The New Yorker: The Dream of Turning Texas Blue Depends on Latino Voters
By Stephania Taladrid
The New Yorker – March 22nd, 2020
For Ortiz, moving to Austin for college, in 2017, was a liberating experience. In Eula, he said, he had been enrolled in English-as-a-second-language classes in elementary school, though he had grown up bilingual. In Austin, he was majoring in anthropology and sustainability studies. There were more provoking conversations to engage in, and more live concerts to choose from. None of his classmates inquired about the legal status of his parents or judged him for speaking to them in Spanish. He could finally embrace all that before had been a source of shame, without wondering whether he was Latino or American enough. And with this feeling came the realization that he belongs to a group of people who, in a matter of years, will become the majority in Texas. He wanted others like him to know that they were not alone—that, through their votes, they could, and should, make their voices heard. “If you’re constantly being marginalized, it feels like nobody is fighting for you,” Ortiz said. “What’s important is getting those young voters engaged and talking to them. Maybe they can realize, Oh, these people are actually genuinely interested in hearing what I have to say.”
Texas has been voting Republican for four decades; nonetheless, a new narrative has recently surfaced about the state—that it is not so much red as it is non-voting. In 2018, when Beto O’Rourke narrowly lost a Senate challenge to Ted Cruz, he helped drive high turnout and historic wins for the Democratic Party across Texas, including fourteen seats in the state legislature and two seats in the House of Representatives. In counties with large Latino populations, participation rose almost three hundred per cent since the 2014 midterm election. Democratic donors took note of the increased competition in Texas, and some have shifted their focus toward the state. Tory Gavito, the head of Way to Win, a multimillion-dollar progressive-donor network, told me, “The scale of Texas is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a challenge, of course, because it requires massive resources.” The Lone Star State has twenty-one media markets and several metropolitan areas, Gavito explained, making it immensely difficult for campaigns to penetrate. “On the flip side, the scale is nothing but opportunity,” she said. “Whereas in a state like North Carolina, where the margins are very slim and the demographic changes are not as pronounced, you have to have everything go right to win those statewide elections.”
Democrats have been able to expand their base in Texas partly because the state’s population is growing fast but also because it is becoming increasingly diverse, young, and urban. And, to a large extent, Latinos are driving that demographic growth. Nearly half of all Texans under the age of eighteen are Latino, and two million of them will become eligible to vote in the next decade. The key, for Democrats, is to make sure that they become involved in the political process. In the fall of 2018, Ortiz started volunteering with a progressive group called Jolt, which organizes young Latinos, and began canvassing in neighborhoods, such as Montopolis, that are often neglected by political campaigns. “This is when I first got to truly understand that not all people have the same access to information about voting,” Ortiz said. “I met people who told me they didn’t know their polling location or even about early voting.”
For Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, who founded Jolt after the 2016 election, O’Rourke’s campaign, for which she crafted the Latino-outreach plan, set a historic precedent. The campaign had managed to engage Latinos on a variety of issues beyond immigration, including health care and education. It recognized that voters in the Rio Grande Valley had different concerns than those in Dallas, and that a blanket message would not suffice. The campaign also hosted rallies with musicians such as Los Tigres del Norte, a premier Mexican norteño band, and understood that successful Latino outreach entailed more than having campaign materials translated into Spanish. “Beto didn’t run away from Texas’s rich diversity—he embraced it,” Tzintzún Ramirez told me. “Every time, over the last twenty years, that we’ve run Republican-light, moderate Democrats, who can swing Republican voters and don’t necessarily speak to the diversity of the state, we’ve gotten farther and farther from actually flipping the state.”
The main challenge for such a theory of change is that it requires unprecedented turnout levels—which means overcoming, in a short period, decades of intimidation and voter suppression. “It is not so long ago that Latinos were actually lynched when they tried to vote,” Gavito said. In the years leading up to the First World War, Texas Rangers participated in the executions of Latinos across the state, through vigilante violence and lynch mobs. Estimates of the total number of Latinos killed at the border in the early twentieth century vary, from the hundreds to the thousands; Sonia Hernandez, an associate professor of history at Texas A. & M. and a co-founder of the nonprofit Refusing to Forget, said that the number could be as high as five thousand. “Texas is where the South meets the West,” Gavito went on. “We have a legacy of slavery in the state. We have a legacy of stealing lands and killing Mexican landowners who lived here from before the state was part of the United States of America.”
Many Latinos in Texas did not cast their first votes until the mid-seventies, when Congress passed an amendment to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that required states to offer Spanish-language ballots; until then, English-only ballots had effectively served as literacy tests for Latino voters. Around this time, Willie C. Velasquez, a Mexican-American activist, established the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, in San Antonio. Since its founding, S.V.R.E.P., which is headquartered in a small, unassuming house southwest of the city, has registered nearly three million voters. “Willie called Congressman [John] Lewis—who was not a congress member at the time but a member of the civil-rights movement—and they gave us a training,” Lydia Camarillo, the current president of S.V.R.E.P., said. “He started with a folding chair, a folding table, a rotary phone, and a phone book. Willie would begin at nine in the morning every day. He would call up people and say, ‘Are you registered to vote?’”
The morning of Super Tuesday, Julián Castro, the former Housing and Urban Development Secretary and Presidential candidate, stopped by an Elizabeth Warren campaign event in San Antonio. Castro, who served as the city’s mayor from 2009 to 2014, reminisced about the days when his mother, Rosie, a Chicano-rights activist, fought hard for her community. “When my mother was young, the barriers that were put up were much more rigid and much more explicit,” Castro told me. “It’s up to these generations that are coming up now to take that baton and go the next step.” He went on, “Attitudes have improved in our society. The laws are not as explicitly racist as they used to be—they provide more opportunity to get people registered or get them involved—but they still don’t encourage participation.” In 2013, the Supreme Court issued Shelby County v. Holder, a decision that allowed Texas to pass new election-and-voting laws without federal scrutiny. Within twenty-four hours, the state implemented one of the strictest voter-identification laws in the country, under which a concealed-handgun license, but not a student I.D. card, is considered a valid form of photo identification. Last year, the state banned temporary polling locations and straight-ticket voting. Hundreds of voting centers have been shut down, disproportionately affecting counties where minority populations are booming.
Voter-registration efforts, though expensive, can help overcome these obstacles, and so can a more diverse pool of candidates. “One of the things we need in order to motivate the Latino community to get off the sidelines and into the voting booths is talented people from those communities here in Texas,” Castro told me. Throughout his Presidential campaign, Castro challenged the rest of the field to match his progressive immigration-policy proposals, such as decriminalizing border crossings. He ranked low in national and early-voting-state surveys, and, when he decided to end his Presidential bid, in January, his message was clear: “It simply isn’t our time.” To many young Texans, including Ortiz, Castro’s withdrawal from the race felt like a personal defeat. “When he was running, I was interested in that, because I was, like, Oh, someone who looks like me!” Ortiz said. “Slowly seeing the candidates just turn into people who don’t look like me was kind of sad and disappointing. I don’t know how they will have the interests of my community.” After some hesitation, Ortiz ended up voting for Sanders, in part because of his immigration plan that he adopted from Castro. It states that entering the country without permission should be a civil, not a criminal, offense.
Tzintzún Ramirez, who had worked as an organizer for almost two decades, recalled asking young people to name one Latino that could speak for their community in Texas. “Everyone would usually draw a blank,” she said. “Ultimately, everybody would say Selena, right? And I would always respond, ‘Selena was amazing. She had an incredible voice, but she hasn’t been able to speak for us in over two decades.’ And we make up forty per cent of the state population.” Today, a new generation of Latino political leaders is growing in Texas. They include Tzintzún Ramirez, who recently ran in the Democratic primary to challenge Republican Senator John Cornyn for his seat, and Lina Hidalgo, the first Latina judge in Harris County, which encompasses Houston and is the third most populous county in the country. Among the youngest is Jessica Cisneros, a twenty-six-year-old immigration attorney who mounted a primary challenge to Henry Cuellar, a conservative Democrat who has represented Texas’s Twenty-eighth Congressional District since 2005. Cisneros, who ran a small campaign, with only nine paid full-time staffers, nonetheless managed to raise more than two million dollars—with an average campaign donation of twenty-six dollars—and to finish roughly three percentage points behind Cuellar. Her campaign will surely inspire other Latina women to follow her lead, just as Cisneros followed that of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “Knowing that she was able to take on an incumbent and win—that is the most invaluable lesson,” Cisneros said. “That, despite the odds, everything’s impossible until it’s done.”
On Election Night, Ortiz headed to Jolt’s headquarters, for “Super Taco Tuesday.” He was joined by several other volunteers, who crowded the small office with folding chairs and sipped Topo Chico as the results started to come in. The walls around them were covered with framed artworks of brown youths protesting, graduating from university, or holding hands sprouting with flowers. One of the most evocative featured eight children of different ethnicities standing in front of the border wall, with their arms locked, and the popular saying “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.” Like Ortiz, most of the volunteers were cheering for Sanders. Three young women sitting next to him exchanged thoughts on O’Rourke’s endorsement of Joe Biden the previous night, in Dallas. They promptly came to a consensus: it was a terrible disappointment. “He was supposed to be a progressive!” one said. A few feet behind them, on the porch, two Sanders voters were engaged in a heated argument over what to do if Biden ended up carrying the nomination. “My position is to not have four more years of hate,” one said, defending his plan to vote for Biden. The other, however, was more skeptical. “Y’all are saying that if I don’t vote for Biden I’m voting for Trump?” he remarked ruefully.
When Ortiz called it a night, Sanders had a lead of almost two points in Texas. Though he ultimately lost to Biden in the state by four and a half percentage points, Sanders took home forty-five per cent of the Latino vote, and sixty-six per cent among voters between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine. The next morning, when it became clear that Biden had won, Ortiz sent me a text message.“The results left me anxious for the rest of this primary season,” he wrote. He was disappointed that the winning candidate did not endorse some of the policies that mattered most to him, such as Medicare for All, but he remained optimistic. “It’s a lot closer than it was in 2016, which makes me hopeful for the next elections, because I feel Texas is becoming more progressive,” he said. Ortiz expects to support Biden, but his uneasiness about the likely Democratic candidate speaks to that of many other young supporters of Sanders. In Sanders’s promises of a government-run health-care system, a decent minimum wage, and tuition-free education, they see long-awaited opportunities. And, although they may welcome Biden’s call for unity, they also yearn for a future free of debt and laden with possibility.
At a watch party organized by the Sanders campaign, many supporters echoed Ortiz’s feelings. The event was held in a beer hall, owned by a Peruvian-American businesswoman, just two doors down from Jolt’s office. The crowd was young, mostly people in their twenties or thirties, and their gazes were all set on a giant projector screen showing MSNBC. While Sanders was leading in Texas, the crowd roared and drinks kept flowing, as campaign volunteers took turns on the microphone. Around midnight, when Biden had reached a significant lead, there was hardly anyone left in the hall. On their way out, Hiram García and Neil Hernández offered their appraisal of the race. García, the first to graduate from college in his family, spoke about how hard it was to discuss politics at home before the last general election. “Trump has made it a lot easier for us to communicate,” he said. “It’s sort of motivated our parents to want to learn more,” Hernández jumped in. “Showing them that, on the one side, they’re literally jailing babies, dividing families. They don’t care about your workers’ rights, they don’t care about the poor, right? That’s the complete opposite of what our faith is supposed to be.” They both agreed that youth involvement had changed dramatically since 2016. “I’m starting to see all of my Latino friends coming into it full speed, trying to make a difference,” Garcia said. “But people are really, really tired of these moderate ideas that don’t end up impacting people, especially here in Texas. Like, Affordable Care Act? Nobody got insurance here!” Hernández took a more conciliatory tone. “Whoever ends up winning the nomination, if it’s Joe Biden and his team, I literally pray that they just look at the data. Look at the Latino turnout, at all of these underrepresented communities,” he said. “It’s what we need to beat Donald Trump—that they look at that diverse coalition and extend an olive branch to bring on those people. Because we can’t afford to have a repeat. We just can’t have a repeat of 2016.”
Stephania Taladrid is a member of The New Yorker’s editorial staff.