On the day this past spring when Latinos in the Parkchester neighborhood of the Bronx gathered in local taquerias to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, the smell of biryani was unmistakable in the air.
Around the corner, a sea of Bangladeshi residents crowded onto the grounds of P.S. 106, where they celebrated the Bengali New Year and their native country’s independence from Pakistan. Past rows of white tents filled with vendors selling colorful saris and bejeweled trinkets, some powerful New York politicians sat as honored guests on a stage inside the auditorium – City Comptroller John Liu and then-Bronx Assemblyman Peter Rivera.
Rivera talked up his chief of staff, Daniel Figueroa, who is running against Luis Sepulveda for the 87th Assembly District seat in this week’s Bronx Democratic primary, after Rivera left the seat this summer to become commissioner of the state’s Department of Labor. Liu spoke of his shared experience with the Bangladeshi audience, as an immigrant from Taiwan, and emphasized the importance of voting for a candidate that understands new immigrant communities.
But it was a Bangladeshi immigrant and longtime Parkchester resident who stole the show. Mohammed Mujumder, 49, stepped to the podium.
“We have been voting for you guys for many, many years,” he said to the politicians on the stage with him, eliciting whistles and applause from the crowd. “To empower the minorities, we have to have a Bengali candidate in the future election. Please welcome that candidate – whoever he or she may be.”
Mujumder hopes that he will be that person. A longtime Parkchester resident who runs a free legal information clinic for the area’s growing Bangladeshi community, Mujumder plans to run for the City Council’s 18th District next year. If he wins, he will be the first Bangladeshi City Council member in New York’s history.
Mujumder, who is one of two Bangladeshis who have thrown their hat in the ring for the 2013 council election, is putting his faith in the theory that demography is destiny. (For a glimpse of the rivalry between Mujumder and opponent John Uddin watch the video above.)
The Bangladeshi population in this small expanse of multifamily residences more than tripled from 2000 to 2010, part of a dramatic increase in Asians in the Bronx and citywide. The City Council’s 18th District, which includes Parkchester, Soundview and Castle Hill, covers most of Community District 9. The 2010 U.S. Census found 3,147 Bangladeshis living in Community District 9, with almost half of them in Parkchester.
But the actual number may be as high as 10,000, said Abdus Shahid, president of the Bangladeshi American National Democratic Society and senior vice president of Parkchester’s largest mosque. He says the neighborhood has a Bangladeshi voting population of around 1,500, with most of them voting Democratic. In recognition of this growing group, the New York State Senate recently established March 26, the day of Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan, as “Bangladesh Day.”
But some worry that the Bangladeshis – still a relatively new immigrant community – are reaching for too much too early, and they question the wisdom of fielding a Bangladeshi candidate against the well-established Puerto Rican incumbent, Annabel Palma, who has held the position since 2004 and plans to run for a third term in 2013.
To complicate matters, for many in the community, the question of which City Council candidate to support next year hinges on who wins this week’s 87th Assembly District primary, in which two Latino candidates face off. The endorsement of the winner of that race will make a big difference in next year’s City Council race.
Meanwhile, both Assembly candidates have eagerly courted the Bangladeshi vote. Mujumder is Figueroa’s co-campaign manager, and houses Figueroa’s campaign headquarters in his Parkchester legal services office, while Sepulveda has made a great show of his ties to the Bangladeshi community, devouring plates of curry and buttered rice and promising to hire Bangladeshis if he is elected.
The Bangladeshi City Council hopefuls will go up against a political machine with deep ties to Latinos, who have held a steady majority in the Bronx. Latinos made up almost 40 percent of Parkchester’s population from 2000 to 2010, and they have also increased their numbers over the years in Community District 9 as a whole. In 2000, Latinos comprised around 55 percent of Community District 9’s total population, and increased to almost 58 percent in 2010. In comparison, the district’s Asian population increased from almost 4 percent to almost 6 percent, during the same period.
Though still a small minority, Bangladeshi political clubs have amplified the political voice of the community. And Mujumder has argued that Palma and other local politicians are increasingly out of touch with Parkchester’s growing Bangladeshi population.
“If you ask 20 people, none of them will know who is the council member, unless they go on the computer and do research,” he said. “She’s doing minimum of what she’s supposed to do, but I can do a better job.”
Palma did not respond to this criticism, although she acknowledged Bangladeshis’ increasing political prominence.
“I’ve witnessed the Bangladeshi community grow and thrive in Council District 18, and have encouraged and supported this burgeoning community to lend their voice to [the] political process,” she said in an email.
Facing An Uphill Battle
Sitting amidst a row of identical-looking brick houses in Parkchester, Mujumder’s sign advertising his tax, immigration and legal services office hangs from his white porch rail. Every Saturday, he offers a free legal information clinic for the area’s Bangladeshi residents, helping them navigate the labyrinth of forms that come with doing taxes and applying for government benefits in the United States. Born in the Feni District in Bangladesh, Mujumder immigrated to New York in 1989, moving to Parkchester soon after.
The other Bangladeshi running for the City Council seat, Uddin, is a businessman who has lived in the Bronx since 1986. He resides close to Soundview and is also president of the Jalalabad Association of America, one of many Bangladeshi societies that have formed in the Bronx.
Uddin speaks Spanish in addition to Bengali, and presents himself as someone who can build bridges between Bangladeshis and other communities. He says he has the most experience of any Bangladeshi candidate when it comes to working with the African-American and Latino politicians in the area.
“The understanding of the culture, the respect, how it works, it’s very important,” he said. “You can’t just jump off and go say, ‘I want to represent my community’ without understanding the people.”
These upstart political hopefuls face an uphill battle, even among their own, as they try to convince other Bangladeshis that the time is right to separate their political voice from the party establishment.
Shahid, of the Bangladeshi American National Democratic Society, said he is torn on this question. He has known Mujumder for over 20 years, and thinks he would make a good candidate for City Council, but he plans to back whichever candidate the former assemblyman, Peter Rivera, supports. His reasoning: Rivera, as commissioner of the Department of Labor, has more clout and can do more for Bangladeshis.
“If we can get together, I think we can win,” Shahid explained.
Sheikh Al Mamun, who emigrated from Bangladesh in 1990 and runs a math-tutoring service in Parkchester that serves largely Bangladeshi students, said that much will depend on what happens in the primary elections this Thursday. He says many area Bangladeshi voters are waiting to see who wins the 87th District Assembly seat – and who that person endorses – before deciding whether to support a Bangladeshi candidate.
In this week’s primary, Mamun said Bangladeshis are divided into two voting camps: those that support Sepulveda, who has the endorsement of the Bronx Democratic County Committee, and who ran against Rivera in 2010 in a close race and lost; and those who support Figueroa. Mamun supports Figueroa for the Assembly, and Mujumder – who is closely associated with Figueroa as his co-campaign manager – for City Council next year.
Sepulveda has made many gestures of support to Bangladeshis, in this campaign and in his hard-fought 2010 campaign against Rivera, during which, The New York Times reported, he promised to crack down on hate crimes against South Asians, and to push for halal menus in public schools and Bengali lessons in the classroom.
“He has developed a taste for spicy curries and says he now knows as much about Bangladesh’s founding fathers as he does about America’s,” the Times reported in 2010.
Still, Mamun said he doubts Sepulveda’s commitment to genuinely involving Bangladeshis in his political team. Sepulveda has denied this, and has promised to hire Bangladeshi staff if he is elected.
Figueroa, when asked about whether he would support Mujumder for City Council, said he has not discussed this with Mujumder, but that it’s a conversation he would be open to. Figueroa, who also describes himself as a friend of incumbent Palma, says he would also discuss the election with her.
“I’m more for coalition-building than getting in the ring and battling,” he said.“The likelihood is that I’d be supportive of Mujumder.”
A Weathered Political Dance
The dance between the Bronx’s politically entrenched incumbents and the new Bangladeshi voting constituency is a familiar one, said Jerome Krase, professor emeritus of sociology at Brooklyn College.
“The groups are different, the issues are different, the geography is different, the history is different, but the system is the same,” he explained. “Italians did it that way, Jews did it that way.”
Still, 2013 may be too early for Mujumder, Krase said. As the Bangladeshis establish themselves as a new immigrant group, the first- and second-generation Bangladeshis will have a better chance at winning political seats, he said.
“The young people are going to do that,” Krase said. “The kids that are born here, that go to college. And they’re the ones that begin to recognize if they’re not getting their fair share, they become a little more vocal. They’re the ones that are going to challenge the local Latino hierarchy.”
That’s certainly the hope for Shahid, who said that by encouraging Bangladeshis to enter mainstream city politics, he is trying to lay the groundwork for younger Bangladeshis.
“Mostly I’m doing it for the new generation who were born here, like my son, Mujumder’s son,” he said. “One day, they’re going to be in the Assembly, Council, or congressmen – like Obama.”
Even if Mujumder doesn’t win a City Council seat in 2013, Shahid said, running a Bangladeshi candidate is a way of building political capital.
“Maybe you lose,” he said, “but in losing you’re winning, because people know you. People are going to remember, ‘Oh this guy ran last year.’”
Editor’s note: This story has been edited after publication to clarify Mujumder’s role at his legal information clinic.