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Latinos See Historic ‘Firsts’ As New Congress Gets Started

WASHINGTON - The new Congress opened Tuesday with the first Dominican American in Congress, the first Latina to serve in the U.S. Senate and the first Florida member of Puerto Rican descent in the House.

President-elect Donald Trump won't be sworn in until Jan. 20, but the House and Senate gaveled in by noon and new members were sworn in as part of the day's business.

With the new crop of Latinos in Congress - a total of seven and all Democrats - a few barriers were broken:

Adriano Espaillat of New York, newly elected to the House, became the first Dominican American to serve in Congress. An auditorium in the Capitol's Visitor Center was packed with some 400 supporters who also filled four other rooms to watch his official and ceremonial swearing-in.

Eighteen buses carried supporters from his New York district and some held and waved Dominican flags. His speech to supporters was punctuated with a slogan that many joined in shouting: "Espaillat que vamos," a play on the phrase "Es p'allá que vamos," which means "this is where we're going."

Espaillat listed the various cultures in his district: Dominican, Puerto Rican, Albanian, Vietnamese, African American, Mexican and others. "We have a very strong diversity, and that's what we have in our hands, that's our greatest strength."

Espaillat will caucus with both the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus, the first member of Congress to do so, according to the CBC.

Nevada's Catherine Cortez Masto was sworn in as the first Latina in the Senate and Darren Soto of central Florida became the first representative of Puerto Rican descent from that state.

Image: Adriano Espaillat
Adriano Espaillat is the first Dominican American member of Congress. espaillat2016.com

"We've had a record Hispanic turnout in many key states, including in Florida and Nevada and California. I believe people wanted more Hispanic voices in Congress," Soto said to NBC News prior to his swearing in.

The other newcomers are all in the House: Salud Carbajal and Lou Correa of California, Ruben Kihuen of Nevada and Vicente Gonzalez of Texas. Nanette Diaz Barragan is the only other new Latina in the Congress, representing California's 44th district.

Image: Catherine Cortez Masto
Catherine Cortez Masto is the first Latina elected to the U.S. Senate. catherinecortezmasto.com

They raise the total Latinos in Congress to 38, according to numbers kept by NALEO. NALEO's numbers can differ from those kept by the House gallery, whose tally includes members of Portuguese and Basque descent.

"It's a fate of sorts that we are given this opportunity at a time that there has been a lot of anti-immigrant and anti-Hispanic rhetoric from President-elect (Donald) Trump," Soto said. With a higher number of Latinos in Congress, "we will be able to bring forth our message, as well as counter inaccuracies that may come forth."

Image: Darren Soto
Darren Soto is the first Florida member of Congress of Puerto Rican descent. John Hilton / darrensoto.com

The absence of any new Republican Latinos in Congress is made more stark by the fact that Trump had yet to name a Latino to his Cabinet, although there was discussion in the past week he could pick a Latino for Agriculture Secretary. But one Latino in the Cabinet will be a drop from the Obama administration and won't reflect the makeup of the U.S. population. Latinos are the nation's largest minority group.

Related: Latinos' Presence in State Capitols Grows, Expands With Election

The new Latino members represent a net gain of five seats for Latinos. Two of the seven new Latinos are filling seats that were already held by Hispanics. That five-seat gain is rare for a mid-decade new Congress, said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO). Usually the bump in seats comes after a Census.

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"One of the troubling things and a challenge for the new president is how does he bring together a country that is not just polarized ideologically, but polarized racially and ethnically," Vargas said. "Increasingly the Democratic Party is becoming the face of the party of people of color and the Republican Party is the party of just whites."

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