INTRO: A voting registration campaign is underway for Hispanic Heritage Month. It’s being driven by the Texas Victory Project – an organization that advocates for the working poor – and other local and national organizations. The goal is to register 1000 voters statewide to increase turnout in the 2018 primary and general election. TPR’s Norma Martinez had a chance to talk with Claudia Sanchez and Arnoldo Alonzo – political director and state director of the Texas Victory Project – about their efforts.
SANCHEZ: Well, basically people who have attended our events, sometimes it’s their first time getting engaged in the political process. That’s one of our goals. That we want to engage the community, we want them to learn the whole process and how we can empower them. To make sure they are holding our elected officials accountable, that they’re voting, that they’re getting their family & friends registered, and making sure we’re talking about the issues impacting working class communities.
Arnoldo, what kind of issues are you particularly focusing on?
ALONZO: We are asking people, what are the most important issues they and their family are facing. I think progressives tend to talk to voters and not talk with them. We’re knocking on neighborhoods with the highest poverty rate, neighborhoods with the lowest voter turnout, and talking to voters who we call low-propensity voters – and what we’re finding out is it’s higher wages for working people. Social Security. Health care. Being able to reform our criminal justice system.
And when we’re talking to voters and they cannot pay their bills, they’re letting us know. We tend to listen to them and just have a simple conversation. Immigration does come up, but the biggest issue is “how am I going to pay my bills. I’m working two jobs, mijo. Y ni con eso no lo puedo hacer (And even with that I can’t make ends meet). I’ve been making $9.10 for the past 6 years, mijo. Es duro (It’s difficult).”
And when you’re having these conversations with the electorate, you tend to realize that whatever the talking points are nationally, they tend not to reflect the reality on the ground. Our biggest push is to be able to shift the paradigm and to be able to say, these are the issues that matter to people in Edgewood, people in Brownsville, people in McAllen, even people in the colonias. In the Texas state legislature, there was a big issue when it came to funding los colonias. People want better roads, better lighting. They want to feel safe in their own neighborhoods. When they want to feel safe, that comes from criminal justice and immigration. Those are the biggest issues: how do I pay the bills, how do I protect my family, and how do I get a little piece of this thing called the American dream.
Ultimately, all the issues that are more along the political spectrum, like Arnoldo was saying, people are focusing on the bottom line: how do I pay the bills, I need to make ends meet. How do you convince people that starting off by registering to vote and getting off the ground by having a voice in the issues - how do you convince people that that’s the best place to start to actually work to change their lives?
SANCHEZ: That’s only part of the process. Getting registered, getting deputized, going out to vote. But also having town halls in their community. That way people know what’s happening with their neighbors, what’s happening in the political spectrum, and how they can make those changes. We don’t only want to win elections where we have candidates listening to us, but have someone who will be out there fighting for them. And we can win through legislation as well, making those changes that will impact them directly.
During Hispanic Heritage Month you began this campaign to register 1000 voters from September 15th through October 15th. What kind of progress have you made?
ALONZO: We’ve been able to register 160. We have a lot of partner organizations, it’s like, let’s register at high schools, let’s register at college campuses.
Our biggest blessing has been the city of San Benito. Small town, less than 22,000. The city, the mayor, the school board, LULAC, and over 30 volunteers attended our voter registration training. They’re fully committed. The local Catholic church is fully invested. Right there, it’s going to be three-to-four-to-five hundred people registered to vote in San Benito. That will put us – if my math is good, I majored in English – that puts us at 660 or 760. Myself, Claudia and all our volunteers have to hit the remainder and we hit “go.” And if we don’t hit “go” we’re still going to register people. Hispanic issues are not just relevant for one month. If we don’t hit “go,” we’re still going to go at it because it is extremely important that individuals don’t just get register to vote.
Many organizations do voter registration, and they say they registered 10,000 people. The question is, how many of those people did you turn out? Our goal is not to register people. Our goal is to be able to increase the electorate and the participation and ask everyone we register to vote, are you willing and able to be a poll worker? Are you willing and able to be a precinct chair? Regardless of party. If it’s Republican, it’s Republican. If it’s Democrat, it’s Democrat. We need to be able to build the political capital our people deserve. Can you be the community leader? Can you be the precinct chair?
Our precinct chairs are not precinct chairs – they’re community organizers. We have 21 of them who are in charge of one thing alone. That’s hosting one town hall, finding out the issue that matters the most to their community, and fixing that issue in one year. That’s it. It can be as simple as one pothole. Everyone knows that one pothole in el barrio. It’s like, “esperate, move to the left!” It can be as complex as providing free wi-fi. Like in Brownsville, my mother who became our first precinct chair. --She had to do it for her mijo--. Andele madre, porque si no, no tenemos a nadie! (Come on, mom, because if you don’t, we don’t have anyone!)
We found out that in our neighborhood, most of the people who live in our precinct are the cooks and the janitors of the public school system. La gente is trabajadora (people there are hard working), and the issue that really impacted me personally, was when we found out that they get hired in August and get fired in May. They don’t receive any type of compensation (during the 3 months they are not working). What does a 55-year-old lady do? She can’t work at Schlitterbahn. She can’t be a security guard. She can’t work at one of these call centers that are only hiring people seasonally. If you break it down, they make less than less than $9.50 an hour. They’re making $3, $4 and hour because they’re not working those 3 months. I don’t understand how you can be an elected official and not know that that is going on. I don’t understand how you can be a worker and not protest. I come from a privileged aspect. I’m educated. I have a degree. (They tell me) “Mijo, y si me corran, que? Es el unico trabajo que yo tengo. (What happens if I get fired? This is the only job I have).” Understanding fear. We can think we have the best ideas, we have degrees, go there and lucha madre (fight), go and protest. “Pero si me corran, mijo, que? (What happens if they fire me?)” How do you deal with that? How do you fix that? Having fear and lack of education in one component, and having complacency in the other. I have no answer. I won’t lie to you. There are a lot of employees and they’re not unionized. How do you fix it? The only answer I have is going behind closed doors and talking to elected officials. Where we don’t have the muscle right now. When you speak with the electorate, you realize that everything you learn you have to push a little bit to the side, because there’s a different reality on the ground.