Jeff Jardine

Will this be the year Latinos rise up to become force at the polls?

Homero Mejia, executive director of Congregations Building Communities, is seen in August on the porch at his office in Modesto. He has been involved in educating and registering Latinos for the Nov. 8 election, and also working to ensure others who have voted in previous elections continue to vote.
Homero Mejia, executive director of Congregations Building Communities, is seen in August on the porch at his office in Modesto. He has been involved in educating and registering Latinos for the Nov. 8 election, and also working to ensure others who have voted in previous elections continue to vote. jlee@modbee.com

In 2006, I wrote a column wondering whether that would be the year Latino voters rose up and flexed their political biceps. A decade later, the same question applies and under similar political and social conditions.

That year, with immigration being the hot issue in Washington, D.C., and across the nation, many felt it would compel Latinos to register to vote and head to the polls. After all, thousands of Latinos had marched in Ceres and Modesto a month before the June election to protest proposed changes in U.S. immigration laws. But activism has not always translated to getting Latinos to vote and flexing their potential political power, whether by mail or in the voting booths.

Locally, at least, the uptick didn’t meet projections. And any local momentum gained in that one fell apart in 2009, when Modesto held its first district elections. In a district with 34,000 residents – 9,000 of them registered voters – and geared for Latino representation, only 702 people voted and they elected Dave Geer, a 67-year-old white guy. (He did an outstanding job, by the way.)

So will this, then, be the election when Latinos nationwide and here in the Valley really do make their collective voice heard? They represent 41 percent of Stanislaus County’s population. If, indeed, they turn out in significantly greater numbers Tuesday than in previous years, they can thank Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump for riling them to act and be counted. Beyond his promise to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, he also wants to deport as many as 6 million undocumented people. He’s called Mexicans rapists, among other things.

In doing so, he has mobilized them – against him – as no political organizers could have done otherwise. One national poll Monday showed Trump with a 76 percent unfavorable rating among Latinos who said they will vote in this election.

Locally, nonpartisan organizations including Mi Familia Vota and Congregations Building Communities have seized upon the opportunity to get Latino voters involved. These organizations do not endorse any candidate or ballot measure. They instead concentrate on getting Latinos, Asians and African Americans engaged in the process, many for the first time.

Melissa Santos, working with Mi Familia Vota (see the organization’s Facebook page) since June, has helped 700 more Latinos register to vote and has been in contact with many more who already are registered but haven’t always voted.

Meanwhile, Homero Mejia of Congregations Building Community said his group added 300 new voters but concentrated more toward getting those already registered to become “high-propensity” voters who cast ballots in most if not every election, not just in presidential elections.

“We’ve spent more time on education and voting,” Mejia said. “We’re seeing higher (numbers) than what we’ve seen in the past. We’ve done phone banks and canvassing (going door to door) over the past 1  1/2 months, and we think there will be a very high (Latino) turnout in this election.”

Santos agreed.

“We do expect bigger turnout,” she said. “Of the people we’ve talked to, there has been a high response of ‘yes,’ they plan to vote.”

In fact, former Riverbank Mayor and longtime Latina activist Virginia Madueño said, getting Latinos out to vote for a presidential candidate isn’t nearly as challenging as getting them to vote in elections during non-presidential years or, in a presidential year, to weigh in on the state propositions and local races and measures.

“They’ll say they they don’t want to get into it because politics are dirty,” she said. “But everything that controls your life is impacted by politics. We need them not only to be engaged and informed for this election, but once the election is over it is imperative to keep them engaged. The local elections in most cases are.”

Only then, Latino organizers and leaders agree, is when they will become the kind of voting force folks have predicted for over a decade.

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