How Latinas Could Play a Key Role in 2020

“There’s a lot of women out there that are ready to vote, that were doubting if their vote will make a difference,” Sheila Arias, a Durham-based activist with the voter-advocacy group MamásConPoder, told me. Now, “younger generations are definitely doing a lot of talking and motivating older family members who have the right to vote. And I see a lot of women motivating younger women, talking to their kids if they aren’t eligible to vote about the importance of voting.”

In North Carolina, introducing young Latinos to politics is especially important for organizers. The community’s growth is driven by children born to current residents, most of whom are of Mexican or Central American descent. Although about two-thirds of the state’s 1 million Latinos are ineligible to vote, roughly half of them, all U.S.-born kids, will be eligible in the coming years after they turn 18. (The other ineligible voters are not citizens.)

Mijente has recruited local women in North Carolina as organizers who can push people in their networks to register, learn about policy issues, and spread pro-voting messages within their own circles of Latinas.

Speaking with me over Zoom, two local Mijente organizers, Reyna Gutierrez and Vanessa Reyes, called this election year the most important of their lives, and told me they are tired of experiencing inequality of opportunity and discrimination. Beyond the president’s racist comments about immigrants, the Republican Senator Thom Tillis, who is slightly trailing challenger Cal Cunningham in his reelection this year, has suggested that Latinos are partially responsible for their own COVID-19 infections, and aren’t “traditional” North Carolinians.

Gutierrez told me that when she knocks on someone’s door in her Durham neighborhood, she starts her conversations with a string of questions: “Are you happy with the way the country is being run right now?” “Are you happy with the racism you’ve encountered?” “Do you feel safe with the way the pandemic’s been handled?” The answers are invariably “no.”

“That’s when I say, ‘What if I told you there might be candidates running who share your thinking?’” she said.

Gutierrez, in her early 40s, is part of Mijente’s “señora flank,” a cohort of mothers, aunts, and older women, while Reyes, who is 19 years old and undocumented, works with other young organizers to make a progressive pitch about how voters can push for structural change. Each group represents a share of the Latina vote that has the potential to turn out in substantial numbers this year: Young Latinas like Reyes tend to be more fervently anti-Trump, while women 30 to 49 years old, like Gutierrez, tend to vote more regularly.

At the local level, these women could play a key role in electing the first Latino candidate to North Carolina’s state House. Irene Godínez, a Durham native who founded the political organization Poder NC Action, told me that she launched her group, in part, to support the candidacy of Ricky Hurtado, an alum of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Princeton University who is running in the state’s 63rd district against an incumbent who won reelection by only about 300 votes in 2016.

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