The opening scenes of Bernardo Ruiz’ new film depict a way of life that seems anachronistic now.
Young Latino campaign workers drive down the Las Vegas strip, heading to a shopping center where they will approach strangers and help them register to vote. Some organizers meet in person, in a bustling conference room. It was February 2020, a time before the threat of coronavirus was known, so there are no masks or social distancing. Instead, the focus is on mobilizing potential voters.
“We are a really big part of this country,” one Latina organizer says, “and we are super-excited, and so it’s going to greatly impact the election.”
Ruiz spent most of this year capturing on-the-ground scenes of the effort to mobilize the Latino vote ahead of the 2020 election in November. He covered the Nevada caucuses, Super Tuesday, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the protests over the killing of George Floyd. The result is the acclaimed filmmaker's latest documentary, “Latino Vote: Dispatches from the Battleground,” which airs October 6 on PBS.
“There are a lot of headlines about the number of eligible Latino voters being 32 million in 2020. That’s a record number and it is important for context,” Ruiz said. “But I was more interested in a figure from NALEO (the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials) that said less than half of eligible Latinos cast a ballot in the 2016 election," he said.
Ruiz wanted to see what organizers were doing to capture the Latino vote, and what messages were working in states that could decide the election.
Ruiz’ efforts took him and his team to Nevada, Texas, Florida, and Pennsylvania. “It was a wild ride,” he said. “We were prepared for the ups and downs of any election cycle, but the pandemic and the protests just transformed everything.”
Because so many events happened quickly, his small production team felt the pressure of trying to capture events as they unfolded.
Ruiz, 47, is a New York City-based documentary filmmaker. A two-time Emmy Award nominee, his films include “Harvest Season,” (2019), highlighting the link between American wines and Latino wine producers and farm workers, and “Reportero,” (2013) showing how Mexican journalists risk their lives covering stories.
“Latino Vote” also features commentary from Chuck Rocha, a former senior advisor to Bernie Sanders who is credited with mobilizing Latino voters; Geraldo Cadava, the author of a recent book, “The Hispanic Republican;” and Julián Castro, the only Latino who ran in the 2020 Democratic presidential campaign, as well as activists, volunteers and campaign workers.
A September NBC News poll found former Vice President Joe Biden with a sizable lead over President Donald Trump among Latino voters nationally, with 62 percent preferring the former vice president over the current president's 26 percent support. Yet Biden’s lead trails that of Hillary Clinton with Latinos at the same stage in 2016.
Sonja Diaz, founding director of the UCLA Latino Policy & Politics Initiative, said that the Democratic primaries showed that were innovative ways to go after the Latino vote; she noted the substantive platforms of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders as well as the only Latino presidential candidate, Julián Castro.
Diaz does not believe that either party is doing enough to connect with Latino voters at this stage of the election. “Latino voters and other voters of color face the most burdens to vote. There are unprecedented changes to the election, including how people are supposed to vote in their state.”
Diaz recalled that in the 1990s, in the aftermath of California’s Proposition 187—a measure which would have barred undocumented immigrants from accessing state services—Latinos mobilized and helped turn the state blue. She sees Arizona as reminiscent of California's experience, with many Latinos becoming politically engaged following the state's controversial 2010 immigration law SB1070 known as the “show me your papers" law that was struck down in part by the Supreme Court in 2012. Once reliably Republican, Arizona is now considered a swing state, and Biden is currently leading there.
Diaz stressed the need for campaigns to approach different Latino communities with more tailored messaging.
One Latino voter, different "identities"
According to a 2018 survey by the Pew Research Center, 19 percent of Latino adults said they were Evangelical or born again Christians. Among Latino registered voters at the time, this figure was 20 percent—or one in five.
But in the documentary, Reverend Dr. Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, describes Latino Evangelicals as “politically homeless.”
“I think when people hear evangélico, Evangelical, they assume Republican, or when they hear Latino, they assume Democrat. So what do you do when somebody inhabits both identities?” Salguero asks in the film. “They’re both Hispanic and Evangelical. Are they progressive or are they conservative?”
Salguero, who is based in Orlando, Florida, said that Latino Evangelicals are “all over the political spectrum.” He hopes that Latino Evangelicals can chart a way forward, so that neither political party has a monopoly on “gospel values or Hispanic priorities.”
At least 14.6 million Latinos are projected to cast a ballot in November, which would be a 15 percent increase from 2016. Bur factors like Covid-19, disinformation campaigns, and voter suppression efforts could put this number at risk, say organizers.
“The barrier that voters encounter is the nature of our fight, said Alex Birnel, advocacy manager at MOVE Texas, which aims to build power in under-represented youth communities through civic engagement. “Young people are eager to vote, they are more progressive than ever, and they are encountering a retrograde, arcane system not designed with them in mind.”
Birnel cited the closing of polling locations and voter ID requirements as examples that Texas is “no stranger to voter suppression.” On October I, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed a proclamation limiting the number of drop-off sites for mail ballots to a single location per county.
Despite such moves, Birnel said that the desire to vote is strong among young Latinos in Texas. As of August, Texas youth voter registration was up 13 percent from November 2016.
Birnel believes opposition to some of Pres. Trump's policies has mobilized young Latinos.
“We see first-generation Americans, who are eligible to vote and want to make themselves heard, vicariously, for their parents who are struggling under current policies, worried about the aggressive deportations, and suffering without health care," he said. "Their kids want to make the politics of their lives known.”
Through the documentary, Ruiz wants his audience to understand how fundamental the country's very diverse Latino voters are to American life, especially in the upcoming election.
“The sooner that the broader American public educates itself about the diversity within Latino communities, the better,” he said. “Because, like it or not, Latinos are going to shape the future of this country.”