When hundreds of thousands of Hispanics protested in more than a hundred U.S. cities over immigration reform in 2006, some carried signs that read: “Today we march, tomorrow we vote.”
Now, it seems, tomorrow has arrived.
States with large Latino populations, including California and New York, are at stake on what has become known as Super Tuesday, Feb. 5, when voters in more than 20 states will choose delegates for the two major parties’ conventions. Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama will square off, while Republican frontrunner John McCain will face Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul.
Hispanics are the country’s largest minority group and, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, they represent about 9 percent of the eligible voters nationwide. They tend to be younger than the rest of the population, with many just reaching voting age: one in three Latino potential voters is aged 18-29, compared with one in five for the rest of the population. Almost 5.6 million Hispanic youth are eligible to vote, enough to make a difference in the outcome of the elections.
Although the turnout of young Hispanic voters is hard to predict, analysts believe it is going to be higher than in previous elections. “All indications are that this election will have the highest turnout ever of Latino and young voters,” said Alyshia Gálvez, assistant professor of Latin American and Puerto Rican Studies at Lehman College. “New registrations are up dramatically.”
According to Richard Fry, senior research associate at the Pew Hispanic Center, “generally, youth are less likely to get politically engaged in terms of voting.” But their interest in the elections is growing: according to a poll published Friday by Time magazine, while in 2004 only 42 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds paid attention to the presidential campaign, the percentage has climbed to 74 percent in 2008.
“I had never been into politics before and now I watch CNN every day,” Jenesis Scott said during a Latinos for Obama rally Saturday. A young audience of about 50 supporters had gathered in Spanish Harlem to chant Obama’s slogan “Sí, podemos,” “yes, we can.”
Some believe young Latinos are engaged because Democrats are making a historic choice between a woman and an African American man. Others argue that Hispanics are concerned about the big issues, such as the economy or the lack of comprehensive immigration legislation.
Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco, co-director of immigration studies at New York University, says Hispanics simply follow the national trends. “Latinos are not from the other side of the moon. They behave like everybody else, and everybody else is more excited about this election. Young people are more engaged in this election. There is something in the air,” he observed.
Young Hispanics are beginning to feel their power. “There is a lot of enthusiasm because for the first time in the history of our country, we see that Latino voters can have a lot to do in this election,” said Rep. Nydia Velázquez, D-NY, the first Puerto Rican woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
“When you’re the object of desire, you say, ‘Hey, come and talk to me,’” said Adolfo Carrion, Jr., Bronx Borough president. “And when the media says that Hispanics are a ‘swing vote,’ young people get fired up. They say, ‘We can do something to change the direction of America.’”
That is what Jessica de Souza, a student at New York University, felt. “I wanted to actively do something, not join a group and discuss,” she said. De Souza, daughter of Colombian and Brazilian immigrants, is a first-time voter. She campaigned for Obama knocking on doors, making phone calls and registering potential voters. “Before, we weren’t interested as young people or as Latinos. No one was addressing us in any form. Now we realize that because we are so many, we can for the first time do something about it,” she said.
That sense of possibility is pushing more young Latinos to engage politically. Daisy Bugarin is a 19-year-old from Los Angeles studying at LaGuardia Community College in New York. Her father crossed the border at Tijuana at age 16 and was undocumented until he obtained a green card though an amnesty. To Bugarin, her father exemplifies the American dream: a young immigrant who arrived not speaking English and is now a successful head chef. Among Latino immigrants, she said, “there used to be more hope; things are so different now.” At the same time, she observed, “there’s a new generation of kids like me who now have the chance to vote for the first time; I definitely feel empowered.”
Polls show that the most important issue for registered Latino voters in the upcoming election is education, rather than immigration; the economy comes in second place.
“I am young and I already have health bills that I haven’t been able to pay,” said Bugarin, who included health care among her biggest concerns. International issues and how the Unites States stands in global affairs are also important to her.
Still, immigration is a rising concern among Hispanics, including first-time voters. “Many Latinos have a father, a cousin or an uncle who is undocumented even if they aren’t,” said Juan Carlos Aguirre, a 28-year-old Mexican–American member of Tepeyac, an association that helps Mexican immigrants in New York. “I know a young woman who has had a hard time paying for college because her father is undocumented and he couldn’t sign for the loans.”
Although almost 60 percent of Hispanic registered voters call themselves Democrats and less than 25 percent support the Republican Party, the Hispanic vote was key to President George W. Bush’s victory in 2004.
“There’s nothing obvious about Latinos and the Democratic Party,” said Suárez-Orozco. Like the Democrats, Latinos tend to believe in a strong welfare system, but many are conservative on social issues such as abortion, he added. There are also differences between Mexicans and Cubans, recent immigrants and Hispanics who have been living in the United States for decades.
“There’s no Hispanic group that has a higher Republican enrollment than Cubans,” said Rolando Infante, a volunteer for the McCain campaign in New York and a son of Cuban refugees who came to the United States four decades ago. “I’ve seen McCain and I think that what the American people are hungering for right now is for someone who inspires them,” he said.
Infante’s big concerns are Iraq, national security and the economy; he is currently unemployed and recently married. Immigration comes in number four on his list of important issues.
Bugarin, who calls herself independent, says she feels “very patriotic and very American.” At the same time, being Latina gave her “a lot of understanding and more perspective on things.” The daughter of illegal immigrants is now going to college and working for a non-profit organization. “The statistics make (Hispanic youth) feel they’re not going to accomplish much because the standards are not very high. The biggest protest is to prove stereotypes wrong.”