BETHLEHEM, Pa. ― When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017, John Alvarado tried to tough it out for a few years.
But with the island’s economy spiraling, it became increasingly hard for Alvarado and his family to survive. His college costs went up, but neither he nor his mother could find a job to help pay for it. Then, in January, the earthquakes began, disrupting his mother’s sleep.
Running out of options, Alvarado, his mother and his stepfather moved to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in February. Alvarado, who was politically active on the island, registered to vote shortly after moving to the mainland and is eager to cast his ballot for Democrats Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.
“I don’t agree with anything Donald Trump has done for this country or for Puerto Rico,” said Alvarado, who spoke to HuffPost during a break from his job at a warehouse. “When Hurricane Maria hit us, we needed light, we needed electrical power, we needed housing, we needed food. And he just appeared and threw us paper towels.”
Alvarado’s opinion is consistent with the views of the majority of Puerto Ricans living in Pennsylvania. Sixty-nine percent of Puerto Ricans in Pennsylvania say the federal government has not responded to Hurricane Maria “well,” compared with 31% who think the federal government has performed well, according to a Center for American Progress poll conducted by Latino Decisions in September.
Much has been made of the critical role that Latino voters could play in the battleground states of Florida, Nevada and Arizona. But Latino communities are pivotal in Pennsylvania as well, where their share of the population has more than doubled in the past 20 years.
Pennsylvania Latino Communities Step Up Political Engagement
In recent years, the growth in the Keystone State’s Latino population has stemmed largely from an influx of Puerto Ricans fleeing the fallout from Hurricane Maria, and before that, from the island’s decades-long economic morass. These families have settled not only in Philadelphia but also in the Lehigh Valley, Reading, Hazleton and other medium-sized metropolitan areas.
Since Puerto Ricans are citizens of the United States from birth, they’re able to vote in U.S. elections. Meanwhile, a number of Pennsylvania-based immigrants ― and descendants of immigrants ― from the Dominican Republic, Mexico and other Latin American nations have come of age or obtained their citizenship in the years since Trump’s election in 2016.
Latinos now make up 5% of Pennsylvania’s eligible voters ― putting it just behind Arizona and Florida among battleground states with sizable Latino populations. In a state that Trump won by less than 45,000 votes in 2016, even a modest uptick in Latino turnout could be decisive.
Thanks to new arrivals, new organizing and the galvanizing effect of Trump’s presidency, the importance of the Latino vote in Pennsylvania has never been greater, according to North Philadelphia state Rep. Danilo Burgos, the first Dominican American in Pennsylvania’s state House.
“Across the state, Latino turnout will be higher than any year before,” Burgos predicted.
Nationally, Biden has struggled to consolidate the Latino vote. Polls in September showed that he held a smaller lead over Trump with Latinos than Clinton’s lead four years ago.
In Pennsylvania, where the population of conservative-leaning Cuban Americans is negligible, Democrats are somewhat more confident in Biden’s level of support. Nearly three-quarters of Latino Pennsylvanians who turned out in 2016 voted for Clinton, according to a CNN exit poll.
As of August, though, there were signs of Latino attrition to Trump in Pennsylvania as well. This cycle, 64% of Pennsylvania’s Latinos plan to vote for Biden, compared with 22% for Trump, according to an August poll conducted by Latino Decisions. The survey also found that 12% of Latino Pennsylvanians remained undecided.
Incidentally, that poll came out just as the Biden campaign began targeting Latino voters on the airwaves in the Keystone State. The campaign made an early investment in Spanish-language TV ads across the state, spending $528,000 on broadcast TV spots beginning on Aug. 11, according to an analysis Kantar Media conducted for HuffPost. The investment represents 1.6% of the Biden campaign’s total TV spending in the state.
The Trump campaign, by contrast, began airing Spanish-language TV ads in the state on Oct. 5, purchasing just $3,000 of broadcast TV time to air the spots. The investment represents 0.02% of the Trump campaign’s total TV spending in the state.
The campaign has also made a point of tailoring its messaging to the Puerto Rican community. One digital video advertisement features the music of Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny and the infamous footage of Trump tossing paper towels to a crowd during a visit to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. Another digital spot in English shows Biden lamenting, “Donald Trump doesn’t seem to grasp that the people of Puerto Rico are American citizens already.”
In order for a Hispanic to get out and vote, the politicians need to come to them.
Julio Guridy, Allentown City Council
Biden’s team has even enlisted the help of Puerto Ricans still living on the island to encourage their family members on the mainland to vote for the Democratic ticket.
They are pitching Puerto Ricans on the idea that there are significant policy stakes for Puerto Rico in the election that go beyond Trump’s politicization of aid to the U.S. commonwealth.
To that end, the campaign has released a plan to address the unique economic challenges facing Puerto Rico. He is proposing expediting aid to the island, increasing investment in the island’s infrastructure, and taking steps to raise the island’s Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement rates, which are lower than on the mainland.
And perhaps most important, Biden is calling for a different approach to the Puerto Rican debt crisis that preceded the recent natural disasters. Then-President Barack Obama’s PROMESA law in 2016 established a fiscal oversight board with veto power over Puerto Rico’s budget that would theoretically give Puerto Rico a chance to restructure its unsustainably high public debt. Critics have since argued that the board, which islanders simply call “la junta,” has been far more willing to force cuts to Puerto Rico’s public sector than compel the island’s creditors to accept sacrifices.
In his plan, Biden is insisting he will demand a “meaningful shift” in the fiscal oversight board’s conduct and an audit of the country’s debt, which reformers believe will reveal that much of the debt was issued illegally.
Concern That Outreach Came Too Late
Some Latino elected officials and organizers in Pennsylvania are nonetheless concerned that the campaign’s investment in Latino outreach in the state should have started sooner.
Julio Guridy, a Dominican American who has served on the Allentown City Council for nearly two decades, told HuffPost he has been complaining to the Biden campaign for months that he had no Spanish-language campaign literature to distribute to curious constituents. The campaign’s new office in Allentown did not have Latino staff members, according to Guridy.
“It was in the middle of the Hispanic community, but there were no Hispanics,” Guridy said.
The Biden campaign told HuffPost that its Allentown office had bilingual staff and Spanish-language literature from the get-go. Months before the opening of the Allentown space, the campaign also had an office with Spanish-language literature in the nearby city of Easton.
Guridy has still decided to take matters into his own hands. With some funding from the Biden campaign, he insisted on opening up his own Latino-focused campaign office in Allentown, but he worries it is too late. During the 2016 election cycle, when critics lamented that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s operations in the state were too concentrated in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, but Guridy believes the campaign invested resources in Latino outreach in the Lehigh Valley earlier than Biden has.
“I think he was more worried about other areas like Florida, Arizona, Texas and Wisconsin,” Guridy said.
Many Puerto Ricans and Dominicans who arrive in Pennsylvania remain politically active on their home islands, but it takes a “little education” to familiarize themselves with the mainland’s political system and how it affects their lives, according to Guridy.
“They don’t vote because we don’t cater to them,” Guridy said. “In order for a Hispanic to get out and vote, the politicians need to come to them.”
Rigo Peralta, a politically active Dominican American artist in Allentown, had a similarly negative assessment of Biden’s work in the area. “He hasn’t had a lot of presence in the area,” Peralta said. “I think Donald Trump has more presence in the area.”
José Diaz, who owns Panorama Latin Times, a Spanish-language newspaper that serves a readership of 15,000 to 20,000 people in eastern Pennsylvania, has been surprised that the Biden campaign has not advertised in his paper. He tried to reach out to people in the campaign but did not get a response.
“It’s too late now anyway,” Diaz said. “They should be promoting for months ahead of time Joe Biden’s programs.”
Biden’s campaign insists that its advertising investments ― and a massive phone and text message operation ― show a commitment to reach Pennsylvania Latinos early on. To the extent that in-person outreach to Latinos has been lacking, it is because of the same coronavirus concerns that have caused the campaign to abandon door-knocking across the board, according to the campaign. The campaign just resumed canvassing in Pennsylvania two weeks ago.
“We’re running the most robust Latino outreach program any presidential campaign has ever had in Pennsylvania,” Sinceré Harris, the Biden campaign’s senior Pennsylvania adviser, said in a statement. “In addition to our robust organizing and outreach efforts, we’ve made historic investments in paid communications across all platforms that have been running for months, including Spanish-language TV, radio, print and digital content.”
‘It’s Completely Different From 2016’
Since it began reviving its in-person campaign events, Biden’s team insists that it has been making up for lost time. Though Biden himself has not yet visited the Lehigh Valley for more than a perfunctory radio interview, the campaign has made a point of giving Latino Pennsylvanians face time with top campaign officials. Sen. Harris, for example, spent part of her only visit to the state since becoming Biden’s running mate speaking to Latino leaders in North Philadelphia.
And earlier this month, the campaign organized a Latino-focused car parade through Allentown, Bethlehem, Easton and Hazleton. The parade ― or “caravan” ― featured Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.), who is from the Dominican Republic, and Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.), who was born in Puerto Rico.
“It’s completely different from 2016,” said Burgos, who joined the multi-city caravan. “It’s getting to the enthusiasm level where it feels like you’re in the Caribbean.”
Regardless, a number of local party bodies and outside groups have stepped in to supplement Biden’s work in Pennsylvania’s Latino community.
Make the Road Action, the political arm of a progressive immigrant rights group, plans to make 2.5 million phone calls and send 2 million text messages to voters of color in Pennsylvania by Election Day. In Reading, which is two-thirds Latino, the political transformation of one of the organization’s more committed activists, Maria Laviena, exemplifies the group’s organizing success.
Laviena, who arrived on the mainland 17 years ago, was a registered Republican because she associated the party with the cause of Puerto Rican statehood (the GOP’s conservative counterpart on the island backs statehood). And she voted for Trump in 2016 because she thought his business skills would make him a good president.
But shortly after the 2016 election, Make the Road Action helped Laviena realize that the Democratic Party is more in line with her values. More recently, the disproportionate pain experienced by Reading’s Latino community as a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic reinforced Laviena’s new conviction that Trump does not value her and her neighbors.
“The president doesn’t care about them,” she said, referring to the Latino workers whose jobs often put them at greater risk of exposure to the coronavirus. “He cares only about the rich.”
In addition to Make the Road Action’s work, the Democratic Party in Berks County, which is home to Reading, has invested its own resources in Latino organizing. The county party has, for the first time, hired two part-time organizers who speak Spanish to register voters and solidify support for Biden.
An increase in Latino representation in Reading politics could become a galvanizing force. In January, the city elected its first Latino mayor, Eddie Moran, who was born in Puerto Rico.
I feel like it doesn’t make a difference. It’s a big charade in a way. They decide what they want to decide in the White House anyways.
Ycersa Martinez, Reading pizza shop worker who says she doesn’t vote
“For him to get into office was a big, big achievement,” said Kevin Boughter, a factory worker who chairs the Berks County Democratic Committee.
Manny Guzman, a Reading school board member advising the Biden campaign, is also running for state representative in a race that local Democrats hope can juice Latino turnout.
Some 35 miles northeast of Reading in the Lehigh Valley, Biden’s Latino outreach stands to benefit from a hub of activism that sprung up to support down-ballot Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections. Rep. Susan Wild, a first-term Democrat who is running for reelection in the Lehigh Valley, has a robust Latino outreach operation. The campaign put HuffPost in touch with a group of volunteers, which included a Spanish-language interpreter, that was campaigning for the Democratic ticket outside a C Town supermarket in Bethlehem.
These efforts appear to be bearing some fruit. Kathy Harrington, volunteer coordinating chair of the new progressive group Lehigh Valley for All, had helped Alvarado register to vote in the spring.
HuffPost spoke with two dozen Latinos in and around Reading, Allentown and Bethlehem. Twelve planned to vote for Biden, six planned to vote for Trump, three were undecided and three did not plan to vote.
Israel Irizarry, a dispatcher for a trucking company, has never voted before and did not plan to cast a ballot this November until he passed by the Democratic volunteers outside of the Bethlehem C Town. Cathy Brienza, an attorney and progressive activist who traveled from Ridgewood, New Jersey, to volunteer for Democratic candidates, told him that Biden had a plan to make college free. (Biden has promised to make public colleges tuition-free for families earning less than $125,000 a year.)
“She told me Biden’s going to push free college,” he said. “I’ve got two daughters in college now and a son going to college.”
Jonathan Esquilin, a hotel housekeeper in Allentown, was out of work for months during the pandemic. He went without income for two months while waiting for the state to process his unemployment claim. Financial troubles forced him to leave his apartment. Now that he has resumed working, much of his paycheck goes toward nightly rent at the hotel where he works.
But Esquilin, who is an evangelical Christian, appreciates Trump’s respect for faith and is nervous about bringing in a new person during such a difficult time. “I’d rather have somebody who’s already been in-house, that has already dealt with the people for a little while,” he said.
Ycersa Martinez, who works at a pizza shop in Reading, does not vote. “I feel like it doesn’t make a difference. It’s a big charade in a way. They decide what they want to decide in the White House anyways.”
Martinez’s skepticism is not uncommon ― even among the family members of politically active Latino Pennsylvanians.
Alvarado, the recent arrival, has not yet prevailed on his mother and stepfather to join him at the ballot box. They told him they don’t like to get involved in politics, but Alvarado is not giving up so easily.
“Every Puerto Rican that comes to this country needs to be aware that, yes, we have a voice,” he said. “We are part of this country, and we need to take action.”
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