‘They will have to listen to us’: NC, Chatham Latino voter groups mobilize Latino vote


Latino voters have the potential to sway North Carolina’s election results, and Latino advocacy groups state and countywide have mobilized to make that happen.

On Sept. 3, the nonpartisan North Carolina Congress of Latino Organizations (NCCLO) and North Carolina Latino Power together launched a statewide “Get Out the Vote” campaign via Zoom to mobilize 120,000 infrequent Latino voters.

“The November elections, beloved community, will be some of the most costly and competitive in the history of our country,” NCCLO board member Daniel Sostaita said during the press conference, adding, “(The candidates) know that they need the Latino vote today more than ever to win.”

According to a 2019 Carolina Demography report, the number of Latinos eligible to vote increased by nearly 50% between 2012 and 2017. In 2012, the report read, just one in four North Carolina Hispanic residents were eligible to vote; in 2017, that number became one in three.

Nationally, 800,000 Latinos turned 18 this year across the U.S., said Matteo Ignacio, a young Latino voter from Durham, during the press conference.

“The majority of them were born in the United States or they’ve been naturalized and are eligible to vote in the next elections,” he said. “This means that more or less every 30 seconds a young Latino like me comes of voting age in this country. That is power.”

But getting out the vote in 2020 will be different — and not just because of COVID-19. This year, many Latino advocacy groups, including the NCCLO, have decided to try out a different, more personal strategy.

Beyond just phone banks, social media and newspaper announcements, Charlotte pastor and NCCLO member David Ortigoza told the News + Record the group plans to go “person-by-person” by empowering community leaders to reach out to people within their personal networks. They also plan to encourage people to share their personal stories and stakes in the issues the election likely will decide.

“The Latino culture (works) better by relationship,” he said, adding, “We can spend our money to do (other) things, but if you don’t get into the relationship, if you don’t build a relationship with a Latino person, you will not get in.”

In Chatham County, Johnny Alvarado, an NCCLO member and Jordan-Matthews High School teacher, is one of many community leaders trying to get out the Latino vote.

For many years, he’s taught Spanish for native speakers and remembers going through hundreds of papers and recommendations to help many of his students qualify for DACA — former students with whom he said he still maintains contact.

“Many people don’t vote,” he said. “They don’t know how to vote. They don’t know they can vote. They don’t know how to register to vote. Many people aren’t aware of a lot of things. So my idea is through my contacts, my ex-students and their parents and relatives, we can get out that Latino vote.”

Another group in Chatham County has also organized to get out the Latino vote. The group, called Voto Latino Chatham, seeks to increase Chatham’s registered Latino voters and educate them about the issues at stake in the upcoming elections, said leader Alirio Estevez.

Estevez, a Chatham ESL teacher, created the group in mid-July with the help of the national Voto Latino organization, who provided them training and direction. Originally, they’d planned to go door-to-door and hold several voter registration drives at St. Julia’s church, but the pandemic has forced them to follow a different strategy — one that’s a lot like the NCCLO’s.

“With a group of volunteers, about 12, mostly young people, we’re reaching out to our network of friends and family via text message or social media to make sure they’re registered to vote,” Estevez said, “and if not, we provided them with a link (connected to the DMV) to register online.”

Siler City resident Ruben Ocelot, 20, is volunteering with Voto Latino Chatham alongside his cousins. Besides helping eligible young Latinos register, he said he wants to motivate infrequent Latino voters to cast their ballots and give them reasons to care about the upcoming elections.

“In reality, they need to care because maybe their family member is undocumented, and they don’t realize the fear that they live with,” he said. “Even though they might have papers, a family member might not. That (young voter) doesn’t know how that family member lives every day, with a fear of ‘When will they pick me up?’”

What’s at stake

Immigration reform is one of the most important issues for Latino voters this election season, according to state and countywide Latino advocacy groups.

“The immigration system is completely broken,” Ortigoza said during the Sept. 3 press conference. “For that reason, this issue will be very present in the minds of all Latino immigrant citizens when they appear at the polls to vote in the next election.”

At least 85% of undocumented Latinos have one family member who is a citizen and who can vote on behalf of his or her family, he said — families that desire immigration reform that provides undocumented members a path toward citizenship.

Ocelot said immigration is the issue that he and Chatham’s Hispanic community care most about in the upcoming elections. Many undocumented immigrants and their families live in fear, he said, never knowing if today’s the last time they will see each other.

That’s why he’s going to vote — to be the voice for the voiceless.

“My vote is not just for myself,” he said. “My vote is for each one of you. It’s voting because of you guys and myself because I want a better future for us.”

Besides immigration reform, Estevez said he thinks many Chatham Latino voters also want more school funding.

“They know that the schools need more resources,” he said. “They’re not enough. Students need to have after school tutorials, tutoring, and there’s no money for that.”

During the Sept. 3 press conference, Alvarado spoke about the importance of education reform statewide for other smaller counties who don’t have the necessary support systems for Spanish-speaking families and students, like he said Chatham has.

“I have personally experienced the disadvantages our Latino families and their children suffer when public schools are not properly prepared,” he said. “I understand how important it is that public schools hire interpreters, bilingual and bicultural staff for the success of our children.”

Health care is another important issue, said Estevez and Ocelot. Many voters have family members who don’t have health insurance and have been unable to get care, Estevez said, something the pandemic has only served to worsen. Many also fear Medicaid cuts.

“They’re afraid for their little brothers (and) their little sisters because some politicians want to cut Medicaid,” he said. “That will impact a lot of children in our area.”

Change, better opportunities and better representation — that’s what hundreds of Latino votes could bring, said Alvarado and Estevez. Many potential Latino voters may feel skeptical about voting, Estevez said, but doing nothing isn’t an option.

“As somebody said, the politicians only hear people for two reasons: (they) have money or they provide votes,” Estevez said, adding: “We Latinx lack money, but our potential as voters is our wealth. If we show up en masse, they will have to listen to us.”

Reporter Victoria Johnson can be reached at victoria@chathamnr.com.