"It’s true enough that 800,000 Latinos turn 18 every year, and both parties burn millions of dollars trying to woo Hispanic voters. This year, 27 million will be eligible to vote. But the idea of a fearsome Latino political power remains more myth than reality."
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Sí se puede! Yes we can!
For decades, political analysts have heralded the Latino vote as a “sleeping giant” that will solidify Democrats’ hold on power. But in cycle after cycle, turnout remains dismal.
Two weeks after Hillary Clinton accepted the Democratic presidential nomination in Philadelphia, beaming through a hail of gigantic balloons, her campaign’s “Latinos con Hillary” program began in five cities in Virginia. One of the kickoff parties took place at Todos Supermarket in Prince William County, in a modest white room where about 40 people gathered around three tables draped in cheap blue cloth to hear a speech by Clinton’s national Latino-vote director, Lorella Praeli. When she was 2, Praeli, now 28, lost one of her legs in a car accident, but with her crutches, she commanded the room more adroitly than any of the speakers who preceded her, moving among the tables as she rallied her troops. Though the party was advertised on Facebook, most of the men and women in attendance were seasoned Democratic politicians, staff members and volunteers.
“I’m not here to make it pretty,” Praeli said. “The work ahead of us, the task and challenge ahead of us for the next what — 96 days — is huge.” She ticked through the efforts needed to register and turn out Latinos: knocking on doors, hosting phone-bank parties, convincing friends, haunting markets, teaching Spanish-speakers the how and the when and the where of voting. In her speech, the job sounded herculean. Near the end of her pitch, she asked everyone to stand and feel the energy in the room while they said, in Spanish, “We will be the difference.”
“I want you to say it and to believe it,” Praeli instructed. “I want you to say it and to commit yourself.” She smiled, but these were marching orders. “If we don’t believe it, other people won’t believe,” Praeli said in Spanish. “If we don’t believe it in this room, we won’t be the difference in November.”
Latinos have been hearing that they will be the difference for decades. In Spanish-language media this year, the rhetoric around the election has often gone so far as to imply that Latinos will decide the result on their own. Telemundo’s election coverage runs under the slogan “Yo Decido,” “I Decide.” The Univision news anchor Jorge Ramos told The Times last year that “the new rule in American politics is that no one can make it to the White House without the Hispanic vote.”
It’s true enough that 800,000 Latinos turn 18 every year, and both parties burn millions of dollars trying to woo Hispanic voters. This year, 27 million will be eligible to vote. But the idea of a fearsome Latino political power remains more myth than reality. Journalists have been writing about the so-called “sleeping giant” of Hispanic voters since at least the 1970s, but the fact is that voter turnout among Latinos remains dismal. It can run almost 20 percentage points lower than that of African-Americans and non-Hispanic whites. Exactly the same percentage of eligible Latinos, 48 percent, showed up for Romney versus Obama in 2012 as turned out for Bush versus Dukakis in 1988. While the raw number of Latino ballots cast has tripled since 1998, so has the number of Latino citizens who don’t vote. Only once in the past 28 years, during the 1992 match among George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot that spurred a jump in overall turnout, has Latino turnout exceeded 50 percent. More often than not, “Yo Decido” to stay home.
This year, the new spin on the old dream is that Donald Trump will finally shake the giant awake. He opened his campaign last summer by calling Mexican immigrants “rapists,” has repeatedly proclaimed that he will build a wall between Mexico and the United States and, until recently, has made the deportation of 11 million undocumented immigrants a cornerstone of his platform. As early as September 2015, Javier Palomarez, the president and chief executive of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, told Politico: “I think the greatest thing to ever happen to the Hispanic electorate is a gentleman named Donald Trump. He has crystallized the angst and anger of the Hispanic community.” He added, “I think we can all rest assured that Hispanics can turn out in record numbers.”
Perhaps. But achieving record turnout for a demographic with a lackluster voting history isn’t so simple as watching them take themselves to the polls. In June, Mi Familia Vota and the National Council of La Raza, two nonprofit groups devoted to organizing Latinos, warned that they needed more cash to match their voter registration numbers from 2012. In July, the Pew Research Center noted that “Hispanic voters lag all registered voters on several measures of engagement” — they aren’t paying attention to election news as closely as other citizens and they aren’t thinking about the election as much. At a conference on the Hispanic vote held in New York City in January, the big unanswered question was “Why have Latinos never really turned out in force?”
Looking for answers, I spent six months interviewing scores of Latinos in Virginia, a battleground state where the Latino share of the population has more than tripled since 1990. I met with Latino Catholics, Pentecostals and Mormons, with legal residents, citizens and undocumented immigrants. I frequented a church and a community center, soccer fields and a dance club. I lurked around Republican and Democratic events and a skateboard park. I interviewed custodians and construction workers, lawyers and real estate agents, restaurant owners and community organizers, college students and political staffers. In all, I spoke with more than 100 Virginians of various ethnic backgrounds.
For all the energy that activists, especially on the Democratic side, have put into turning out the Latino vote, I met strikingly few Latinos outside the upper-middle class who talked about voting as if it were something they did regularly. The exceptions tended to be people like Lucía Rodriguez, 61, who cleans houses and has voted regularly for more than a decade — even in 2008 after she and her husband, a custodian, saw all their savings vanish in the mortgage crisis. For years afterward, they scrambled to keep their family afloat, working every available hour. Yet she kept on voting. Why? “It’s a civic duty,” she said. Rodriguez explained that in Bolivia, where she had been an accountant, she learned the habit of voting because nonvoters could be penalized with fines. In her Mormon church in the United States, she was surrounded by friends who voted. To pass her citizenship test, she had to study American government and learn English. Her voting behavior entailed years of effort and experience. Through all my conversations, I began to fear that the real roots of political engagement, which lie not in quadrennial outreach programs but around dinner tables and in churches and classrooms, are far more absent from Latino life in America than most people understand.
“A person on the fence needs to be activated to turn into a voter,” Marvin Figueroa, 30, said one humid Friday in July as he stood before a crowd of white-collar professionals at a “Happy Hour for Hillary.” These borderline voters, he said, often need “13 touches” — calls, door knocks, texts, etc. — before they would turn out. Figueroa is Clinton’s political director for Virginia. His spreadsheets contain not only Latinos but also African-Americans, millennials and Muslims: any constituent group that might be pulled into a pro-Clinton coalition. This evening, inside the Arlington home of a defense contractor who turned Democrat after the Tea Party swept into Congress in 2010, the audience was mostly female, mostly Caucasian and only marginally Latino. The doors to the screened-in porch were open; the air-conditioning was off; the margarita machine was on. The Spanish speakers blended into the crowd.
Statistically, the Latinos most likely to cast ballots are almost identical to other reliable American voters. They are over 40. They’ve lived in the United States for at least 20 years. They are Puerto Ricans and Cuban-Americans with long cultural histories of citizenship. They are college graduates.
The Latinos least likely to vote represent a different demographic slice altogether. They are under 30, single and Mexican-American. Their families earn less than $50,000 a year. They may not have completed high school.
Data capsules like these suggest that the Latino vote is simply hamstrung by the same factors that impede the Election Day turnout of all Americans: poverty, youth, lack of schooling. Political scientists showed long ago that voting goes hand in glove with affluence and education. Generally speaking, the wealthier you are, the more degrees you earn, the more likely you are to turn out. But if these were the only relevant factors, Latino voting would most likely rise naturally over time as more Latinos enrolled in college and as the age of the average American-born Latino increased. (In 2012 their average age was 18.)
Causality unravels, however, when you start picking at the numbers. Take income, for example. While nearly a quarter of Latinos live in poverty, as a group they are slightly better off than African-Americans. Yet in 2012, African-Americans had the highest turnout rates in the nation. They, not Latinos, have arguably been the decisive bloc in our last two presidential contests and in this year’s Democratic primary. So poverty alone can’t explain the weak Hispanic vote.
Youth and education also prove to be red herrings. Hispanics are America’s youngest and least-educated major racial or ethnic group. Nearly a third of foreign-born Latinos never reached ninth grade. Some have never had a day of schooling in their lives. But if age and learning were the decisive catalysts, we would expect to find the highest voter turnout among Asian-Americans, who are our second-oldest and best-educated group. More than half of Asian-Americans hold bachelors degrees. Yet Asian-Americans tend to vote at even lower rates than Latinos. In 2012, 53 percent of their eligible voters did not go to the polls.
So what do Asians and Hispanics, two vastly different groups in terms of age, education and culture, have in common? It’s obvious once you look for it: For the past 30 years, most of America’s immigrants have arrived from Asia and Latin America. Both groups struggle with English. Roughly a third of Hispanic adults and a 10th of Hispanic children say that they cannot speak English “very well.” Among Asians, the numbers are similar.
The American political system once efficiently trained immigrants in how to pull electoral levers. For all their flaws, urban political machines like Tammany Hall did an extraordinary job of recruiting poor, undereducated Irish and Italian immigrants, then shepherding their political incorporation into local and national affairs. But immigrants from Latin America and Asia were largely excluded from the old machines, both by laws limiting their naturalization and enfranchisement and by racism. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was not extended to Hispanics and Asians until 1975. By then most of the urban machines had been dismantled, and the leading edge of our current wave of Asian and Hispanic immigrants began unpacking their bags in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Atlanta and Washington.
The immigrants from Latin America immediately found themselves lumped together under the label “Hispanic,” even if they spoke Portuguese or an indigenous language, even if they had no ancestral link to Spain. It’s tough to galvanize such a heterogeneous group. The panethnic, multilingual category of “Hispanic” is a uniquely American invention, created by congressional legislation in the 1970s. In her book “Making Hispanics,” G. Cristina Mora shows how bureaucrats, media executives and political activists built the notion to combine Mexican-Americans, Cuban-Americans, Puerto Ricans and others in census counts and federal programs. The term was always deliberately ambiguous, Mora notes, so that it could accommodate varied origin stories. There are Hispanics who swam the Rio Grande hoping for a living wage, Hispanics who flew business class to enroll in Ivy League schools, Hispanics who disembarked as Cold Warriors in Florida. There are even Hispanics whose families owned land in the Southwest before it was ever part of the United States. (These “Hispanics” like to joke that they didn’t cross the border; the border crossed them.) Unlike African-Americans, most of whom can trace a connection to slavery, Latinos have no single common history. Trump, Figueroa once told me, “makes us more Latino”: His threats and insults provoke a unifying sense of indignation.
Note: White, black, and Asian populations include only non-Hispanics who reported a single race. Native Americans and mixed-race groups not shown. The estimated number of votes cast is based on individual voting self-reports. Source: Pew Research Center
Sifting thorough the numbers and this complicated history makes the 52 percent of nonvoting Latinos look rather different. The problem isn’t their youth, poverty or lack of education. The problem is that when you’re poor, young or undereducated, it takes more effort to overcome your immigrant family’s low levels of political socialization. For first-generation Americans, politics is often just one more cultural expression that they must decipher on their own. It’s rarely a priority. The immigrant parents that I spoke with swam rivers and boarded airplanes to escape violence, to earn money, to educate their children. Learning to play American politics was never on the agenda.
In Virginia, I found that serious political talk was so rare among the American-born children of Spanish-speaking immigrants that they would often ask me questions like “What is the Tea Party?” and “Who is my mayor?” Alicio Castañeda, a student at George Mason University whose parents are from Mexico, told me that after we had lunch in April, he began reading more news articles and researching deeper into the presidential candidates. He voted on Super Tuesday. His love for the soccer team Manchester United had led him to The Guardian newspaper, which reminded him that it was a big day in America. “I’ve always been personally interested in politics,” he told me, “but I haven’t had anyone to talk to about it.”
Until the 1960s, high schools often taught courses on democracy, civics and government. At the turn of the 21st century, most teenagers received one such class, or none. This drought in civics hurts all Americans, but for Latinos it’s devastating. Several studies have found that merely hearing parents chat about politics or watching them cast a ballot improves the odds that a child will later vote as an adult. Yet a national survey directed by Mark Hugo Lopez in 2002 found that young Latinos were the least likely to have discussed politics with their parents. They were also the most likely to believe that voting is “difficult.”
On Super Tuesday, I glimpsed what was missing among so many of the Latino families I spoke with when I met Kat Heller, a non-Hispanic mother, exiting a polling station with two children. Growing up in Minnesota, Heller had always tagged along with her parents when they voted. Once, when she was about 12, her father took her to watch the ballots being counted. “I just remember feeling it was really exciting,” she told me. “It was seeing history happening. Everyone was waiting breathlessly.” Inside the voting booth on Super Tuesday, Heller put her 3-year-old son on her hip and asked him: “Which do you think we should vote for?” His 13 touches had already begun.
Absent Tammany Hall and civics in schools, the work of turning “new Americans” into voters often falls to volunteers like Keisy Chavez. Several weekends this summer, Chavez, 45, has stood outside of Todos Supermarket and other locations in Northern Virginia, clipboard in hand, fishing for Latinos who haven’t registered to vote. On the Saturday morning that I joined her, she looked surprisingly stylish for the occasion: gold-toned sandals, brilliant white capri pants, fiery nails and a bright orange T-shirt blazoned with the words “New Virginia Majority.” You could not engineer a better volunteer than Chavez to help turn out the Latino vote. Political appeals, social scientists have found, work best when delivered by co-ethnics. Chavez meets other requirements as well: She’s bilingual, outgoing and frank.
A good rate for voter registration is two new registrations an hour. Chavez and her colleague hit the mark with four new registrations between them (the colleague waited for Chavez every time someone’s dominant language was Spanish). Still, most passers-by ignored them. One 20-something with jet black hair who did stop told Chavez, in Spanish, that he was a citizen but not registered. She tried to reel him in.
“O.K.,” she responded with a smile, “what is the problem?”
He said that he would come back to register next week, that she should give him her phone number.
“What happens if you don’t come next week?” she asked him.
“I promise you.”
“You know what happens,” she said. “If you don’t do it now, four more years will go by, and you won’t vote.”
Back and forth they went for several minutes. Finally, seeing that Chavez wouldn’t give him her number, the man walked away without registering. Winning votes, Lola Quintela of the Fairfax County Democratic Committee told me, is “trabajo de hormiga” — ants’ work, performed grain by grain.
The political scientist Lisa García Bedolla proposed a different method in a 2005 paper for The Harvard Journal of Hispanic Policy. Because political engagement is strongly influenced by social ties, she argues, Latinos should improve their participation by politicizing their existing social networks. (She also pushes for civics in schools.) Several of the Latinos I met seemed to vote only because they were connected to a political junkie. Manuel Fernandez, 25, a Mexican-American born in New York State, prefers rebuilding and drifting cars to reading politics, but he has voted in local and presidential elections since he turned 18 because his father, Guadencio, a businessman, persuaded him to register to vote and tells him when and how to cast his ballots. “Dad is really into it,” he said. “Whenever my dad says it’s voting time, we go vote.”
The Clinton campaign is splitting its strategy between the tactics. After analyzing which programs worked best during the primaries, Praeli began pushing an expansion of Nevada’s bilingual Mujeres in Politics program in battleground and “expansion” states across the country. Mujeres in Politics marshals Latinas for the ant work of canvassing and phone banking, but it also relies on social ties to deepen the campaign’s reach into Latino communities. Each Latina who participates is tasked with the responsibility of drawing in five more Latina volunteers.
“The theory for us was if you target Latinas and then you have Latinas talk to other Latinas, they’re the best communicators to do that,” Praeli told me. “We see them as the C.E.O.s of their family and their communities. Part of my program description is you need to know that bodega with the highest foot traffic or the church secretary that can give you access to a faith community or who are the comadres in the neighborhood that have the largest influence. All you have to do is talk to a Latina to really understand that.” Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Latinas have voted in higher numbers than Latinos or that they were a key base for Clinton in the primaries.
Chavez herself was lured into politics by a Latina friend. For years after she settled in Virginia from Peru, she earned money washing dishes, waitressing, cleaning bathrooms, cleaning offices, “cleaning anything,” she says. At one point she held three jobs: a full-time job, a part-time job and a weekend job cleaning the airport at night. In 1996, she earned her real estate license. Then in 2009, after a friend asked her to walk with Terry McAuliffe in a parade, she was so smitten by his concern for Latinos that she decided to volunteer for his campaign for governor. For Chavez, the experience was intoxicating: “I was like, ‘Whoa, I did not know any of this existed.’ ” She has volunteered for Virginia Democrats every year since then. Election season feels like a party to her. “I have the best time,” she told me. When Praeli spoke at the “Latinos con Hillary” event at Todos, Chavez was there, dressed head to toenails in blue.
The widespread assumption has been that rising numbers of Hispanic citizens will turn Virginia and other states in the South permanently Democratic. Certainly, with each election since 2001, Virginia Democrats have expanded their network of experienced Latino staff members and volunteers. Praeli and Figueroa’s work depends on these veterans, a fact that Clinton tacitly acknowledged before Figueroa was even hired. On June 11, five days after The Associated Press called the Democratic primary for Hillary Clinton, the former president Bill Clinton held a closed-door round table in Arlington with about 20 key Latino leaders from all over the state. He, like Praeli after him, was rallying troops.
But Latinos aren’t natural Democrats, any more than they are natural Republicans. In 1984, Ronald Reagan won the presidency with nearly half their vote in California. In 2004, George W. Bush won a second term with 40 percent of the national Latino vote, setting off panic in Democratic circles. And even in 2012, 33 percent of the Latino vote in Virginia went to Mitt Romney. He also took 39 percent of the Latino vote in Florida and 42 percent in Ohio.
From the beginning, Latino voters have been up for grabs. The national electoral bloc that we now call the Hispanic vote was created by middle- and upper-class Mexican-American Democrats who wanted more clout in government and politics. According to the historian Ignacio M. García’s book on the subject, they organized “Viva Kennedy” clubs in Texas, California, New Mexico, Indiana, Illinois and elsewhere. Working together under an absurd logo of John Kennedy riding a grinning burro, these grass-roots clubs turned out thousands of Spanish speakers in delegate-rich states, helping Kennedy squeak into the White House by a margin of less than 1 percent of the popular vote. But Republicans pushed the strategy further: In “Making Hispanics,” Mora shows how members of Richard Nixon’s 1972 re-election campaign, who nicknamed themselves the “Brown Mafia,” ran Spanish-language ads on radio and television. They crafted three distinct campaigns to bring in not just Mexican-Americans but also Puerto Ricans and Cuban-Americans. With their help, Nixon was re-elected by a landslide, taking about 35 percent of what was then known as the “Spanish speaking” vote. The real loss for Republicans since President George W. Bush left office is that their candidates have frittered away the affections that he and Reagan earned among Latinos.
Many conservative Hispanics I spoke with in Virginia told me that they don’t fit neatly into either party. They would prefer a candidate who legalizes undocumented immigrants, outlaws abortion, makes college education free, wipes out drugs and gangs, rolls back the legal right to gay marriage, supports small-business credits and raises the minimum wage. Immigration reform might be a distinguishing concern for Latinos, but a recent report from Pew found that, as in previous presidential contests, it is not the top issue for Latino voters. More Latino voters say that the economy, health care and terrorism are very important.
Several of the Catholic Latinos I met said that abortion laws were their top priority. “If we can close that one clinic,” Iris Chavez told me with a sparkle in her eye, referring to a Planned Parenthood-like women’s clinic that was once located in Manassas, “we can set fire to the nation.” Chavez, 26, was brought into the United States illegally from El Salvador when she was 11 and was protected by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which Obama created in 2012 for undocumented millennials who came to the United States as children. She works part-time as a secretary at All Saints Catholic Church, where so many Latinos attend the Sunday afternoon, Spanish-language Mass that they spill from the pews to stand three to four deep against the walls. She doesn’t much like Donald Trump, she told me, but if she could vote, she would vote for him based on her belief that abortion is murder.
Percentage of Hispanic registered voters identifying with each party
Note: For all years, includes respondents who say they consider themselves a Democrat or Republican or lean toward the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. Responses of “neither,” “other,” “don't know/refused,” are not shown. Source: Pew Research Center
Chavez is the kind of Latino that Nixon’s “Brown Mafia” was after — the same kind that Reagan tried to embrace with his 1986 amnesty, which legalized 2.7 million Hispanics who had no criminal history, and the kind that Reince Priebus had hoped the Republican National Committee’s 2012 election autopsy would provoke Republicans to seek again. If the party had followed George W. Bush’s lead, Todos Supermarket might have become a site for G.O.P. events. Carlos Castro, its owner, considered himself “almost 100 percent Republican” until 2007, when the Republicans of Prince William County championed an anti-Hispanic “Immigration Resolution,” and he began to reconsider. He’s now an independent. Other conservatives in the county told me that they would keep their votes out of everybody’s reach until a candidate arrives whom they can fully support.
The specter of Trump has roused many Latinos to change their minds about registering; spikes have been documented in North Carolina and Georgia. In California, the rise in registrations early this year was almost double what it was during the same period in 2012. Jairo Castillo, a Nicaraguan-American construction worker in Virginia, complained to me in April that the vote “doesn’t count,” but after Trump secured the Republican nomination in June, he registered to vote for the first time.
Even if a “Trump effect” among Latinos this year does help put Clinton in the White House, will those new voters stay engaged? History suggests they might not. According to the political scientists Matt Barreto and Gary M. Segura, more than a million Latinos in California registered to vote for the first time in the years after the state passed Proposition 187, a 1994 ballot initiative. Prop. 187 prohibited undocumented immigrants from state-funded institutions, like schools, and required police officers to report their arrests to federal immigration authorities. In a statewide election, the initiative passed with 59 percent of the vote. Pete Wilson, the Republican governor who had championed the measure, won re-election that same fall. Prop. 187 was soon tied up in federal court, which ruled many of its elements unconstitutional, but California’s electorate soon went on to pass a ban on affirmative action (Prop. 209) and a reduction in bilingual education (Prop. 227). Both measures were widely regarded as anti-Hispanic.
Prop. 187 and its cousins had notoriously partisan effects in California. In a paper published in The American Journal of Political Science in 2006, the political scientists Shaun Bowler, Stephen P. Nicholson and Segura found that before 1994 Latinos split their votes almost equally between the two parties. By contrast, after the passage of these propositions, the probability that a Latino would identify as Republican fell by more than two-thirds, erasing all the gains that Republicans made since Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign. Data also revealed that the propositions moved many non-Hispanic whites in California into the Democratic column. Attacking undocumented immigrants and Latinos had provoked a white backlash against Republicans that mirrors the disaffection that Trump’s nomination has stirred among many party moderates this season.
But as time went on, Prop. 187’s effect on Latino turnout revealed itself to be not a turning point but a blip. Last September, The Los Angeles Times noted that only 17 percent of eligible California Latinos voted in 2014. Turnout was similar among Asian-Americans, while all other racial and ethnic groups combined voted more than twice as much. “By all accounts, the Central Valley is a place where Latino candidates should win elections,” the reporter Kate Linthicum noted. “Yet Latino candidates’ election losses have piled up here in recent years — in large part because Latinos aren’t turning out to vote.”
Among those defeated in 2014 was Amanda Renteria, now the national political director for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Renteria ran for Congress in a Central Valley district that was 74 percent Hispanic. She grew up in the Central Valley and taught math at her old high school in Woodlake before attending Harvard Business School and becoming the first Latina chief of staff in the history of the Senate. She lost her 2014 bid for Congress by 17 points. If Latinos had turned out for her at the levels that African-Americans turned out for Obama, it’s possible that today she would sit in Congress.
This March, the Public Policy Institute of California released a report that detailed the gulf that has opened up in California politics since the Prop. 187 surge. “Voters in California,” it noted, “tend to be older, white, college educated, affluent and homeowners. They also tend to identify themselves as ‘haves’ — rather than ‘have-nots’ — when asked to choose between these two economic categories. Nonvoters tend to be younger, Latino, renters, less affluent and less likely to be college educated than likely voters — and they generally identify themselves as have-nots.”
California may be a majority-minority state in terms of its population, the report observed, but its electorate is not: 60 percent of its likely voters are white, while only 18 percent are Latino. It would be naïve, however, to expect Democrats to throw themselves wholeheartedly into the project of turning out the state’s Hispanics given that they already control solid majorities in California’s State Assembly and State Senate.
“We have to be honest,” María Teresa Kumar, the president and co-founder of Voto Latino, a nonpartisan organization, told me last fall. “When it comes to voter registration, each party is looking to the Latino community and the African-American community for enough votes. They don’t need us all.” From her office in Washington, she directs efforts to engage young Latinos who are often navigating the political system for their families. “Our job,” Kumar said, “is to do true political empowerment: It’s mass mobilization and mass participation. And for parties, it’s about how little do they need to spend to get over the top.”
If Virginia’s battleground status suggests a triumph of the Latino vote, it also provides a cautionary tale about its limitations. In early August, Senator Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s running mate, appeared in the green-and-yellow gymnasium of Huguenot High School in Richmond. “Yes, we Kaine!” the crowd shouted under the floodlights. His homecoming rally doubled as a history lesson. Kaine pointed out that Virginia had gone 170 years without a president or vice-president. When he moved to Virginia in 1984, he said, neither Republicans nor Democrats bothered to campaign in the state, a situation that he attributed to a conservative lock on power that depended upon marginalizing women and minorities. “We pushed you away from the table,” he said. But since Barack Obama turned Virginia into a battleground, it has become a campaign stop for every would-be president. “It’s much better to live in state where no one can take you for granted,” Kaine said.
The shift that brought volunteers like Keisy Chavez to the Democratic table actually began long before Obama. When Mark Warner was elected governor in 2001, his campaign strategy relied on winning rural, Nascar-loving Republicans, not on including minorities. But Kaine’s own gubernatorial victory in 2005 used an urban-suburban strategy that relied upon the participation of Northern Virginia’s fast-growing, multiethnic communities. Given Kaine’s experiences arguing civil rights cases and his work as a missionary in Honduras, the shift may have reflected personal affinities. It was also a canny response to Virginia’s changing demographics. According to the University of Virginia’s Demographics Research Group, in 1970 only one in 100 Virginians were born outside of the United States. By 2012, that ratio had increased to one in nine. Such demographic transformations are hardly unique to the state. Between 1990 and 2008, the number of Latinos living in Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee grew by 602 percent, prompting political scientists to dub the region the “Nuevo South.” “If you put your faith in the Virginia voter,” Kaine recalled telling the candidate Obama in 2008, “You’re going to win Virginia.”
Yet the majority of Virginia’s General Assembly is still Republican, and only two of its state-level representatives, the delegates Alfonso Lopez and Jason Miyares, are Latino. Harry Wiggins, the chairman of Prince William County’s Democratic Committee, described the problem like this: “We win the presidential. We won for Mark Warner. We won for Tim Kaine. We won for Terry McAuliffe. Yet the county board we lose, because they have off-year elections, and we have very light turnout.”
Figueroa is already preparing for the inevitable drop. “The numbers are going to plummet next year in places that count, like Prince William,” he told me. In 2015, the Census Bureau weighed Prince William County at 22.3 percent Latino, 21.8 percent African-American and 8.7 percent Asian. The chairman of its board of supervisors, however, is Corey Stewart, a Republican, who is also chairman of Donald Trump’s campaign in the state. “When he is president and I am governor, you’re going to see one helluva tag team in Virginia, and we’re finally going to remove illegal immigrants,” Stewart told The Richmond Times-Dispatch in June. The gubernatorial race will occur next year, when no other state in the country except New Jersey will be holding elections.
While Kaine spoke, Figueroa stood near the press box, tapping at his phone and taking in the scene. In the days leading up to the rally, he mentioned several times that he was working to make the event “blacker and browner.” His handiwork was evident in the V.I.P. bleachers directly in front of the television cameras, where a group of people sat, many of them wearing the unmistakable bright blue-and-white jerseys of El Salvador’s national soccer team. They were students, parents and teachers associated with the English-as-a-second-language program at Huguenot High School and its International Club. Their V.I.P. seating had come from Figueroa. Their homemade red, white and blue sign “Juntos Se Puede!” (“Together we can!”) gave Kaine a camera-ready opportunity that he seized, pointing to them and leading a round of “Sí se puede!” — a chant that will always have special resonance for those who know that it originated not in 2008 with Obama but with Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta in 1972.
After Kaine finished his speech, as “Shake It Off” blasted through the gym, several of these students joined the throng vying for an opportunity to snap a selfie with him. I asked two of them what they knew about Kaine. “He was mayor of Virginia,” one said. The other added that he had lived in Honduras and was a friend of Latinos. That was all that they seemed to know. Two parents I spoke with told me, in Spanish, that they understood only pieces of Kaine’s speech, which was in English. This explained why one father appeared so poker-faced through much of the rally. Unless his son translated the speeches for him, he couldn’t form an opinion. He didn’t understand what was being said.Marcela Valdes is a writer based in Maryland. She has served on the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle and has been a Nieman fellow at Harvard University. Her last article for the magazine examined a documentary about a California hospital’s sterilizations of Mexican-American women in the early 1970s.
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A version of this article appears in print on September 18, 2016, on page MM59 of the Sunday Magazine with the headline: Dream in Blue. |