NYC Mayoral Candidates on Literary Arts: Carlos Menchaca
This spring, the NYC Literary Action Coalition has been meeting with mayoral candidates, asking them how they plan to support and uplift writers and the city’s storied culture of literary arts. The following is a transcript of the Coalition’s conversation with New York City Council member and former Democratic candidate for mayor Carlos Menchaca (Menchaca withdrew from the race after this conversation). The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
If you are a candidate and want to chat with the Literary Action Coalition, please reach out to Alejandro Heredia at [email protected].
Carlos, would you like to introduce yourself?
I’m Carlos Menchaca. I am a lover of the written and spoken word. I am not just a candidate for mayor, but I am currently a city council member and have been working in city government for the last 16 years. The Brooklyn Book Festival came into my life as a Brooklyn borough president staffer. I manage the city capital budget for the borough president and his economic development, LGBT, and immigrant liaison work, which really manifested into my calling to run for office and represent Sunset Park and Red Hook.
[Superstorm] Sandy devastated so many parts of the city of New York. I rode my bike around Red Hook and saw devastation and really saw government leaders failing to show up, to be there, to listen to the community’s issues. And I thought, “That’s not okay.” That’s what’s driving me to run right now.
I don’t believe that the current leadership that’s in place right now, many—if not most—of the current candidates really have a sense of commitment to engage in our communities, and where I have chosen to focus a lot of my time has been in immigrant communities. Immigrant communities who don’t have the ability to access through English services, opportunities, engagement, civic engagement, reporting crimes—all these things that we sometimes take for granted as English speakers. This has become a real issue, and COVID just made it worse. That’s why I’m running to speak on those issues. And, that’s in a nutshell, who I am.
“I am also, in a lot of ways, embedded in the artist community. I went to college for performing arts. So I’m with you in all that. And I think what I want to do—not just in this conversation, but in our relationship together—how can I continue to express the needs and the wants of the community?”
There’s a large publishing presence in New York City. But it doesn’t necessarily trickle down to writers who have to resort to other measures to live. How do you connect the plight of writers to the greater struggles of the artistic community here amid the pandemic?
This is the struggle that is real. That the arts as a whole is often perceived as the kind of brightest, economic engines of it all—that moment when a Broadway show goes crazy, and all of a sudden it’s like Wicked and it becomes like this representative of all of the the fertile soil that is actually growing the ideas. I mean, it was inspired by a book. Let’s just be real.
I remember doing something in tribute to Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman and thinking through a Brooklyn life that inspired so many generations, and then this is just one of so many. And this is part of my connection to the Brooklyn Book Festival where Carolyn Greer and the borough president—I was there when they’re like, “We gotta do something in Brooklyn.”
I remember that first moment where the whole plaza was filled with books, and there was a children’s component and people came in and out of Borough Hall. AndI am transformed forever. That’s a good, deeper understanding of the literary community.
I also want to introduce into this conversation the fact that I am also, in a lot of ways, embedded in the artist community. I went to college for performing arts. So I’m with you in all that. And I think what I want to do—not just in this conversation, but in our relationship together—how can I continue to express the needs and the wants of the community? And so, hearing 74 percent of those surveyed want to stay in New York shows us that artists are here for a reason. There are people who are leaving the city and completely divesting from the city of New York. They’re going to Florida. They’re going somewhere else. They’re not doing what we’re doing here right now. We’re just talking about how we crack this question open to redesign government.
And there’s a reason why you’re having a lot of issues with the mayor’s office, because this is not what they’re thinking about right now. We are starting a new budget season now. We’re in the middle of budget negotiations. And if you don’t know that we are, this month is the month of public hearings. We just had an immigration hearing on how the city budget was impacting immigrants. Maybe the question for you all now is, do you see very specific things in the budget that need to be advocated for?” I want to hear about that. And then two, as mayoral candidates, how can I help introduce an idea that can grow among the candidates? What can I throw out there and say, “Here’s the standard that we need to meet. Are you all meeting it?” And how can we work together to articulate that?
What often gets left behind in discussions about writers in New York City is the economic impact the pandemic has had on writers. Much of the city’s cultural funding goes to a small group of major institutions. It’s a very dire situation for writers and smaller literary organizations.
“What often gets left behind in discussions about writers in New York City is the economic impact the pandemic has had on writers. Much of the city’s cultural funding goes to a small group of major institutions. It’s a very dire situation for writers and smaller literary organizations. . . And so, do we fight for the voices of the writers? Do we fight for the workers of the delivery apps, or is this all the same? Is this really about bringing relief to workers who have been neglected and to build a larger worker justice movement?”
I want to figure out how to change the ideas, and I think you called it out. There’s a system and a structure that benefits relationships, and in some ways, it defines politics. In some ways, it defines the current structures of discretionary funding, where members of the City Council get to decide who gets money. I have been trying to fight more for more transparency, but it’s a big system. Then I think about it in another way, because this is a similar conversation that I’m having with immigrant workers—the delivery workers, for example—who are, right now, part of the essential work to keep the city moving, literally just delivering food to people and their wages are getting stolen, their bikes are getting stolen with no response from the NYPD. They are working really crazy hours. And then if you step back, I see a sea of people who are in need of relief from the government, and there’s a line that runs through all of these workers.
And so, do we fight for the voices of the writers? Do we fight for the workers of the delivery apps, or is this all the same? Is this really about bringing relief to workers who have been neglected and to build a larger worker justice movement? To speak to things like universal basic income that has yet to really materialize the way that I’m envisioning it. It’s less of a replacement of current government programs but in addition to, so people have what they need to take care of their home, their health care, and their kids and food and nutrition. And then they can go out into the world and produce, either art or engage in civic life or be a worker that is getting what they need.
What role do you see the arts and literary arts in playing in the resuscitation of New York city post-pandemic?
I think in a lot of ways, what we need to keep our artists alive as a whole. Alive means in a home, so that they’re not evicted or have to leave because of whatever reasons. To ensure that there’s health care to our artists, access to further post-COVID issues, telemedicine, etc., so there’s health care and mental health care. But this is what I want to offer to every low-income worker and working family. This is part of what I’m pointing to, that this system has to shift and change if we’re going to keep New York and the soul of New York alive. And because so much starts with the written and the observed world, the community as a whole can start imagining, envisioning through the power of words to articulate some of the things that even us as elected officials struggle to articulate.
I think that this is something that I had been thinking about for a while, even in my own team: bringing on a writer. For the first four years, I hired organizers, and I’m thinking, “Gosh, we need communication. How do we communicate the things that are in my head, that are in our communities’ head?”
I finally hired a writer. His base was poetry, but he had political stuff, and then we just started working—and he’s still working with me now. But the point that I’m trying to make is, how do we collaborate on the vision that we’re looking for so that the artistic representation of a policy is understood? And it can be understood through the power of an artist. I think that that’s one place that I want to invite you all to, because we can work together and figure that out, so that we can make that connection. That’s one. Two is, I’m thinking about laws that we passed in the council that allow for businesses to take space on our curbed parking space, removing parking space and putting a restaurant. What does it look like if we said that to the literary community? What would that space look like? Would you manifest space for your advantage in some way? What would that look like?
“Because so much starts with the written and the observed world, the community as a whole can start imagining, envisioning through the power of words to articulate some of the things that even us as elected officials struggle to articulate. . . the point that I’m trying to make is, how do we collaborate on the vision that we’re looking for so that the artistic representation of a policy is understood? And it can be understood through the power of an artist.”
Should you be elected, what concrete steps would you take to support writers and literary organizations? It sounds like you were already listing what you would have in mind to do that.
Tell me what I need to think about. If you followed my career, my career has been very much about civic engagement. The people closest to the problem know the solutions. My job is to facilitate that solution through the process that I’m in charge of. And for me, it was as a city council member, which is essentially a mini mayor of one of the 51 districts in the city council. My job is to ensure that the School Construction Authority is building schools, that the Department of Transportation has taken care of our streets, etc. That’s my job. And that’s what I feel like makes me qualified to walk into the mayor’s office and say, “Okay, how do we change every district?”
Every inch of the city needs to be responsive. If a community comes up with a demand and an issue, let’s be responsive. That’s what the government is supposed to do. And it has walked away from that commitment. You have these leaders like de Blasio and Bloomberg and Giuliani who were very top-down. They understood the issues, they understood what needed to happen, but it was a process of literally pushing down those policies onto communities like police. So let’s try it a different way. Let’s just be responsive to communities. How about that?
So you mentioned the Brooklyn Book Festival, but other than that, have you attended any literary events in New York City?
Ah, yes. I would say more when I was not a council member, to be honest. But there’s so many readings that happen beyond the [Brooklyn] Book Festival, and I have worked with a book festival to bring the literary experience into schools, into immigrant schools, asking them to think about—and this is the lens that I have—non-English speakers. So bring artists, literary artists to come and speak in Mandarin to Mandarin-speaking kids about books that reflect their culture.
I feel like this is a space that I partake myself. I like writing haikus. I’m not intimidated by spaces that I think that some people could be, to be a performer or a writer of content myself.
Who is your favorite New York City writer, and why?
I always come back to Walt Whitman. He’s just someone that I see, and it’s more like I’m seeing myself, over and over again. And then this big anniversary that happened a couple of years ago. I got into it. There was a translation of one of his pieces in Spanish that I did for the Brooklyn Public Library. And so, I feel like this is my guy. I always come back to him.
Visit Carlos Menchaca for Mayor (carlos2021.com) to learn more about Menchaca’s campaign.