Brockport woman is first Latina in New York to be elected mayor - Catholic Courier

Brockport woman is first Latina in New York to be elected mayor

EDITOR’S NOTE: Look for this story in the Catholic Courier’s Spanish-language sister publication, El Mensajero Católico, on Aug. 15.
 
BROCKPORT — Maria Connie Castañeda continues to make history in a year that has seen many historical political moments nationally.
 
On July 6 Castañeda — who moved to the area as a young child with her immigrant parents — was sworn in as mayor of the Village of Brockport, becoming the first Latina in New York state to be elected to such a position. She was sworn in by Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks, who herself was the first woman to win that post.
 
A nail biter of an election, Castañeda won by 11 votes against two other candidates.
 
"It takes my breath away," Castañeda said of becoming the first Latina elected mayor in New York state.
 
Four other Hispanics have won elections as mayors or supervisors of downstate villages and towns but they were men, according to Michael Fondacaro, editor of "Noticias y Notas," an online newsletter that includes articles and event information about Hispanics in New York and New England.
 
Castañeda’s ethnicity likely did not play a major role in her election, he added, because the 2000 U.S. Census shows Hispanics represent only 3 percent of the population.
 
"In terms of the growth of the Latino community, it is obvious throughout urban areas upstate, but in rural areas and her election, it can be … a case of the right candidate for the right area," Fondacaro noted. "The population (also) may have increased since then, and quite probably tipped the scales in her favor."
 
Sharon Kehoe, a neighbor and longtime friend of Castañeda’s, also believes that the distinct personalities of the three mayoral candidates were more significant factors in the outcome than race or ethnicity. But the fact that Castañeda won the same year that the country witnessed the inauguration of the first president of African-American descent and the nomination of a Latina to the Supreme Court is a great accomplishment, Kehoe added.
 
"The fact that people are open to it (election of a minority) is pretty remarkable," she remarked. "I think it’s wonderful because she has the ability and talent to do the job."
 
Castañeda made headlines four years ago when she became the first Hispanic woman to win a seat on the Brockport Village Board. Her parents, Adán and Rosario Rangel, moved from Mexico to find a better life for the family of five daughters, she recounted. As a 9-year-old child, Castañeda could only speak Spanish but learned English through the Migrant Education program at SUNY Brockport.
 
One of her tutors in the program, Emma Beaty of Greece, attended Castañeda’s mayoral swearing in and said that she could not have been happier.
 
"What made her so interesting is she was so enthusiastic about everything," Beaty said of the young Castañeda. "The family worked with her all the time. They were supportive of the (Migrant Education) program."
 
Castañeda’s mother, now an outreach coordinator at Oak Orchard Community Health Center, also worked with the program, Beaty said.
 
"(Castañeda) was so full of energy and a desire to learn," she added. "I’m so happy for her."
 
Castañeda’s passion for learning continued in her nearly two decades as a dual-language teacher at the James P.B. Duffy School of Excellence No. 12 on Rochester’s South Avenue. She will take on a more administrative role this fall as a coach for the program, working with teachers in identifying specific student needs and developing teacher materials and resources.
 
It will be a challenge to balance her full-time job with the part-time mayor’s job but one she knows she can handle, she said.
 
"I have a lot of faith, and things happen for a reason," Castañeda added. For example, her school is starting earlier in the fall, which means she will have time at the end of the day to work in the village office, she explained.
 
Before being encouraged by residents to vie for the mayoral post, Castañeda added that she was considering earning a second master’s degree in school administration. Those plans are on hold for now so she can remain accessible to residents.
 
"My door is always open," Castañeda noted. "That’s one of my strengths. I’m willing to listen to concerns and bring (issues) to the board to help address those concerns."
 
As a village trustee, she said that she said that she has strived to make the village government more open to its residents while also looking for cooperation among departments in trying to reduce costs for the taxpayers. Some may perceive her as negative because she voted no on such projects as a welcome center that she considered expensive and nonessential.
 
"People out there are concerned that village government is spending too much on certain program and not enough on infrastructure," she said. "We’ve raised taxes to double digits to meet expenses. … Something’s got to give."
 
As mayor, she said that she will continue to work on addressing the village’s financial solvency, increasing community involvement and making the village board work more cooperatively.
 
Sister Beverly Baker, coordinator of the Migrant Education program, said that Castañeda has her work cut out for her.
 
"She’s fighting the good fight to be able to accomplish some good things for the village," Sister Baker remarked. "But just like the president, you have big dreams but you can only do what the Senate and House (of Representatives) vote on. She has to abide by what the trustees vote on."
 
As someone who also has known Castañeda since she came to Brockport, however, Sister Baker added that she also knows what the new mayor is capable of.
 
"She definitely is a strong person, well spoken, not adverse to struggle," Sister Baker said. "She stands up and says what’s on her mind. … That’s definitely to her credit, her integrity."

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