Houston”•In Elizabeth Warren’s Houston campaign office, one early morning in February, volunteers bustled around arranging chairs in a circle and tacking Spanish-language posters to the walls.
They were soon joined by a dozen Latino voters, come to discuss the Democratic White House race — with days to go until “Super Tuesday” on March 3, when Texas and 13 other states vote to pick a challenger to President Donald Trump.
For an hour and a half, people of all ages—seniors, young adults, families with children—talked about immigration, health care and their experiences as Latinos living in a state where they make up a third of the electorate.
“A lot of the time, we are kind of ignored as a community,” said novelist Ariane Navarro, joined for the event by her husband and their two children.
“I’m surrounded by educated Latinos, and we all believe that we do have a voice and we can make a change in Texas,” the former teacher told AFP.
Most of all, Navarro is keen to help her younger family members register to vote, in line with a broader effort to boost turnout among the state’s Hispanic community.
Texas has been a Republican state for two generations, but Democrats made gains there in 2016 and 2018 — and the party is looking to Latinos, two thirds of whom lean Democratic, to reinforce the trend longer term.
“A lot of folks say Texas is a red (Republican) state; it’s not: it’s a non-voting state, so we want to make sure that we’re reaching out to as many folks as we can,” said Maria Martinez, in charge of national Latino community engagement for Warren.
Turnout has been a persistent challenge in Texas: for the 2016 Democratic primaries it was 20 percent below the national average, and 10 percent lower than the national average for the presidential election.
Hispanics are on track to become the largest population group in Texas by 2022, according to US census data.
The state now counts 5.6 million Latino voters — 800,000 more than in 2016 and a 1.4 million increase since 2012.
That mirrors the trend nationwide where a record 32 million Latinos are projected to be eligible to vote in 2020, surpassing blacks as the largest minority group in the electorate, according to Pew Research.
But voter turnout in the community is also notoriously low: since 1996, Pew data shows that most eligible Latinos have not cast ballots in US presidential elections.
With an eye on Super Tuesday, Warren’s team organized a campaign tour specifically dedicated to the state’s Hispanic community, with stops in cities like San Antonio, where 64 percent of the population is Latino.
She is not alone in courting the growing demographic: a debate was organized in Houston in mid-February between students and a line-up of Democratic primary candidates.
Bernie Sanders — a self-declared Democratic socialist who leads polls of Texas Latino voters with 30 percent support — took part via video conference, earning lengthy applause.
“It meant a lot to me that they at least took time out of their day… to speak with us and answer any questions that we had,” said Victor Ibarra, a young health physicist.
To really boost turnout will take more than ads in Spanish and canvassing, according to Antonio Arellano, the executive director of Jolt, an organization that encourages young Latinos to take on the problem themselves.
Jolt last year launched an initiative called Poder Quince (“Power Fifteen”), which offers voter registration to guests at quinceaneras, the traditional celebration for when a Latina girl turns 15.
It’s designed to “harness the power of Latino culture and create a new tradition of civic engagement,” said Arellano, 29, who is undocumented.
A volunteer with Jolt, Ibarra met AFP at the group’s small office in east Houston, decorated with multicolored posters, electric candles and fringes of pink and yellow papier-mache.
Rice crackers and peanut butter were spread on a table for snacking. The office is staffed one day a week by Ibarra and others who like him want to ensure Latino youth have a voice in the future.
“We try to focus on young people because we want to let them know it’s their responsibility to go out and inform their household,” said Leslie Hernandez, Jolt’s 22-year-old census organizer, and volunteer supervisor.
For the half dozen high school students and young adult volunteers, voting in the Democratic primaries is just a drop in the ocean of political battles they want to lead: environmental issues, the census, the fight against racism.
“As a Latina, I feel like I always carry a weight on my shoulders,” says Hernandez, telling them: “You are in a safe space now.”