They came from around Texas – dozens of college and high school age Latinos. Their message to political candidates: Listen to us, our vote matters.
The students gathered at a forum, held this past weekend at San Jacinto College in Pasadena, southeast of Houston, that was organized by Jolt Action. The group describes itself as the largest politically progressive Latino organization in the state. It’s focused on developing the political power of young Latinos, a fast-growing demographic group and a potentially powerful voting bloc. Approximately every 30 seconds, a Latino in the U.S. turns 18, or voting age.
Antonio Arellano, Jolt’s interim executive director, said Texas is a battleground state and that politicians should pay attention to young voters of color.
“Texas has 38 electoral votes, 36 congressional seats – we’re a powerhouse – and come Super Tuesday, we’re one of the biggest prizes, so we want to make sure that young Latinos recognize that they have in their hands the power and the potential to transform this state.” Arellano said.
Despite the possible political ramifications, not one of the Democratic presidential candidates attended the forum. The Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden and Amy Klobuchar campaigns sent surrogates, while Klobuchar also spoke in a pre-recorded video. Only Tom Steyer and Bernie Sanders spoke live and took questions from students via video conference. No one from the Pete Buttigieg campaign spoke.
All of the Democratic candidates were invited, but surrogates for those who didn’t attend said they’ve been campaigning in Nevada ahead of that state’s caucus on Saturday.
The absence of some candidates didn’t go unnoticed.
“I think that any candidate that underestimates and does not prioritize young Latino voters is making a very serious mistake,” Arellano said. “If you want to win the State of Texas, you’ve got to start listening to Latino voices, specifically Latina women.”
“It’s not just about, you know, who the loudest person in the room is yelling,” said Yunuen Sigler, a recent graduate of the University of Texas Austin. “It’s about the message they’re sending and the effort they’re putting in. We see all of that. We’re not oblivious.”
Students had a chance to ask the candidates questions. They asked about environmental justice in communities of color, funding for mental health services, paying for college and immigration policies.
Ana Fuentes, a senior at Canyon High School in New Braunfels, asked how Elizabeth Warren would eradicate the fear among many immigrant families and how she would overturn President Donald Trump’s policies.
Julieta Garibay, who co-founded United We Dream, an immigrant youth-led organization, spoke on behalf of the Warren campaign. She said Warren, if elected, would reinstate Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or the program known as DACA, and Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, a temporary immigration status for people from certain countries.
Garibay also said Warren wants to eliminate programs in which local law enforcement works closely with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“She wants to make sure that private prisons and detention centers are gone, because she does not believe that our families should be in cages or that families should be separated,” Garibay said.
Another student asked what former Vice President Joe Biden would do to prevent budget cuts in low-income schools if he were elected president.
“He wants to triple the money that is going to Title 1 schools…schools with the highest rate of socio-economically disadvantaged students,” said State Rep. Victoria Neave, who attended on behalf of the Biden campaign. “He wants to take care of our teachers. He wants to make college more affordable, give two years of college for free.”
Tom Steyer, the billionaire and philanthropist running for president, received applause for some of his comments critical of the Trump administration and a conservative majority Supreme Court.
But the loudest applause went to Sanders, who received a count down before appearing via a video call.
Sanders said his proposal to address climate change would hold the fossil fuel industry accountable.
“Included in that proposal are billions and billions of dollars to be invested in communities of color and low-income communities because those are the communities that are always hit hardest, not only by climate change but by pollution,” Sanders said.
Students with Jolt chapters around the state say they plan to hold future election-related events throughout the year.