sexual orientation, or immigration status,” Menchaca said.
As Chair of the Committee on Immigration and member of the LGBT Caucus, Menchaca sponsored the 2015 launch of IDNYC, a municipal identification card offered to New Yorkers and undocumented immigrants. It gave them an opportunity to have legal identification without fears of deportation, open a bank account, access to public places, among other benefits.
But Menchaca was just getting started.
His next mission: Invest in adult education to help immigrant New Yorkers learn English. Menchaca says he receives daily letters at his legislative office from non-English speaking parents requesting for classes to help them communicate with their children’s teachers.
That’s why he’s advocating for $16 million and calling on Mayor Bill de Blasio to fund the Adult Literacy Initiative they way he did with universal pre-kindergarten. A recent report by the Center for Popular Democracy and Make the Road New York suggests that these classes could raise immigrants’ wages and reduce income inequality in impoverished communities.
“This is where it gets serious,” Menchaca said. “We think about gentrification and all the things that make us so afraid, because we don’t know what it is. But one thing that’s clear is how we can affect family’s lives through education.”
As our conversation steered towards immigration reform and the importance of ethnic and community media, Menchaca’s calm demeanor turned sympathetic. The 102-year-old El Diario/La Presna, the nation’s oldest Spanish language newspaper, laid off nearly half of its staff due to budget cuts, which shocked its readers, including Menchaca.
“The second I heard those real issues of El Diario, I called for a public hearing,” he said. He calls ethnic and community media a lifeline to many people in the city because it connects them to job postings, news, and immigration issues vital to families.
An hour before the hearing, Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito announced, via press release, an expansion of the administrations outreach to community and ethnic media companies across the city. In addition, the city created an online directory of 200 media ethnic media outlets, that will be available to city agencies and the city vowed to place more advertising in the ethnic papers.
Aside from the legal and education proposals, gentrification is another issue Menchaca’s community knows all too well. People have seen the factory district west of the Gowanus Expressway redeveloped as Industry City, a home for trendy shops, hip cafes, and markets like the Brooklyn Flea and Smorgasburg aimed at food fanatics.
In February, when the mayor proposed the BQX Connector, a streetcar line that would link Sunset Park to Astoria, Queens, some residents feared this new development would accelerate gentrification in their waterfront neighborhood, but the councilman says it can also ease transportation woes in his district.
“We are in desperate need of transportation options and I think the BQX serves as one idea we need to explore,” Menchaca said. “We want to increase the ability for people to travel outside the neighborhood for jobs.”
People have been vocal on fixing the R trains, the extension of bus lines, potentially bringing Citi bike and the ferry into their communities. For now, Menchaca sees the BXQ as an economic development to help community members, but it will only happen if people work together, he noted.
Menchaca confirmed that he plans to embark on a City Council re-election campaign in 2017.
What will his campaign be about? Preserving manufacturing jobs in Sunset Park, protecting immigrants through legal services, and shaping how the police force works with the community, he said.
“No matter the immigration status, you help everybody, and when you do that, you get these beautiful communities that are so diverse,” said Menchaca.
Clarification [June 2, 10am]: An earlier version of the headline misleadingly referred to the councilman as Sunset Park’s hometown hero, although he was not born in New York. We’ve adjusted the headline accordingly.