Latino millennials become a political force to reckon with

More Hispanic voters come of age, but wooing them won'€™t be easy

Los Angeles

Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series examining the Latino vote in the 2014 elections. Part 2, published Wednesday, looks at the influence of evangelical churches on Hispanic voters. The final part, to be published Friday, explores the importance of the older Latino vote.

LOS ANGELES — A painting of Mexican artist and feminist icon Frida Kahlo hangs on the wall of Patricia Garcia’s and Christy Ruiz’s cozy apartment.

Friends, all members of the Feminist Majority Club at East Los Angeles College, gathered on a recent Sunday afternoon in their small living room for a combination birthday celebration — Ruiz’s 27th — and club meeting. On the agenda: drinks, pizza, conversation and a movie (“The Invisible War,” a documentary about rape in the U.S. military). Noah and Otis, two vocal Pomeranians, bounced from guest to guest.

All the guests were Latinas. All politically aware. All outspoken. All in their 20s. But many either can’t or don’t vote.

Patricia Garcia, center, hosts a Feminist Majority Club meeting in her home, where she lives with her wife, Christine Ruiz, far left.
Tomo for Al Jazeera America

“It’s very frustrating,” said Garcia, 26, who was born in Mexico and is undocumented. “There are so many people who have the opportunity to make that difference.”

That includes her wife, Ruiz, who works for an accounting firm and is studying sign-language interpreting. She was born in the U.S. Her mother is a Guatemalan immigrant, and her father a third-generation Mexican-American.

“I’ve become more involved because of her [Garcia],” Ruiz said. “Before, I was thinking my vote doesn’t matter.”

The millennial generation, a powerful wave of close to 90 million teens to 30-somethings, is even more formidable than the aging baby-boom generation. They are America’s newest voters and a populace that could soon redraw the political landscape.

Latinos are another demographic force to be reckoned with.

Some 8 million members of the nation’s largest minority are expected to vote in the November elections — about a third of eligible Latino voters and about 8 percent of all voters — according to projections by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO).

By the 2016 presidential election, 28 million Latinos will be eligible to vote, up from 25 million currently.

Put the two together, and Latino millennials have the potential to become one of the most influential segments of the electorate.

“It’s always kind of a challenge to engage this population,” said Lizette Escobedo, director of development and communications for Mi Familia Vota, a national organization working to increase Hispanics’ civic participation. “We want to make sure we capture them early on. It’s a challenge but definitely an opportunity.”

Most new voters are millennials, a generation loosely defined as people born from 1982 to 2001. Some classify them as the 78 million 19-to-36-year-olds, putting younger teens in the iGeneration. Either way, millennials outnumber the 76 million baby boomers, a number that is projected to drop to 60 million by 2030, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Candidates who can appeal to Latino millennials hit a double jackpot.

Latino Decisions, a Latino political opinion research firm, has identified 44 Republican-held House seats in which Latino voters could influence the outcome in 2014 and beyond. This includes districts where the Latino voting-age population exceeds the 2012 margin of victory and swing districts with big Latino populations won in 2012 by President Barack Obama and House Republican candidates.

If the GOP has a net loss of 17 House seats this year, the Democrats will regain majority control.

Hispanic voters are expected to decide the outcome of 14 GOP-held House seats in districts with large Latino populations and narrow margins of victory in 2012: three in Florida, three in New York, two in California, two in Colorado and one each in Indiana, North Carolina, Nevada and Texas.

“An average 904,000 will turn 18 every year from now until 2028,” said Loren McArthur, deputy director of civic engagement at the National Council of La Raza, the largest national Hispanic civil rights and advocacy group. “That’s another 13.5 million Hispanic voters over that 14 years.”

Another jaw-dropping statistic that should make every politico take notice: Approximately every 30 seconds, a Latino turns 18, and 70 percent automatically have the right to vote because they were born here, according to Mi Familia Vota.

 Young people, Latino or not, are less likely to vote than their parents.

“Young Latino citizens vote at half the rate of 60-year-old Latinos,” said Dowell Myers, a demographer and an urban planning professor at the University of Southern California Price School of Public Policy.

About 26 percent of 18-to-24-year-old Hispanics voted in 2012, compared with 48 percent of those 67 to 74, he said. “The paradox is that even though Latino population growth is slowing down, the number of Latino voters is picking up.”

Much of that uptick comes from young Latinos coming of age.

Despite lower voter turnout among the young, millennials are more civically engaged than their parents were at their age. While Hispanics overall are three times as likely to identify as being affiliated with the Democratic Party than with the Republican Party, millennials show a strong independent streak.

The Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., found that these young voters have fewer attachments to traditional political institutions. Half describe themselves as political independents — a near record for any generation in the last quarter century.

Students at East Los Angeles College count votes for the next student president. Current president Eduardo Vargas, at center in blue, is active in church and politics but came to the U.S. from Mexico illegally and cannot vote in U.S. elections.
Tomo for Al Jazeera America

They’re also part of the most racially diverse generation in U.S. history and the first generation in modern times to have higher levels of student loan debt, poverty and unemployment than their parents. Despite that, they are confident in their financial future, according to Pew.

That’s why wooing the Latino vote and the millennial vote is getting more complicated. The populations are increasingly less homogeneous. Yes, more of them were born in the U.S. and are able to vote, but not all are equally passionate about immigration reform, especially if they’re second or third generation. Yes, Florida’s Cuban-American stronghold is traditionally more conservative, but millennials are gradually changing its profile.

“Young Cubans appear to be more Democratic,” said Mark Lopez, director of Hispanic research at Pew.

Jimmy Ramirez, 27, lives in the historic northeastern Los Angeles neighborhood of Highland Park. He’s the son of Chilean immigrants but was born and raised in the U.S. For him, jobs and education are more important voting issues than immigration.

“Tuition fees are going up,” said Ramirez, an East Los Angeles College student.

But millennials are inspired by a sense of fairness.

“The one thing about the whole immigration issue is that it cuts both ways,” said Arturo Vargas, NALEO’s executive director. “You’ve had a lot of empathy and sympathy even among those who are not immigrants. It’s more of a political consciousness.”

Children and grandchildren of immigrants have a stronger desire to connect with their roots than their immigrant parents and grandparents did, said Fernando Guerra, a professor of Chicano studies and the director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. 

“My parents’ generation … they were like, ‘How do we sever the ties?’” he said. “Previous generations’ goal was to not be immigrants. Millennials don’t define it that way. They associate and relate to their immigrant past because it was politicized.”

The young Latino vote is so valuable that Mi Familia Vota is launching voter registration campaigns in high schools across Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Nevada and Texas this month before students go away for the summer.

“Their issues may not necessarily be the same issues as their parents’,” said Leo Murrieta, a Mi Familia Vota regional field director. They may care more about “what type of city they want to live in, more equitable education, more access to health care and, of course, immigration reform.”

California political consultant Roger Salazar sees young voters as the key to California politics.

“For the first time, they’re tremendously better informed than their baby boomer or Gen X counterparts,” he said. “With the rise of handheld devices and mobile phone technologies and the rise in information that targets those devices, they’ve gone from being the less-informed segment of the population to being the better-informed. The digital divide has been pretty much wiped out among African-Americans and Hispanics.”

In 2014, owning a smartphone or tablet is no longer the purview of the rich.

But because young people are better informed, they are also more discerning, don’t want to be labeled and, as a result, are less likely to fit into a tidy category.

“What used to work for traditional Democratic values doesn’t necessarily work for Latino millennials,” said Salazar. “They tend to be liberal on social issues, but they can also flip on you. They like gun control, but they also want guns. They can want less taxes but also still care about specific social programs. They’re not easily identifiable anymore.”

Pity the political consultants faced with targeting this complex generation to garner its votes.

Tracking young voters through social media is crucial, but even that can be a challenge. Many people are finding ways of using social media while maintaining anonymity — Instagram, for example — making it very difficult for campaigns to track them.

“That’s going to make it much more challenging,” Salazar said. “For political campaigns, you’re going to have to work a little harder to ferret out where those voters are.”

One thing is certain: Targeting Latinos through traditional Spanish-language media won’t cut it anymore.

“There’s a lack of recognition that it’s a disparate group,” Salazar said. “A lot of them are not getting information on Univision or Telemundo. They’re getting information on their iPhone and iPad, from their social networks, from their friends and even from the mainstream media.”

Despite mounting difficulties in pigeonholing Latino voters, he said immigration reform will continue to play a large role in the Latino vote.

“Even [some] fourth- or fifth-generation Latinos will look at immigration issues as a test of how much that party or candidate likes their people,” Salazar said.

SLIDESHOW: The streets of Latino Los Angeles

 Young immigrants who can’t vote because they’re here illegally often are the most politically active, a frustrating irony for groups wooing Latino voters.

Eduardo Vargas was this year’s president of the student union at East Los Angeles College. He came to the U.S. from Mexico at age 9. He arrived illegally and is still without permanent residency but applied for and was granted deferred action for childhood arrivals, under an Obama administration program that allows immigrants who arrived in the U.S. illegally as children to stay and work if they meet certain guidelines.

“I can’t be deported,” said Vargas, who is transferring to San Jose State University. Active in his church and on campus, he campaigned for Obama in 2012.

“I can’t vote, but I help women get elected,” said Patricia Garcia, who has also applied for deferred action but is still waiting.

She recently protested outside the Beverly Hills Hotel against the Southeast Asian nation of Brunei’s harsh anti-gay and anti-women policies. The landmark hotel and the Hotel Bel-Air are owned by the oil-rich kingdom, which recently imposed new criminal codes, based on Islamic law, with penalties for homosexuality and adultery that include death by stoning. Hollywood feminists and gay-rights advocates, including celebrities, have joined the boycott.

“It’s just as important to get people involved,” Garcia said.

Garcia has raised Ruiz’s political awareness. Ruiz is now an advocate for immigration reform and legalizing same-sex marriage.

“I care about reproductive rights and equal pay for women,” she said.

Evelyn Rodriguez, 27, lives with her mother and helps raise her niece and nephew while going to college. She doesn’t think of political party affiliation.

“I vote for what’s best for humanity,” she said. “But I’m always going to have my community in the back of my mind.”

Sherise McKinney is 20, U.S.-born and a Latina.

“My vote really isn’t influenced by my ethnicity,” she said. “I care about immigration issues because I think they deserve to be here.”

Evelyn Rodriguez, second from left, spends time at home with her mother, Rebeca, left, and friend Jade Galaviz, who is feeding her son. Rodriguez says she cares about immigration issues but her ethnicity doesn’t influence her vote.
Tomo for Al Jazeera America

Mi Familia Vota is aggressively politicizing young Latinos.

“We move across the country to develop young leaders to help us,” Murrieta said. “The people who are going to be registering voters are going to be young. We figure young people talking to young people will make more sense.”

Murrieta, who is 27, became a citizen in 2010 and said he votes “in every election at every opportunity.”

Young Latinos, he said, have not been given the opportunity to develop their point of view and have not been shown how they can make a difference.

“All my friends are millennials, but they’re not political in the traditional sense,” he said. “But the issues they want to talk about need to come up.”

The group encourages them to discuss what they care about on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, text messages and whatever other communication networks they use.

“We each have our core principles,” Murrieta said. “Political parties should not be looking for the one perfect candidate who can talk to our issues … We’re not monolithic in terms of partisanship. We’re not one size fits all. Political parties are going to be very smart to realize this.”

That might have been forgotten in 2012.

“Only 34 percent of Hispanic voters age 18 to 30 were contacted by political parties or organizations in 2012,” said La Raza’s McArthur. “Immigration has spurred civic participation. They’ve met with members of Congress, participated in rallies, took part in hunger strikes and civil disobedience. Younger Latinos are a rapidly growing segment of the electorate with a huge potential to influence the political landscape.”