The Iowa Democratic Party tried to make the caucuses more inclusive and accessible this year, opening 87 satellite caucus precincts, 11 of which were specifically set up to meet cultural and language needs.
In Des Moines, the obvious place to hold a Latino caucus was the Southside YMCA, where a vast majority of Latinos live. This precinct was an experiment and a special event I wanted to cover. I made it a point to arrive two hours before everything started. Once there, I saw a room full of reporters, ranging from Spanish TV channels like Univision and CNN Español, to organizations like America’s Voice.
It was amazing to see so many Spanish media together!
About an hour before 7 p.m., caucus participants started to show up. They got in line to check in, and you could feel the excitement Latinos brought with them. Listening to so many people speak Spanish, talking to each other and chanting for their favorite candidate gave me a sense of pride. When campaigns are intentional in pursuing the Latino vote, the community responds with big numbers and enthusiasm.
There were 187 caucus-goers at the satellite caucus, with what appeared to be 171 people supporting Sen. Bernie Sanders. Smaller groups of people supporting former Vice President Joe Biden, former mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Elizabeth Warren also were visible.
I first approached Sara Lunas who has lived in Iowa for the last 25 years. Lunas is not eligible to vote because she is a permanent resident on her way to becoming a U.S. citizen. She was there to take her disabled husband to caucus for Sanders, who has made a considerable push this election cycle to engage Latinos across the country in politics.
They supported the Vermont senator because he talks about helping undocumented immigrants become citizens and his belief in universal health care. She doesn’t like what’s happening at the U.S.-Mexico border — people seeking asylum because of the violence in their home country, only to be rejected and separated from their family members.
This year Lunas saw her friends, neighbors and family getting involved in the caucuses and believed it was in great part to the growing discrimination against Latinos.
Not far from Lunas I chatted with 39-year-old Yesenia Leon, one of three people supporting Biden. She has participated in the caucuses before, but this time her motivation was a growing concern about the way taxes for small businesses have increased.
Her family owns a few restaurants in town, and she shared that under the current administration they are paying higher taxes, which she didn’t think was fair given that some large corporations pay no taxes. Leon also wanted to vote for a president who would help the Latino community because they live in fear of deportation and harassment. She believed that the former vice president was the only one who could beat President Donald Trump because Biden has government experience, and that made Lunas feel that she could trust him.
“He already knows what to do, and that’s important to me,” Leon said, noting her second choice was Sen. Sanders.
Karen Yerena, 31, was there as an observer and a Sanders’ fan. Yerena’s not a citizen but she feels it’s extremely important to participate in any way possible. She decided that being an observer would give her the chance to see how the process works. She wanted to be there on behalf of all those who live in fear and remain in the shadows as an immigrant in America.
Christian Ucles originally is from Honduras and has lived in America since he was 7 years old.
He has participated in six caucuses, and this time was there in support of Sen. Warren.
“We need a president like her fighting for refugees and against what’s happening at the border,” said Ucles, 37.
One of only four supporters for Warren, Ucles joined the Sanders group because Warren was not viable in the precinct. Although he favored Warren, he recognized that Sanders’ campaign had done an excellent job organizing the Latino vote and recruiting volunteers that have worked with Latinos for a long time.
He added that Sanders and Warren were very similar, but he would like to see a woman president. Still, he thinks Sanders will do a good job if elected president.
At the end of the junta de vecinos (caucus) it was obvious that Sanders’ hard work paid off; he was the clear winner of the Latino vote at this satellite precinct.
Whether we all support him or not, we must recognize he has motivated and encouraged Latinos to get involved and participate in a process that, not long ago, was totally unknown for many in the community. He has earned the trust and given hope to many constituencies that have been marginalized and discriminated for a long time.
It is also undeniable that Trump’s rhetoric and attacks are a huge motivator behind the rise of Latino participation. We are ready to elevate our voices, mobilize, vote and let candidates and the country know that the Latino vote can no longer be ignored.
By Claudia Thrane