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The Dream of Turning Texas Blue Depends on Latino Voters


The weekend before Super Tuesday, Manuel Ortiz, a student at the University of Texas at Austin, drove to Montopolis, a majority-Latino neighborhood on the city’s southeastern edge. He was joined by four other college students, all canvassers for the Texas Youth Power Alliance, an initiative that aims to register three hundred thousand new voters before November. Ivy, the group’s field organizer, parked her aqua Honda in front of Nuestra Señora de los Dolores, a Mission-style Catholic church built in the fifties. She wore oversized glasses and spoke to the others in a sweetly commanding tone. “Avoid dogs,” she said. “Don’t go through ‘No Trespassing’ signs, gated areas, or ones with, like, a gun sign.” The shadow of the 2016 election, when Texas, reliably red, registered among the lowest voter turnouts of any state, loomed over the canvassers’ efforts. Ortiz, who was dressed in a light-wash denim jacket adorned with pins—of Selena, a raised fist, and a prickly pear—was feeling restless but keen. As a canvasser, he has developed a sort of poised patience and has learned to listen without pressing. His cacti-patterned bag was filled with dozens of voting guides en español.

Latinos, who make up nearly forty per cent of the state’s twenty-nine million people, have long had the lowest turnout of any demographic group in Texas. Within his family, Ortiz told me, he is the most dedicated voter. His older sister had called the day before to say that she had cast her ballot in the Democratic primary, but he had not yet convinced his parents to do so. “My mom got really uncomfortable in the last Senate election,” he said. “She felt overwhelmed with the system, those weird voting machines—they can scare people.” His parents are from San Luis Potosí, a state in central Mexico known for its mining industry. They settled in Southern California in the eighties, and became eligible for amnesty under a sweeping immigration-reform bill signed by Ronald Reagan in 1986. Before Ortiz was born, the family moved to Eula, a settlement in northern Texas, where residents have been voting Republican since the late sixties and Latinos remain a minority. The outcome of the 2016 election, Ortiz’s first as a voter, “hurt a lot to see,” he told me. “All of those people had heard his”—Donald Trump’s—“hateful rhetoric and they were O.K. with it. But it also made me want to fight back.” Early this year, he had mailed an absentee ballot back home. “I want people from my area, which is generally a lot more conservative, to know that there is some Democratic presence there,” he said.

“If you’re constantly being marginalized,” Manuel Ortiz says, “it feels like nobody is fighting for you.”

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 hundred thousand 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 became a volunteer with a progressive organization 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 an instant, 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 many 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?’ ”

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