Slow Tide Rising

Did the Latino vote push Democrats over the top?

"The Hispanic vote is a potential vote. It keeps growing, and it's just the tip of the iceberg," Gutierrez says. "You can't qualify the undocumented, and you can't accelerate the 17-year-olds to be 18. It's a slow progression. There's a tsunami coming, but it's coming in waves, not one big tidal wave."

Still, there are high numbers of Hispanics who are registered to vote but haven't turned out in past elections. Those involved in getting out the vote hope their efforts made the difference last week. Arnulfo de la Cruz, political director of the state's Service Employees International Union, says that of 96,000 households with registered Latino voters in Dallas County, 37,000 were listed as never having voted.

"There's clearly a huge chunk of registered Latino voters that are not participating," he says.

Engracia Virgen volunteered at a "get out the vote" phone bank the night before Election Day. This was her first time volunteering during an election.
Engracia Virgen volunteered at a "get out the vote" phone bank the night before Election Day. This was her first time volunteering during an election.

Gutierrez says waking the "sleeping giant" has been a slow process because leaders have so far failed to lay out a cohesive plan for Latino political power. (There were no Latinos at the top of the ticket in Dallas County, for example).

"No one is out there energizing them. The reason they came out was, 'They hate me; I'm going to show 'em,'" Gutierrez says. "Somebody's got to be saying, 'We're going to fill the slate for each top position in 2008,' 'Paint the White House brown in 2012.' Whoever gets out there and coins a phrase in 10 words or less, that's going to be the attention-grabber."

Sister Consuelo Tovar, a Daughters of Charity nun and community organizer, bristles at expectations that in a matter of months, thousands of Hispanic nonvoters would suddenly be educated, active and ready for the polls.

"The goal is to increase the role of the common person in the community and improve the quality of life," she says. "We're working to develop leadership, and that takes time. Voting is the last part of the process." Tovar works with Dallas Area Interfaith, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that does grassroots organizing through churches and schools. She coordinates discussion groups about education, jobs and housing, as well as educational civic forums on a variety of issues, including immigration.

"If there's not a process like that, the person who comes to vote thinks, 'Who do I vote for?'" Tovar says.

She and others point to the growing number of Latinos who have recently become active in their communities and in politics, as well as rising numbers of citizenship applications, as evidence of a long-term movement. According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the number of citizenship applications filed between May and September of this year was up roughly 26 percent from the same period in 2005, from 6,547 to 8,220 in Dallas.

"People who have lived here for years as legal residents are finally taking the next step to become citizens," says Juan Ayala, president of the Dallas Latino Democrats. That, coupled with what he describes as "a huge increase in activists reaching out to get Latinos out to vote, is going to pay off in the long run."

The night before Election Day, members of Dallas Area Interfaith operated one last phone bank out of the office of attorney and businesswoman Adelfa Callejo. Half a dozen people sat at desks and worked the phones, calling registered Latino voters and urging them to go to the polls. Several were volunteering during an election for the first time.

Engracia Virgen found out about the outreach efforts through her church in Irving. She'd been keeping track of proposals that would criminalize immigrants and decided to help out. "I don't think it's just. I know good, hardworking families, and they have a right to live and live well, like anyone else," she says.

Omar Jimenez, a 16-year-old student at Molina High School in Oak Cliff, was making calls in another room. Though he couldn't yet vote himself, he spoke passionately about the importance of getting Hispanics to the polls.

"Thousands of people walked downtown, and none of that matters if people don't vote. We have a voice, we have a right to be heard, and we should be heard. Now we have to prove we care."

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