News and Public Media for North Central Florida
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
In the past six months, Alachua County's small towns and cities were scheduled to hold seven separate elections to choose their municipal leaders. Five were canceled. This series explores some of the reasons why.

Local Latinos facing loss of representation in city government

When the people of Gainesville's Hispanic community head to the polls in August to cast their votes in local elections, they will find their presence is not reflected among their choices.

Reina Saco, who has served as City Commissioner At-Large Seat A since May 2020, is not running for re-election.

“I'm tired,” said the 33-year-old Democrat in explaining her decision. “I recognize what I have to do is help people, just this is no longer the place to do that. 

About 286,000 people reside in the seven municipalities that make up Alachua County, according to 2022 data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Gainesville, the largest city in the county with approximately 145,200 residents, also has the largest Hispanic community comprising about 12% of its population. 

A search of the candidacy-filing reports at the Alachua County’s Supervisor of Elections website confirms that two other candidates, James Ingle and Fareed "Reed" Johnson, are vying for Saco's spot. Cynthia Chestnut, incumbent City Commissioner At-Large Seat B, is running against challenger Ocie Alston. None are Hispanic.

“I am the only Hispanic elected person here,” Saco said. “And they thought it was mind-boggling — because we're in Florida.”

Reina Saco, Gainesville City Commissioner
"I am the only elected Hispanic person here."

Originally from Santiago de Cuba, Saco and her family fled Cuba in 1994 and spent a year in a refugee camp in South Florida while the U.S. government sorted out her family’s status. Her experiences, she said, give her a great understanding of the struggles of those at the short end of the stick.

She earned her bachelor’s degree at the University of South Florida and a master’s at the University of Michigan. She came to Gainesville in 2014 to study at the University of Florida Levin College of Law and graduated in 2017. She was an Equal Justice Works fellow at Florida Legal Services. She told the Independent Florida Alligator last year that she had also worked on affordable housing issues before becoming involved with City Hall issues.

Saco said she believes a big problem in the U.S. is the stereotypes attached to Hispanic people as well as the underestimation of this community.

“They don't think there's a lot of us or a lot of us that can vote,” said Saco. “There's a lot more of us than some folks think or want to recognize.”

This kind of mentality, Saco said, eventually makes its way into government at large. 

“This is a problem in America generally,” Saco said. “Where, you know, ‘so those aren't our people.’ ‘Those aren't ... our community.’ 'They're not taxpayers.' They're, you know, quote, unquote, illegal.”

But these people who are working here in professions such as soy farmers, she added, are actually doctors and lawyers in their countries of origin.

“These are people, first and foremost.”

Gainesville is the largest city in Alachua County with approximately 145,200 residents. It also has the largest Hispanic community in the county, comprising about 12% of its population.
WUFT News/Mariana Peña Rueda
Gainesville is the largest city in Alachua County with approximately 145,200 residents. It also has the largest Hispanic community in the country, comprising about 12% of its population.

When it comes time for commissioners to vote on issues, Saco said she votes for the benefit of the whole Gainesville community. But often, she said, government officials channel their work into their specific interests or what she called “their little group of supporters” instead of focusing on the good of everyone. 

“I try to be balanced,” Saco said. “It's either something that's going to benefit just about everyone, or a community that really has no one else to stand up for them and doesn't have a voice.”

During her time on the commission, some issues that Gainesville has faced include the passing and implementation of price increases in downtown parking and legislation such as the open-container law that was passed and revoked. 

Saco said that she knows that sometimes commission meetings can get heated. And she respects people who stand up for what they believe in.

However, she added, many people often do not understand how government works at all levels, especially when it comes to money.  She compared government to a car: Everyone knows how to turn it on, yet not many understand the complexity behind its engine. 

For example, she explained, many people are not aware that when funds are allocated by the state government, the money needs to go for the purpose it was allocated and not used for other matters. 

“It's been an interesting experience in my life,” she said about her time in city government.

And, Saco said, it's obvious to her that there are people in Gainesville who don’t welcome her.

“I have been threatened,” she said. “I've had my credentials threatened.”

“I try to be balanced,” Reina Saco said about how she has voted as city commissioner. “It's either something that's going to benefit just about everyone, or a community that really has no one else to stand up for them and doesn't have a voice.”
WUFT News/Mariana Peña Rueda
“I try to be balanced,” Reina Saco said about how she has voted as city commissioner. “It's either something that's going to benefit just about everyone, or a community that really has no one else to stand up for them and doesn't have a voice.”

For the sake of her family, Saco said, she’s taking a break from local politics and the ongoing risks that come for those who serve in government. She said she is going to take a rest “for a good while.”

And though Saco has yet to have a clear image of what her future will be, she said she will continue practicing law in Florida or move to Michigan, where she is licensed to practice law.

Saco admitted that the future of the city commission and the lack of Latino representation worries her. 

“That genuinely does keep me up at night,” she said. 

Diverse Community’s Point of View  

Currently, Cynthia Chestnut (D), city commissioner for Seat B, is up for re-election for the third time. Her opponent is Ocie Alston (D).  And running to replace Saco in Seat A is Fareed "Reed" Johnson, who is unaffiliated, and James Ingle, who is a registered Democrat.

Saco said she thinks the candidates are qualified. But she’s concerned that a non-Hispanic candidate could lack an understanding of the community's needs and might not be able to talk about the issues adequately.

WUFT reached out to members of the Hispanic community in Gainesville to listen to their thoughts about representation. Interestingly, many didn’t want to go public on issues pertaining to diversity, citing the state’s political situation as complicated. 

“There’s always going to be an issue with representation,” said a 29-year-old student at the University of Florida, who asked that her name not be used. 

This UF student is half Puerto Rican and half from a nation in Latin America’s southern cone. That is the extent to which she wanted to be identified. She said she is active in the community and works firsthand with newly arrived Hispanics. She understands their struggles in finding a welcoming place.

“Just look at what happened at UF,” she said. “It’s a reflection of the government.”

This was in reference to what happened in March, when the University of Florida terminated administrative positions and eliminated roles dealing with diversity, equity and inclusion in compliance with a law signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) regulating higher education. 

“We used to be an oasis in what is a red state,” the student said. “Now, I worry what will happen in the future.”

The city of Gainesville has found ways to incorporate the Hispanic community, Saco said, such as implementing the position of Immigrant Affairs Manager in its Office of Equity and Inclusion. But as of now, nobody has been hired for the position. 

“We are not going as fast as we need to,” Saco said about the pace of the hiring process. “We're going as fast as we can.”

While Latinos face a lack of representation in local government, not everybody thinks the government needs to be inclusive, if the events of March 26 are any indication.  

On that day, an act of vandalism left a broken window at City Hall along with a hate-driven note. 

“We are a city that values inclusivity, diversity and equal opportunity,” Mayor Harvey Ward (D) said in a statement about the incident.

Outstanding Issues and Looking Forward

Without representation, issues important to the Hispanic might not be addressed, making them feel left out. A case in point is the language barrier in education.

About 17% of Gainesville’s residents speak languages other than English at home, according to the Census, with many not speaking English at home at all. 

Some might think the language barrier is only an issue for immigrants, but it also affects many of those residing in areas where English is almost a second language, like Miami.

Federally funded institutions cannot discriminate on the basis of national origin, among other restrictions, according to Title VI. However, only 2% of the $350,000 allocated by the American Rescue Plan has been spent towards interpretation and document translation. This information came out of a 2023 update provided to Ethan Maia De Needell, a board member of the Gainesville Immigrant Neighbor Inclusion Initiative (GINI), by the City Department of Equity and Inclusion.

GINI began a petition last year seeking action by the Alachua County Public Schools to ensure the participation of Limited English Proficient (LEP) students and their parents.

The petition seeks changes, including the implementation of a LEP-friendly school phone menu, the requirement of bilingual bus messages in Spanish and English, and the translation of documents given to parents and students. It states that parents and students often miss out on important material and news related to their education because of the language barrier.

A petition started by the Gainesville Immigrant Neighbor Inclusion Initiative last year sought action from Alachua County Public Schools to provide translation services to students and their parents.
WUFT News/Mariana Peña Rueda
A petition started by the Gainesville Immigrant Neighbor Inclusion Initiative last year sought action from Alachua County Public Schools to provide translation services to students and their parents.

Alachua County Public Schools provides translators and interpreters for Spanish-speaking individuals who need it. But, according to GINI, it doesn’t have enough personnel to cover the more than 900 English-learning students of various languages in the county. 

Although the city subscribes to Language Line, a program first announced as a pilot program in 2022 that provides translation and interpretation services, some school officials either are not aware the program exists — or they do not have the training to use it, said Adriana Menendez, a coordinator who works at GINI.

The petition accumulated over 600 signatures before GINI’s meeting with the school board in October, Menendez said.

The school board heard their concerns, she said, but the changes were minimal. Parents have told her that although the translation services are available, it still takes them at least 24 hours to return calls, even in an emergency.

Menendez said this is literally preventing the voices of Hispanic communities to be heard. GINI, she added, will continue to fight for this service that is not being provided.

The Florida Legislature continues to pass laws affecting individuals and families in the Hispanic community. Other laws include SB-1718, which criminalizes the provision of funds or issuance of IDs to people with undocumented status.

The Human Rights Coalition of Alachua County continues to run its Community ID program for the time being, Program Director Veronica Robleto said. Yet, its future remains uncertain.  

And that is also a concern for the 29-year-old student at the University of Florida, who asked not to be identified. 

“The places where we used to be, at least a bit representative,” she said, “are getting narrower.”

Mariana is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.