By Jenifer Fernandez Ancona
Last spring, America saw the potential power of the Latino community as a political force. Millions of people, in cities across the country, poured into the streets, marching in solidarity for equality and justice for immigrants. In November of 2006, Latino voters proved again that they could help deliver victories, as their turnout increased by 33 percent in congressional races and was much more heavily Democratic than in years past, according to a recent report by NDN’s Hispanic Strategy Center. The GOP’s constant drumbeat of anti-immigrant rhetoric has opened up an incredible opportunity for Democrats and progressives to solidify Latino voters as a reliable and fast-growing part of our coalition.
But in California, where the largest majority of Latinos in the country live, that potential has barely been tapped. In our state, there are still more than 5 million Latino voters who are eligible but not registered to vote, or who are registered but don’t regularly come out to the polls. When you consider that only about 3.2 million people voted in the 2004 Democratic primary in California, you can see the potential that the sheer numbers of this population could have on the outcome of our state’s upcoming primary election on Feb. 5, 2008.
And yet few campaigns on the Democratic side have invested any resources into Spanish-language or Latino-focused media in this state in recent years. The 2006 governor’s race was perhaps the most glaring example of this missed opportunity. Democrat Phil Angelides didn’t put up a single Spanish-language ad during the 2006 race, despite evidence provided by outside groups that Spanish-speaking Latinos preferred him over Schwarzenegger by a 40 percent margin. Schwarzenegger ran a brilliant Spanish-language ad campaign, and he ended up moving the California Latino vote from 11 percent earlier in the year to over 30 percent on Election Day.
You would think Democrats would learn that lesson in 2008, but the California Presidential Primary thus far has been no different. None of the official campaigns have done anything significant to reach out to the Latino community. It’s all being done by independent groups like the one I work for, Vote Hope, and Amigos de Obama, which are supporting Barack Obama in the primary contest.
Amigos de Obama produced a website and a catchy reggaeton song that has been heard by hundreds of thousands of people around the country.
Vote Hope has had Latino organizers on the ground in Southern California for the last five months, and has produced, working with Amigos de Obama, some of the most innovative media targeting this population Web-based political novelas that tell the story of the Ortiz family and how they came to support Obama in the primary.
The series is called Tu Voz, Tu Voto and is inspired by the wildly popular Latin American telenovela genre seen by over 2 billion people worldwide. Like telenovelas, these films use humor and drama to convey serious messages. This effort is an attempt to connect Latino politics with Latino culture that has never been seen in California and only rarely nationwide.
It remains to be seen whether the other campaigns and their supporters will follow suit in realizing the importance of this fast-growing constituency. What is clear is that Latino support could make or break a candidate’s bid for the state’s 440 Democratic delegates.
Jenifer Fernandez Ancona is a San Francisco-based writer and activist working in the progressive movement. She is currently communications director at Vote Hope, a new political network in California backing candidates of hope and conscience.