Birthright: How Marcos Crespo was shaped by his heritage

Assemblyman Marcos Crespo
Assemblyman Marcos Crespo
Celeste Sloman
Assemblyman Marcos Crespo

Birthright: How Marcos Crespo was shaped by his heritage

The assemblyman on his parents, being a “second-class citizen” and a harrowing trip to Israel
March 8, 2018

To understand who Marcos Crespo is, it’s crucial to know his backstory. The son of a Puerto Rican mother and an undocumented Peruvian immigrant father, he has risen to become one of the most influential Latino lawmakers in New York, chairman of the Bronx Democratic Party and the Assembly Puerto Rican/Hispanic Task Force. Crespo sees Latinos as severely underrepresented within the minority community and has plans to solve that problem, along with many others that impact a broader swath of New Yorkers, especially in education reform. City & State’s Frank G. Runyeon spoke with the assemblyman just after his return from an “eventful” trip to Israel where young protesters threw eggs at him.

C&S: In what ways has your Latino background and your time living in Puerto Rico and Peru formed your political career, if at all?

MC: That’s an interesting question. It certainly helped shape my train of thought and my approach to issues and my understanding of some issues. I’ll give you an example. The experiences I’ve had there is one of the reasons why I happen to be a Democrat that supports much of the education reform movement. It was the experience of having gone to three elementary schools, three different junior high schools and four different high schools studying in Puerto Rico, in Peru, in Florida, and in different neighborhoods in Queens. The math that I saw in fourth and fifth grade in Peru, I didn’t really see in the United States until high school. The difference was if you brought a calculator to school in Peru, it was considered cheating. Whereas here, I was encouraged by my teachers to bring a calculator so I could get through the material. My last paper in high school and my first paper in college were about that issue and I’ve been intrigued about education issues ever since. … And certainly culturally, the debates that we’re seeing around the country, whether it’s immigration, this attempt to redefine what being an American is, which has been subtext to a lot of the discourse, is something I have strong views about given how proud I am of my various heritages and influences.

"My father came here hidden in a storage container of a shipping vessel from Peru."

C&S: To what extent does that part of your identity shape your day-to-day decisions as a state lawmaker and senior Bronx Democratic Party official?

MC: Maybe in just the way I think and my approach to things, … there is a tendency in our community, in the Latino community, to be bluntly honest. (laughs) And that’s something I’ve brought to politics. Whether that makes people feel a certain way when I share my thoughts on something or whether that’s helped give me a reputation as somebody who is sincere with everybody. But I don’t know, does that qualify?

C&S: It does! How important is that part of your identity in understanding who Marcos Crespo is?

MC: Oh, crucial, crucial, crucial. So much of my work has been in the advocacy for Puerto Rico, what’s happening there, the immigration question – I mean, my father was an undocumented immigrant from Peru. My mother is Puerto Rican, so I have citizenship by birth; I was born in Puerto Rico. But I’m not a stranger to discussions around immigration and those who come here without proper documentation. My father came here hidden in a storage container of a shipping vessel from Peru. So, all over those things have clearly influenced my views of those issues and what immigration means, what identity means. Putting aside my father’s story, as a Puerto Rican, for all intents and purposes, I’m a second-class citizen and those things impact me. Certainly I have strong feeling about how this country has been unfair to not just Puerto Rico but the territories and how I believe that is incompatible with the democracy that we promote around the world. Now, those are grander statements than what we do as state officials but it does impact the work of our conference and the advocacy that we feel, as a diaspora, we owe to our counterparts in Puerto Rico that has a direct impact on our budgets. As we’re seeing now with this crisis, you have the largest migration of Puerto Ricans leaving the island in its history. Many are coming to states like New York where they have familiarity and contacts. The minute they arrive, they are citizens and they have every right to participate in our political process and every right to seek certain services. The cost of those services are more expensive here than they would have been if Puerto Rico had the support from the federal government to offer them back home. Many of those people don’t want to have to leave but they have no choice right now. That conversation shouldn’t be foreign to New York or New Yorkers, whether you’re Puerto Rican or not, because there are budget impacts. So in that sense, there’s clearly a correlation between who I am and what I’ve been through and what I do and how I think.

C&S: We hear you had an interesting trip to Israel recently – dodging eggs as police evacuated you and others when anti-American protesters burst into the office you were meeting in in the West Bank. What was that experience like?

MC: Eggs, vegetables, and there’s a discussion about whether those were rocks we heard hit the van. … The experience was scary, but interesting. … What we expected to be a relatively routine meeting and visit (with a professor in Ramallah), as it’s been done before without incident, was hurt by timing of some things that was totally outside of our control. … We’re upstairs, we’re having this conversation and the professor happened to be talking about his survey’s findings and the fact that there was a growing angry and vociferous youth movement that was distrusting of a lot of people involved in all the conflicts. … As we’re having this discussion, some young men appeared in the lobby of the building and had an exchange of words with the professor’s staff. We offered if one of them would like to address us and tell us about their views of things. They weren’t interested and just wanted to tell us we weren’t welcome in their eyes. … (The group eventually grew to 25 people and the police arrived to escort the lawmakers away.) Their message was clear; they had pretty good English. (laughs) So, they gave us a piece of their mind and some eggs along the way. Everyone was safe.

C&S: What’s next for Marcos Crespo? Where will we find you in five years?

MC: Good question. Drowning in my kids tuition payments! (laughs) … Honestly, I love the Assembly. I love the institution and the policy we work on and that’s really all I’m focused on.

C&S: If you could not work in government, what would you be doing?

MC: Education reform advocacy … if not that, advocacy surrounding Puerto Rico.

C&S: Anything specific?

MC: I’ll give you an example. On this trip to Israel, much of the trip was about understanding the cultural complexities within. Forget the conflicts around them. Just Israel and how the Israeli community has its own internal discussions around immigration, racial identity and religious identity. It’s a really complex network of issues, some of which we can relate to some of which is unique. But I admired how diligent, and how many organizations, and how their community is built around the idea of what they do with birthright and how they encourage Jewish individuals from around the world to connect with the state of Israel. That, for me, with our growing Latino communities, as a Latino who identifies as an American, that doesn’t mean that I cannot be involved and reconnect in those places that are important to me. In this case, Puerto Rico. How many of the 5 or 6 million Puerto Ricans who live in the diaspora truly have an understanding and a grasp of what Puerto Rico’s reality is like? For second-, third-generation Puerto Ricans? We don’t have that cultural immersion program. So I want to get involved to create that. I have some ideas on what we can do as a conference to support that. But in the long run, that would be something I’d be interested in exploring.

C&S: A Puerto Rican birthright?

MC: I wouldn’t call it that. I’d simply say a cultural immersion program for members of the diaspora to really connect to those roots. Whether it’s in Puerto Rico or the growing Latino diaspora to do in their own communities.

Frank Runyeon
Frank G. Runyeon
is City & State’s senior reporter. He covers state politics and investigations.