'Vaya mi gente': Joshua Garcia sworn in as Holyoke's first Latino mayor
Less than two weeks after Election Day, Joshua Garcia was sworn in as mayor of Holyoke, Massachusetts. He’ll finish out the term of former Mayor Alex Morse, before beginning a full term in January.
To witness the moment Monday morning, hundreds of people including Garcia’s wife and young children gathered in Holyoke City Hall’s auditorium. After a brief official ceremony, Garcia greeted the room.
“What’s going on, Holyoke? Vaya mi gente?” he said to cheers.
It was an historic moment. The city, which is now majority Hispanic, has its first Hispanic mayor. But Garcia promised throughout his campaign he would be mayor for all of Holyoke.
“The bottom line here is, folks,” Garcia said from the stage, “Holyoke is a community of differences. Differences in income, culture, the color of our skin, the language we speak and the people we choose to love.”
From the campaign trail to Day One inside City Hall, Garcia has said his number one priority is to get Holyoke’s finances in order. He won’t know how bad they are, he said, until he digs into the city’s books. He’s called for internal audits of all departments.
“When we talk about infrastructure, the quality of our public buildings and our schools and issues around public safety – each of these are very dependent on how well we manage our resources internally,” said Garcia, who most recently served as town administrator in Blandford.
Another early action for Garcia will be to fill multiple department head vacancies and open seats on city boards and committees. There is also a morale problem at City Hall, Garcia said, which some connect to low employee salaries and staff turnover.
As for working with the City Council, which saw turnover this election, Garcia must bridge decades of divides.
“It’s been a long time since the council and the mayor have been working together. And when I say a long time, I don’t just mean 10 years ago,” said Israel Rivera, a newly elected city councilor at large. “I mean more than that.”
Rivera predicts relations between this mayor and this council will be a lot smoother than in past administrations. While he and Garcia supported each other as candidates and have known each other a long time, that doesn’t mean they’ll always see eye to eye.
“I’ve worked with the new mayor since I was, like, 14 years old. We’ve been through our pushbacks, and back and forth for years,” Rivera said. “We agree on a lot of things – and we disagree probably on processes.”
As a former industrial city, Holyoke – like others in New England – has been in a cycle of change spanning two centuries.
“I started my politics in Holyoke, Massachusetts, many years ago and it was like hitting your head against a brick wall,” said Heriberto Flores, president of the New England Farm Workers Council.
Flores, is also a property developer and is well known in the region’s Puerto Rican community and beyond.
In the 1980s, Flores own efforts to change Holyoke failed he said. Young people like Garcia he said are the future, not just in this Holyoke.
“This city is a multi-cultural city – and this is happening in this country. So if we do it the right way and start building the city – it will go forward,” Flores said. “But you have to bridge the Puerto Rican, the Irish, the Polish, the Blacks and Jewish.”
Another longtime participant in Holyoke politics is city councilor-at-large Peter Tallman who was re-elected two weeks ago. With Garcia in office, Tallman will now have worked under five Holyoke mayors, and over more than 20 years has seen plenty of city government stalemates.
“The City Council is going to have to work with this mayor. I mean, we are basically two ... cities,” Tollman said, describing one as “a strongly white community” of Irish and Polish descent, and a Latino community.
Garcia begins working with the new City Council in January after they’re sworn in. He could announce his transition team as early as Tuesday.