Rep. José E. Serrano: A Puerto Rican Giant

Mar 26, 2019
4:58 PM

Frederick Vélez (l) with Rep. José E. Serrano (Photo courtesy of Frederick Vélez)

The problem with consistency is that after a while we start taking it for granted.

On Monday, Congressman José E. Serrano announced that he would not be seeking reelection in 2020. After more than 45 years of serving the people of the Bronx and of Puerto Rico, the congressman decided to retire due in large part to his diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease.

I was devastated.

I had the honor of working for Congressman Serrano —forever the “Big Boss” to me— for six years. Working in his office was my first job out of college, and I will be forever grateful at the opportunity he gave to a 21-year-old from Trujillo Alto.

I always knew how lucky I was to have worked for him, but it wasn’t until yesterday, when I looked back at what the Congressman has accomplished during his career, that I genuinely understood: My professional career started on the shoulders of a giant.

I planned on writing a serious essay on everything that he has done and what he personally means to me, but anyone that has met the Congressman knows that he loves making everybody laugh and have a good time. That’s why everybody loves him.

One of my favorite traditions in sports is that when a legendary player is about to retire, they are celebrated in every city they visit.

I first noticed it with Derek Jeter. Games would be stopped for standing ovations in every stadium. Players would give him retirement gifts and fans would sell out every Yankees game just to get a last look at him wearing the pinstripes. It continued with David Ortiz, Kobe Bryant, and is currently happening with Dwayne Wade—but why am I even talking about this?

Imagine if your favorite sports legend told you that he or she would retire in a couple of months. You would probably watch every game and tweet your support every time you could, right? Serrano would be a first-ballot Hall of Famer in the non-existent “Puerto Rico Political Hall of Fame,” and I don’t intend to miss his final season. We are witnessing a living legend after all.

Not convinced? In a nod to Serrano’s love for sports, let’s take a look at his resumé with a sports twist:

  • Serrano is the Nolan Ryan of Puerto Rican politics. He has served a total of 45 years as an elected official —16 in New York State Assembly and 29 as a U.S. Representative— making him the longest-serving Puerto Rican elected official ever. To put that into perspective, former Puerto Rico Senate President Antonio Fas Alzamora, who retired from politics in 2017, is second in that list after he spent 40 years as an elected official. Serrano’s record might never be broken.
  • He is currently the longest-serving Latino in the House of Representatives. The Congressman was sworn in to Congress one month after I was born, every time I reminded him he would say: “Muchacho, I have ties that are older than you.” He proved it.
  • If Congressional votes were points, the congressman is the Puerto Rican Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. In 29 years in Congress, he has voted more than 18,000 times! And that’s without counting his 16 years of votes in the New York State Assembly (kinda like you can’t count Ichiro’s hits from his days in the Japanese league).
  • He is currently the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science of the House Appropriations Committee. He has been a member of the Appropriations Committee —the committee that designates how funding is divided amongst federal agencies— since 1993 and has been the driving force behind the inclusion of Puerto Rico and the other U.S. territories in multiple federal programs.
  • He has been a Democratic “All-Star” for his entire career. He routinely ranks as one of the top 20 most liberal members in Congress (way before it became cool), and his district is the most Democratic in the nation. Did I mention he always wins with more than 92% of the vote?
  • In 2000, he was arrested outside the White House after he staged a protest in solidarity with protestors from Vieques. Residents of Puerto Rico had been protesting the Navy’s bombing of Vieques, which resulted in the death of a civilian.
  • The Congressman has been influential in a lot of different areas: he led the fight for Net Neutrality, was the author of the bill that awarded Frank Sinatra the Congressional Gold Medal, opposed the Cuban embargo, got the FBI to release and make public the “carpetas” (or dossiers) they had on thousands of Puerto Ricans, and even got Puerto Rico and the territories included in the U.S. Mint Coins and Medals program. (That is why there are quarters in circulation with “la garita del Morro”).
  • He is a super Yankees fan and would quiz me on baseball stats. His love for baseball has been beneficial for Puerto Rico as he’s been an avid supporter of MLB’s baseball academies on the Island and the multiple bids of Puerto Rico as host of the World Baseball Classic.

I could continue to name things that he has done for Puerto Rico, the Bronx, and the United States, but that is not the point of this article. The Congressman has dedicated his entire life to helping improve the lives of millions of people in the Island. He did not have to do it, and he has never asked for anything in return.

In the next 21 months, let’s start a new tradition: as Puerto Ricans, let’s celebrate his accomplishments as we would any sports legend. Let’s support him in his fight to improve the lives of millions of people in the Bronx, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. territories. And when all is said and done, maybe we can throw him one of those parades that Félix “Tito” Trinidad enjoyed when he came back from a fight. After 45 years, that’s the least we can do for someone who has done so much for us.

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Frederick Vélez is a former Congressional staff member and has worked in the last three election cycles to get out the vote in the Latino community. Born and raised in Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico, he now lives in Miami, FL. You can follow him on Twitter at @frederickviii.