To reach Latino youth, Democratic candidates must do more than speak Spanish

To reach Latino youth, Democratic candidates must do more than speak Spanish
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Silicon Valley has its tech money. Hollywood has its stardom. But it’s the power of Latino high school students across California that will determine the winner of the state’s presidential primary. To the candidates coming to Los Angeles for tonight's Democratic presidential debate, it’s time to speak directly to them.          

Gone are the days when Latino youth are unfairly characterized as inattentive and immature participants in our nation’s democracy. A civic awakening is occurring among these students, set in motion by a perilous climate, school shootings and the constant legal wrangling over their friends the “Dreamers.” 

Latino youth are a rising force that has manifested itself into concrete action since the 2016 presidential election. Across California, these students are rallying for LGBTQ rights, speaking up for clean water and even organizing voter registration drives at their schools. In fact, 55 percent of Latinos aged 18 to 24 are registered to vote in the state, a record for this age group.

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And they’re affecting public policy, too, through community organizing. In places like Delano, situated in California’s Central Valley and the birthplace of the United Farm Workers movement, Latino students lobbied their city to limit cooperation with immigration and customs enforcement. When the likelihood of seeing their parents and friends deported increased at the outset of this administration, their voices proved instrumental in passing this pro-immigrant resolution in a historically conservative part of the state.

Last month, the Latino Community Foundation and Latino Decisions released a statewide poll of Latino voters that oversampled Latino youth to gauge their thoughts on this election. The data showed something remarkable: 74 percent of registered Latino voters plan to vote in the California primary. This is building on a historic showing from the 2018 midterm elections in which more than one in five Latinos under 24 voted and tipped congressional elections in places like Orange County and the Central Valley.

Latino youth are paying attention and primed to vote in the state’s presidential primary on March 3. But are the presidential candidates noticing?

The latest tracking of presidential candidate visits to California has shown that few candidates have spent any time campaigning to win the votes of Latino high school students. Former housing secretary Julián Castro and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) are the only two candidates on record to court the Latino vote at high schools across the state. This simple and powerful tactic has allowed both candidates to build a base of first-time voters and rise to be among the top four candidates of preference among Latinos in California.

So, to the presidential candidates coming to Los Angeles for the final Democratic debate of 2019, now is your chance to make an impression on an untapped voting bloc.

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In between your visits to the homes of tech and Hollywood executives for high-dollar fundraisers, go visit places like Theodore Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights, where Latino youth are petitioning to close a corporate tax loophole in order to increase funding to their local schools and communities. 

Talk to them not only about immigration but also about housing, and offer specific plans to address the fact that only 11 percent of Latinos under 34 own a home in the most expensive housing market in the nation.

And on the debate stage at Loyola Marymount University, go beyond uttering a few words in Spanish. These students speak English just fine. Because if the message is not authentic, targeted or inspiring, it won’t matter what language is spoken.    

With one million Latinos turning 18 every year in this country, it’s no surprise that, at 7.7 million eligible voters, California’s Latino youth are the driving force in forming the largest Latino voting bloc in the nation. To put things in perspective, there are more Latinos eligible to vote in the state than there are people in Iowa and New Hampshire combined.

Our state’s primary is less than 100 days away, with our vote-by-mail ballots dropping on the same day at the Iowa caucuses. Latino high schoolers are waiting to be seen and heard. The candidate who does the best job of engaging this key electorate will undoubtedly set him or herself up for success in the California primary — and most likely edge closer towards securing the presidential nomination.

Christian Arana is the policy director at the Latino Community Foundation in San Francisco, California.