A record 32 million Latinos are projected to be eligible to vote this November, putting them on track to become the largest minority voting bloc. They are far from single-issue voters, with education, health care, jobs, the economy and immigration all ranking as top concerns.
Democrats are still figuring out how to get Latinos in the party to turn out. They voted at the lowest rate of any minority group in the last four presidential elections, though turnout apparently increased in the 2018 midterms, making them a complicated voting bloc to understand.
Latinos come from more than two dozen countries, and are of varying races, religions and cultures. Trying to find a cohesive message for such a broad and diverse group risks marginalizing some of its members.
That’s why Latino leaders on this year’s Democratic presidential campaigns aren’t doing that. They’re instead trying to understand what Latinidad — or Latino identity — means for themselves and for their work, and to use that understanding to engage their communities.
Latinx outreach coordinator for Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts
Like many immigrants brought to the United States when they were young, Jonathan Jayes-Green had a rebellious stage as a teenager, which for him meant moving away from Panamanian culture and embracing American culture instead. He was trying to assimilate and adapt to a new country, culture and language.
“I think it was closer to the end of my high school career then I said, ‘No, actually, I love that Spanish is my first language,’” he said. “I love that I have an accent and that my folks speak a little bit differently.’”
For Mr. Jayes-Green, rediscovering his roots came through embracing and loving dance, music and food. Salsa, merengue, arroz con coco and plátano helped him reconnect with himself, but it was a long journey.
“My experience living at the margins of how Latinidad has been constructed, particularly being Afro-Latinx and queer, makes me fight to make sure we continue to expand it for those who want to be a part of it,” he said.
Finding a way to redefine what it means to be Latino is at the core of Mr. Jayes-Green’s work. And he’s excited to be doing that as part of the movement he sees Elizabeth Warren creating with her campaign.
“What I love when Senator Warren talks about her many plans is that in order to make them be anything beyond a piece of paper, we need a movement,” he said. “We need it to be able to fight for big structural change that we need in our community.”
His job is to make sure that all Latinos have a space at the center of that movement. It was important to him to bring people from the campaign to support him last fall at a Supreme Court hearing over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which shielded some young undocumented immigrants from deportation and which the Trump administration is seeking to end. Mr. Jayes-Green is a DACA recipient, also known as a Dreamer.
“It’s how we continue to make space for the Latino movement to be a part of the campaign, but also for the campaign to show up to the movement,” he said. “It’s a two-way street.”
Latinx outreach coordinator for former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.
Laura Jimenez has been listening to a lot of Juan Luis Guerra lately. A lot of “Visa Para un Sueño,” a lot of “Ojalá Que Llueva Café.”
Working directly with her community fills her with pride, and listening to Juan Luis, a merengue and bachata singer considered a Dominican national treasure, brings her back to that work every time.
Ms. Jimenez grew up in the Bronx, but she would spend summers in the Dominican Republic with her father. After high school, she moved to Florida.
“I had to get rid of a lot of accents,” Ms. Jimenez said. “And there was always this feeling that you never fully belonged anywhere.”
It took Ms. Jimenez a long time to love her identity, and it wasn’t until six years ago that she realized that her background was valuable.
“It is my family that is on the line here,” she said. “It’s my community that is being attacked. So this all feels very, very personal every day.”
She learned early on in politics that there would often be only a few Latinos in the room.
“It can be very lonely, especially when you start working in these spaces,” she said. “But you figure out quickly that your voice is important, and if you don’t speak up, that perspective will never be heard.”
But speaking up is essential, Ms. Jimenez said, particularly given the stakes of the 2020 race.
“Trump is using our community to win re-election. He’s demonizing us,” she said. “And because this election is about us, we have to prioritize, as a community, someone who can defeat this man.”
She believes former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. will fight for Latinos, and she says he has been reflective over the millions of deportations that happened under the Obama administration. She pointed to his immigration plan as evidence.
“As an immigrant myself, and someone who worked on this plan, I see a lot of things there that will help a lot of people in our community,” she said.
Latino outreach director for Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota
After Edwin Torres came to the United States, his family moved around the Los Angeles area more than 20 times. Sometimes they were homeless. By the time he graduated high school, he had attended more than a dozen public schools.
The American dream his parents were chasing didn’t make sense to him. “I started thinking that this shouldn’t be happening in this country,” he said.
His parents left El Salvador in the 1990s as civil war ravaged the country, and it took seven years to raise enough money to bring Mr. Torres across the border.
They wanted him to have an education, and it wasn’t until he went to college that he learned to appreciate the sacrifices they had made.
Mr. Torres was part of the first wave of Dreamers approved for DACA. He got a full scholarship to Saint John’s University in Minnesota.
“I came into college with a newfound freedom, a freedom that I’ve never tasted before, a freedom that I was validated, that I had a right to be here,” he said.
Last fall, Mr. Torres stood outside the Supreme Court for the hearing on DACA. His status is set to expire this year.
“It was one of those moments where we were shouting and your voice would crack because of how emotional you are,” he said. “I am an American in every single sense but the document.”
Mr. Torres worked on local campaigns in Minnesota before joining Amy Klobuchar’s presidential bid last March. He said he was inspired by her ability to rally support for Democrats up and down the ballot.
“She went the extra mile in 2018 to make sure we flipped the House in Minnesota, which then allowed us to have bigger conversations on licenses for all, and other progressive policies,” he said.
“As an undocumented and unafraid DACA recipient, and as a gay Latino man in America, I want our next president to be able to unify our country.”
Latino press secretary for Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont
During her childhood in Arizona, Belén Sisa felt as if she belonged to the only Argentine family in the state. She wished she had a more normal name, a more normal childhood. She always lay low.
“I grew up in a primarily white, middle-class neighborhood where for the first part of my life I felt really ashamed of not only being an immigrant, but also being undocumented,” she said. “I was just trying to assimilate any way possible, because I wanted to be the same as everyone else.”
It wasn’t until Ms. Sisa was approved for DACA that she felt empowered and safe enough to get involved in politics.
“Whether I was undocumented or documented, that didn’t define me,” she said. “I was still deserving of being able to have a seat at the table.”
She soon found a community of activists and undocumented young people just like her. She became a community organizer in Arizona and eventually moved into electoral politics. Even though she couldn’t vote herself, she wanted to “advocate for other people to be civically engaged, and do so on my behalf.”
She was drawn to Bernie Sanders because of his plans to fight exploitation in the workplace and improve access to education and health care.
“Even in the moments where me and my family had no idea who this man was, he was fighting for us,” she said.
She volunteered for Mr. Sanders during his first presidential run, in 2016, and ended up working with the campaign as a Latino outreach coordinator. She’s now the Latino press secretary for his 2020 campaign.
“It would have been completely unheard-of for someone running to be the next president of the United States to hire an undocumented person for such a visible role, and to trust that person to advocate for your agenda,” she said. “I think that says a lot about where his priorities are.”
California state director for former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind.
Cecilia Cabello is a third-generation Angeleno, and each generation lived in a different neighborhood of the city, but not by choice.
Her great-grandparents moved to Los Angeles from New Mexico at the turn of the 20th century. According to family lore, they had a house near what is now Union Station, but they were displaced when the station was built. The family moved to Boyle Heights, until the construction of the 5 Freeway pushed them farther east.
“The story of Latinos in L.A. is really kind of the story of my family,” Ms. Cabello said.
She was raised by her grandmother, who taught her only English. “It wasn’t so much that she was ashamed of who she was, but her trying to protect me from the things that she went through,” Ms. Cabello said.
It wasn’t until Ms. Cabello went to New York for college and then came back a decade later that she reconnected with her Chicano roots. Upon her return to Los Angeles, she was struck by the blatant racism she saw around her. It was a “shock to the system.”
“I had a sheltered childhood in the sense that when you’re only around Latinos and Asian folks, you’re not seeing that kind of disparity,” she said. “That really lit my fire in terms of reconnecting with identity, understanding a lot of Chicano history and Latinos in L.A., and got me kind of politically motivated to do stuff.”
She was drawn to Pete Buttigieg because he reminded her of Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles and former President Barack Obama. “I just liked the way he talked about America,” she said.
“What I truly believe in is our founding documents. On paper we’re all equal, but that’s obviously not true, so we have to work until it’s actually true for everyone,” she added. “A lot of what Latinidad is to me is getting that work done.”
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