The small caravan of cars that the 51-year-old insurance agent initially joined in the border city of McAllen last summer grew to more than a hundred cars ahead of Election Day. The region had historically been a Democratic stronghold but last week it saw a closer race than before.
“I’m very confident that from now on, the elections down here are not going to be one-sided anymore,” Torres said. “There’s going to be competition.”
“If you consider us to be natural Democrats or natural Republicans, you’re under estimating us as political thinkers,” said Geraldo Cadava, who teaches at Northwestern University and is the author of “The Hispanic Republican: The Shaping of an American Political Identity, from Nixon to Trump.”
Experts like Cadava and leaders from some of the nation’s most prominent Latino political advocacy groups said the election’s results should send a resounding signal to both parties that connecting with Latinos long before the election and understanding their political identity is key.
“There’s just such a great diversity that I think most Americans haven’t even really begun to understand,” Cadava said.
Here’s how the vast differences among Latinos may have influenced the election results in Texas, Arizona and Florida:
A reliably Democratic region in Texas is changing
Ross Barrera was skeptical when someone suggested organizing a “Trump Train” mobile vehicle rally in Starr County, which is in the state’s southernmost tip and in a region predominantly populated by Mexican Americans.
In interviews with CNN, Republicans in the Rio Grande Valley said some aspects of the Mexican American culture aligned with Trump’s messaging, including that he values life, family and religious freedom.
“He’s bringing God back into our country, changes to regulations that put a chokehold into our economy and he’s plain-spoken like the average American,” said Minerva Simpson, a 54-year-old mortgage loan officer in Harlingen, Texas.
While immigration has drawn many Latino voters to the polls for decades, for many living along the US-Mexico border, the economy, jobs and the coronavirus pandemic response ranked even higher this year.
Some Mexican Americans in the Rio Grande Valley saw Trump as someone who gave them a voice after Democrats took them for granted, said Cadava.
“(The region) has been kind of political backwater that Democrats have taken for granted for a long time, Cadava said.
“Whether you disagree with his policies or not, he (Trump) said that he had an answer to their problems. He was going to make America great again, he was going to improve the economy and he was going to create jobs,” he said.
“When you talk about defunding the police and you don’t stand up to that type of rhetoric, it leaves an opening for Republicans to come in and take advantage of that,” Garcia said.
Some people also questioned whether the Democrats did enough outreach in the region.
Although some saw Harris’ visit to the region as a sign of strength, Cadava said, while others considered it one of weakness because Democrats were worried about turnout.
SB 1070 galvanized Latinos to mobilize voters
Bash Herrera had canvassed for Democratic candidates for about three years when last week, he voted for the first time in a presidential election.
Growing up in Glendale, Arizona, his Mexican American family lived paycheck to paycheck. Politics wasn’t on their minds.
The 20-year-old says he began registering people to vote as a way to make some money. He continued doing it because he realized others’ struggles mirrored his own and they were ready to do more to make their lives better.
“When it comes to most things that people need and care about to have a good quality life, it’s disproportionately people of color that don’t have those things, whether it’s health care or education or living wage,” Herrera said.
Herrera was part of a grassroots movement that prompted a higher Latino turnout in a state that has traditionally voted Republican.
“People want to be OK during this pandemic. People don’t want to die. People don’t want to get evicted. People want to have a living wage. People want to have a good education for their kids. People want to have health care,” Herrera said.
In the past decade, the state’s growing Mexican American population has become more politically active thanks to grassroots groups born partly out of resistance to SB 1070, the state’s controversial 2010 immigration law enabling police to check the immigration status of anyone suspected of being in the country illegally.
“I started doing this work because I wanted to ensure that my community was respected,” Sainz said in a call with reporters last week.
“Our community has been under attack for years, and with this vote, we are sending a very clear message that we are no longer going to take it,” said Adonías Arévalo, Arizona state director for Poder Latinx. “We will mobilize and elect candidates who will respect our community.”
And even though they see their role in this election’s Arizona vote as a major victory, advocates say the fight isn’t over.
Many of the battles that drove them into activism still haven’t been won.
“We need to still continue to organize and make sure that they actually do what we got them elected to do, which is to represent us and to fight for us,” Herrera said.
False socialism claims influenced some Florida Latinos
The coronavirus pandemic had stopped German Pinelli and his family from bringing their Cuban salsa music to clubs around Miami for months when one of their songs became a staple at Trump rallies in Florida.
The band was performing at a Miami birthday party in September when Pinelli’s son changed the usual chorus of their song “Cuba is Me” in a moment that was live-streamed on Facebook and had been shared by tens of thousands of people. The idea came after a fellow Trump supporter at the party told them that he hoped one of his neighbors, who is a Democrat, wouldn’t call police complaining about the party’s music.
“If something smells like socialism or is slightly similar we don’t like it, we don’t want it for our children’s future,” Pinelli said.
“Some of the rhetoric that you’re hearing down here in South Florida, it’s just made up — it’s just nonsense,” Obama said. “Listening to the Republicans, you’d think that Joe was more communist than the Castros! Don’t fall for that garbage.”
“What is true,” Obama added, “is that he’ll stand for ordinary people … he’ll promote human rights in Cuba and around the world, and he won’t coddle dictators the way our current president does.”
Some of those voters are evangelicals who some experts have called the “quintessential swing voters.”
Hispanic evangelicals are not “one-issue voters.” They oppose abortion rights while supporting immigration and criminal justice reform. Salguero says they were put off by Trump’s xenophobic and anti-immigrant rhetoric but his campaign had longer and more sustained conversations, which made a difference for some evangelicals.
As the election cycle wraps up, experts and advocates, including Cadava and Salguero, agree that Latinos can’t be seen as a monolith.
Latinos have arrived in the US from different places and for different reasons. Some of have lived in the country for generations, have different class backgrounds and different ideas about sex and gender.
“There is no such thing as the Latino vote. Yet, there are millions of Latinos who vote,” Cadava said.
CNN’s Catherine Shoichet contributed to this report.