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Latino civic leader shares the stakes for Hispanics in our democracy, as the primaries begin

Element5 Digital

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The primary election season kicks off with Iowa’s Republican caucus on Monday. Election experts say the presidential election will be contentious, one where voter turnout will be closely monitored.

Among the observers is Arturo Vargas, CEO of National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), who's closely following Latino participation in the election. NALEO is a nonpartisan organization that advocates for and supports Latinos in elected office.

He said some of the polarization he is already seeing this election season stems from anti-Mexican and anti-immigrant rhetoric used by former president and current Republican frontrunner Donald Trump.

“It was almost as if he gave license to people to fear the other, the person considered to be not an American,” Vargas said. “That image of what an American is that Trump and his supporters hold up, Latinos are not part of that. And I think he's created a very dangerous moment for American society.”

Vargas said, though, that it’s a conundrum. Despite the rhetoric, Trump continues to garner support from Latino voters in South Florida, south Texas, and across the country.

“I don't have an explanation for that,” he said. “But what I think it does say is that not every Latino was offended by his rhetoric.”

He says it’s the diversity in experiences and political positions of Hispanics that make it impossible to cast the Latino community under one political umbrella.

“I think it's important to acknowledge that Latinos are people foremost, and people have different opinions and different perspectives,” he said. “And being born Latina does not dictate what your political philosophy is going to be. And anybody who believes that they know exactly how Latinos were to vote in any particular election is a fool.”

Part of NALEO’s mission is to reach Latinos who have never voted before. When the organization holds focus groups, it finds the reason why people don’t vote is not because they don’t care.

“They care deeply about their families and their communities,” Vargas said. “They just don't think the political system is a way to bring about change in their communities.”

He said they often hear people say, 'I voted in what was said to be the most important election of their lifetime, only to find that nothing has changed.’

“And my community continues to be one where we are underserved by the police, by sanitation,” he said. “My streets don't get paved, my sidewalks don't get fixed. So, what's the point of voting? And that's a powerful argument that we have to work against.”

Vargas said NALEO is working to create a culture of participation, that holds elected officials accountable and an appreciation for changes that take time.

He said some of the perception that Latinos just don’t vote, or they only vote a certain way, is quite harmful.

“And that's how Latinos feel being taken for granted,” he said. “And we need to change that. We need to make sure that Latinos have skin in the game, and that they understand the importance of having their voice heard.”

Vargas says he’s hopeful in the rise of up-and-coming Latinos getting involved in politics who look at policy differently, “who are fearless, who are running for office who are taking on incumbents who have been in office for years and years and unseating them and defeating them in elections all across the country.”

He said Latino participation in democracy is essential if the nation is to hold true to its values.

“And one of those is a government of the people, by the people, for the people,” he said. “We cannot have a government like that today if Latinos are not part of governing.”

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A Chicago native, Maria earned a Master's Degree in Public Affairs Reporting from the University of Illinois Springfield . Maria is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America. RFA is a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities. It is an initiative of The GroundTruth Project, a nonprofit journalism organization. Un residente nativo de Chicago, Maria se graduó de University of Illinois Springfield con una licenciatura superior en periodismo de gobierno.