MANCHESTER, New Hampshire — Pentecostal minister Roberto De Jesus believes that today's New Hampshire presidential primary is so important for Latinos that a few days before the state’s historic election, he opened the doors of his church to a non-partisan organization to host a series of workshops teaching the Hispanic community the electoral process — a first in the church’s 16-year history.
“I felt it was necessary because there is so much at stake in this election,” explained the 49-year-old Puerto Rico native who has lived in New Hampshire for the last 23 years. “I am a conservative with Christian, family and moral values that are important to me. I want my parishioners to participate and to be part of the process.”
Hispanics make up 3.3 percent of state’s population or roughly 40,000 people according to the U.S. Census. The largest group is Puerto Rican, followed by Mexican, Colombian and other South and Central Americans.
According to Gustavo Moral, the founder of Vote Now N.H. Hispanics and organizer of the informational sessions, about 22,000 Hispanics in the state are registered to vote, a number big enough he claims to have an impact on a tightly fought race.
“We may be small in this state,” Moral told the Latino group who hailed from Colombia, Chile, Mexico, Cuba and more South and Central American nations, “but in a close race, we can make a difference.”
To illustrate his point, Moral told them about the last mayoral race in Manchester that was so close the difference between the winning and losing candidate was 75 votes.
“With that scenario,” Moral explained, “our community of Latinos can make or break a candidate. We are that powerful."
Elections here are won door to door, neighbor to neighbor. "They say politics here is a hobby, and it's true," said an Ecuadorian-American resident.
Moral, who was born in Ecuador but said he became "Latino" when he became a U.S. citizen 16 years ago, has been in New Hampshire since 1974. He sees this election as a great opportunity to galvanize the small but growing community.
“Even if we still see ourselves from our respective countries, the fact is that in the U.S., we are seen as one,” he offered.
Moral, who lives in Bedford and owns a business that assists adults with disabilities, said he was bitten by the political bug like everyone in the state.
“They say that politics is a hobby here and it’s true,” he joked with the group.
He walked participants, which numbered about 20, through a brief history of the primary process and explained step-by-step what they will encounter at the polling sites. Then, he gave each a ballot for a mock election.
“Voting is a huge responsibility, but it’s not just during the presidential election, it’s important to stay engaged in other local elections,” he said. “Please don’t forget to bring your identification cards.”
Marta Lucia Rodriguez has been moved by the presidential election and what she heard at the session. She has been a resident of Manchester for the last 13 years and the presidential primary couldn’t come fast enough for the Colombian-born mother of two. Rodriguez and her husband Fabian Parra , 45, an electrical engineer, became U.S. citizens less than a year ago. This will be their first time voting.
“To be able to vote in this country is an honor, a privilege and a right that I am taking very seriously,” she said in Spanish as her two children, 6 and 12, listened. She and her husband registered as independents because they are interested in issues, not party affiliation.
“What drives me to vote are things that are important to me as a mother, as a professional woman and as an immigrant,” said the 45-year old, who was a family lawyer in her native Pereira. She’s been listening closely to Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton and is still torn between the two Democrats.
“I really connect with Sanders on his plans to offer free college education to students and I also like his advocacy for the middle class. But I also love the idea of voting for the country’s first female president,” she said. Her husband listened and shook his head. He’s only considering the Republican candidates.
“I like what Marco Rubio and John Kasich have to say, so I am giving both men serious consideration,” he said.
In many ways, the gathering at the storefront church, La Iglesia Visión Misionera El Arca, on Saturday afternoon was representative of the quirkiness of this state’s voters. There were more Latino independents — they are called the "unenrolled" — than Democrats or Republicans. Forty percent of the state’s voters are independent. They were all deeply engaged on issues that though local, have national impact, namely, the economy, education and foreign policy.
New Hampshire is a small state but with huge responsibility in a presidential election because it holds the nation's first primary, an honor that residents here take seriously. Candidates' aspirations for the highest elective office in the land can die or rise here. And residents in this quaint New England state understand the importance. Elections here are won door-to-door. Neighbor to neighbor. It seems even dogs have their preferred candidate.
During primary season, the excitement is tangible as candidates host meetings in diners, barns, bookstores, fairs and community colleges. However, every candidate stops at the historic Exeter Town Hall where, legend has it, the Republican party of Abraham Lincoln was born.
Following the Iowa caucuses last week, Donald Trump, Marco Rubio and Bernie Sanders visited the charming town in back-to-back events. The crowds that came to see all three were distinct, large and mostly white, but only one broke records. According to officials, 2,000 people came to see Trump, but not all were from New Hampshire or fans. People from Vermont, Massachusetts and Maine came to hear the polarizing candidate - a word used by a local police officer - to make his case.
Trump supporters on the line that snaked around two long blocks waited for an hour and spoke about how angry they were. One after the other said Trump could not be bought. It was not the issues or the party that drove them to him, rather his abrasive style.
“He tells it like it is, I like how refreshing and honest he is,” said Trump supporter Liliana Medina, a Catania, New Hampshire resident and mom of two. When urged to name just one issue that she connected with, the Polish immigrant married to a Portuguese-born immigrant, said immigration was her key issue.
“My father came here legally, and I think that those who broke the law have to pay," she said. "Also, our borders need to be closed."
When asked to specify which border, the one with Canada, which is a five-hour drive from Exeter, she quickly noted, “the one with Mexico."
For 22-year-old Anthony Vega the whole spectacle was enthralling and educational. Vega, a Hartford Connecticut native whose parents are Puerto Rican, said visiting New Hampshire and listening to the candidates in person has been the highlight of his college education. He was in town as part of communications and politics class at Rhode Island College. He and a group of 10 students spent the week visiting town halls to hear each candidate speak.
Because New Hampshire is such a small state, voters get to see candidates at intimate events and even ask them questions.
“I was never interested in politics until this election,” explained Vega. “Before this, I only read entertainment news, but when I saw that Trump was running I was like, 'Entertainers can be president, wow!' That is when I started listening.”
Immigration, gun rights, and even the declining number of moose due to climate change - political issues are a major topic in this tiny state.
Vega will cast a vote for the first time and is torn between Sanders and Trump. He wants to hear what they have to say in person before he decides.
“I still have time to make my decision,” said the Rhode Island resident.
However, not all who went to see Trump were fans. A small group of advocates for various causes, the environment, veterans' rights, Palestine, LGBT, immigrant and Muslim rights held signs and a goofy effigy of the real estate mogul in a garbage can. A dozen students from the prestigious boarding school Phillips Exeter Academy skipped class to protest the Republican candidate.
Holding signs “Dump Trump,” the kids said that even though they are too young to vote, they are not too young to voice their concerns.
“Freedom is more important than education,” said 15-year-old Philippe Louis. Sixteen-year-old Autumn Herness said that as a bisexual woman she wants to defend her right to marry.
In New Hampshire during this season everything is politics. Voters here talk about illegal immigration, but not the Canada border. They talk about closing the border that is thousands away and snakes along the southwestern part of the country.
They talk about addiction and the friends or relatives they have lost to heroin overdoses. (New Hampshire has the highest number of heroin overdoses in the nation.) Voters talk about jobs and yes, the declining population of moose, which they say is linked to climate change. They talk about the Second Amendment and gun rights. They also talk about fairness.
A day after the Trump event, it was Bernie Sanders’ turn to visit Exeter Town Hall. Schools closed earlier because of a snowstorm that dumped five inches, but parents ventured out with many children to listen to the Senator from the neighboring state. About 30 people lingered outside under the snow listening to the senator’s remarks over a loudspeaker. The ice cream millionaires and Vermont residents founders of Ben & Jerry’s introduced Sanders to a capacity crowd.
There were no protesters. One teenager, a coffee barista from DSquared, a popular coffee shop in downtown Exeter, got to hug Jane O'Meara Sanders and made a Peruvian Pour Over coffee he hoped was for Bernie Sanders. He said someone called him a hippie and he was not offended.
The tone was mellower than when Trump or Rubio visited, something that Exeter resident and Bogota native, Maria Jebari appreciated.
“I am scared of the machismo in this election,” said the mother of two. She is considering Sanders but the pull of having a woman president is becoming increasingly more appealing.
“I once heard that if all the nations of the world were led by women there would be peace in the world,” said the 54-year old.
Jebari said that despite liking Sanders’ ideas, Clinton has shown herself to be a true leader in the debates.
“Hillary has demonstrated mastery on the subjects whether it's foreign policy, education, the economy or immigration,” she said. “I like Sanders’ ideas on free college tuition, and taxing the rich — they sound special, ideal and hermoso, but I am thinking more practical now.”
Back in La Iglesia Visión Misionera El Arca, Reverend De Jesus was not thinking practical, but he said, voting on principles.
“I am going to vote for Ted Cruz,” said the Manchester resident. “Cruz’ positions on gay marriage, family values and security are important to me. But I would not tell my parishioners how to vote. That is between them and God.”