Rodrigo Camarena, Sunset Park activist, announces run for City Council

rodrigo camarena
Sunset Park activist Rodrigo Camarena will run for City Council in Sunset Park in 2021.
Photo by Lloyd Mitchell

Immigrant activist Rodrigo Camarena will run for City Council in what’s set to be a heated race for the vacant Sunset Park seat in 2021, Camarena told Brooklyn Paper.

“I see a critical failure of leadership in this city in every level,” said Camarena, a Sunset Park resident who runs the Immigration Advocates Network, an organization that aims to expand access to immigration legal resources. “The moment that we’re in is really a turning point and a moment for a lot of us to think about how we make an impact.” 

Camarena, who moved from Mexico to the United States when he was four years old, says his extensive experience in community activism, immigrant advocacy, and small business administration make him uniquely well-suited to replace term-limited Councilman Carlos Menchaca as Sunset Park’s representative. 

“I’ve organized against displacement and gentrification, I’ve organized against ICE raids and various efforts to terrorize our immigrant neighbors,” Camarena said. “I’ve really dedicated myself to public service.”

Camarena, who grew up in Virginia, began volunteering as an English teacher in Sunset Park while studying at New York University, and quickly felt at home in the neighborhood, he said.

“I first came as a volunteer when I was at NYU,” he said. “Since then, I’ve really fallen in love and dedicated myself to this community.” 

In 2006, Camarena became the executive director at age 22 of the Mixteca Organization, Inc., a nonprofit that hosts outreach programs for newly arrived Latino immigrants in Sunset Park. He subsequently was an executive at the city’s Department of Small Business Services before working as a consultant and then taking the helm at the Immigration Advocates Network.

Camarena said he plans to put his advocacy experience and small business acumen to work by passing legislation that would cap commercial rents, lift some regulations on street vendors, and keep rent-stabilized units cheap.

“Housing and affordability is a central issue for people of the district and for me personally,” he said, adding that he thinks the COVID-19 pandemic may accelerate gentrification in Sunset Park. “I worry that we’re going to see huge displacement in the city, huge numbers of foreclosures — and I worry we’re going to be prey to the kinds of vulture capitalists and private equity firms that take advantage of moments like these to consolidate their power more.” 

Camarena — who has served on the local community board and organizes with the community activist group Protect Sunset Park — also advocates for substantial budget cuts to the police department and to the city’s jails, describing himself as a police and prison abolitionist, he said. 

“I’ve seen how the NYPD plays a role in ruining people’s lives,” he said. “Whenever a street vendor is arrested .. that sets them on a path to deportation that’s dangerous.” 

Camarena will face off against two other progressive candidates, Whitney Hu and Alexa Aviles, in the 2021 Democratic primary for the District 38 Council seat — but says that his extensive experience working in the community sets him apart from his opponents. 

“I think I have my own mix of experiences that make especially suited for this role,” he said, adding that he looks forward to debating local issues with Hu and Aviles in the coming months. “I’m excited to engage my neighbors around the issues they care about and I care about. I’m excited to have that conversation.”