From December 2013 through the following year, Elvira Diaz spent an hour every Friday outside the federal courthouse in Reno and later Republican Rep. Mark Amodei's office with a table, a Bible and a bowed head.
With their "justice for immigrants" sign, Diaz and rotating representatives from community groups weathered the four seasons as they prayed that government officials would support progressive immigration reform and a pathway to citizenship for DREAMers.
But Diaz got tired of that approach.
Diaz has since abandoned her public prayers — though she continues praying for government officials privately — and has instead focused more of her time on community organizing and mobilizing voters, including for her own campaign this year for Ward 3 of the Sparks City Council, placing third in the primary election and narrowly missing the two available spots on the general election ballot.
Diaz represents a growing bloc of Latino voters taking an increased interest in elections, getting involved by voting and in some cases, running for office at various levels of government including in the Legislature and the U.S. Senate.
Galvanized by what some are calling perhaps the most consequential election in recent cycles, Latinos across the political spectrum are working to get out the vote and make their voices heard ahead of Election Day through events such as voter registration drives, email and text campaigns and candidate forums. Already, more than 70,000 Hispanic Nevadans have cast their ballots as of Monday.
Latino voters have become increasingly sought after by campaigns vying to capture a community that represents almost 20 percent of Nevada’s eligible voting population. Latino voters were instrumental in helping catapult Sen. Bernie Sanders to victory in the Silver State’s Democratic caucuses earlier this year and propelling a blue wave in the state’s 2018 elections.
Latinos have long been characterized as a "sleeping giant" for their unlocked voting power as a large demographic that has historically been less likely to vote. But Hector Sanchez Barba, executive director and CEO of national Latino civil engagement organization Mi Familia Vota, said the "sleeping giant" characterization is offensive, reminiscent of caricatures of Mexicans sleeping against a tree or a cactus, and does not capture the external factors that cause a lower voter turnout.
"Everybody talks about the Latino vote, but very few infrastructures are really strategically and structurally and holistically investing in the Latino vote," Barba said in a Mi Familia Vota briefing on the Latino vote. "On top of that, we add a voter suppression that is massive in the Latino community, literally just making it harder for Latinos and immigrants to participate in the democratic process."
Mi Familia Vota Nevada State Director Cecia Alvarado said that misinformation has been the biggest voter suppression tactic in Nevada, where Latino voters have had questions about the security of mail-in voting and have expressed fears of being accused of trying to vote twice if they vote in person.
The Biden campaign has prioritized outreach to Latino voters, including spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on Spanish-language advertisements, conducting weekly interviews on Spanish-language radio shows, centering elected Latino officials at campaign events and including Latino voices at all levels of the campaign.
Yvanna Cancela, Nevada’s first Latina state senator and a senior adviser for Biden for President Nevada, emphasized that empowering and mobilizing the community to vote is at the heart of the campaign, and one of the most powerful moments for her came when members of Nevada’s Latino community joined Latina U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and Sen. Jacky Rosen at the polls.
“[The senators] were joined by Latino dancers, Latino leaders, all in community coming together to do the most powerful thing we can do as part of a democracy, which is voting,” Cancela said. “So we're feeling that enthusiasm from our community and we're seeing it at the ballot box.”
She added that though outreach to voters shifted slightly because of the coronavirus, the campaign is still working with local leaders to host events and engage the Latino community.
Data shows that engagement is coming across.
A statewide poll released by Equis Research in September found that 62 percent of Latino registered voters in Nevada favor former Vice President Joe Biden and 26 percent favor President Donald Trump in the presidential race. Biden’s lead remained unchanged in a poll update Equis Research released on Oct. 8.
In Nevada, ahead of the November election, the Biden campaign, along with other organizations supporting Biden, have aired nine ads in Spanish, while the Trump campaign aired one English ad about impeachment that mentioned Latino voters.
Candidates have hosted various events targeted at Nevada’s Latino community, including a roundtable “Latinos for Trump” in Las Vegas about a month ago and two parades of hundreds of Latino cowboys riding horseback, called cabalgatas in Spanish, through East Las Vegas and Sunrise in support of Biden and Assemblyman Edgar Flores.
However, Trump has gained ground. Jesus Marquez, a conservative political analyst and member of Latinos for Trump, noted that the campaign has set up an office in the heart of the Latino community in Las Vegas and has been connecting with voters.
“Once Latinos hear the message that Trump has for them, it’s pretty easy for them to come on board,” Marquez said. “The message is a good economy, and good prosperity for our Hispanic community.”
Trump mentioned Nevada’s Latino community during a recent rally in Carson City, stating that his stance on abortions, advocacy for school choice and support for Catholic schools are helping him reach high levels of approval among Hispanic voters.
He added that as far as helping the Hispanic community, Democrats are “all talk and no action.”
"As president, I've been delivering for our incredible Hispanic American community like never before," Trump said. "I like Hispanic Americans. I'm taking care because I'm fighting for school choice, right? Safe neighborhoods and Hispanic-owned small businesses."
Along with other groups appealing to voters, Mi Familia Vota is leading a campaign to make Trump a one-term president and is targeting Latina voters, who are expected to be a determining factor in the election. They are also focusing on Latino men over 40, a group Trump is “holding steady” with, lagging only eight points behind Biden, according to a New York Times analysis released Thursday.
In addition to phone banking and get-out-the-vote events, the Nevada Mi Familia Vota team is also targeting older Latino men, Alvarado said, by educating them about "how really our economy is working and who really is building our economy" and arguing that the Trump administration has attacked frontline workers.
In the last two weeks, The Nevada Independent reached out to Latino voters and organizers in Southern and Northern Nevada to hear what's shaping their decision on the upcoming election. Many expressed excitement along with wariness and shared a desire that elected officials show genuine connection and attention to Latino communities. Here are some of their stories.
Elvira Diaz, 57, Sparks
After her year-long prayer marathon for Amodei, Diaz said she found her congressional representative to be detached from some of his constituents.
Amodei has supported proposed legislation giving DREAMers a legal pathway, but Diaz pointed to his absence from a candidate debate at UNR, citing COVID-19 concerns, but his attendance at the Carson City Trump rally without a mask the day before as a sign of Amodei not connecting with constituents.
"If you are a candidate and then you are elected by people, you need to listen [to] everybody, not just your party," she said.
A community organizer currently working with the Progressive Leadership Alliance Nevada (PLAN) Action Fund, Diaz has been mobilizing for Latinos to vote in the 2020 election. She's also been mobilizing the community and connecting Latino voters to candidates through her political consulting firm, Nosotros Votamos.
She said that Mexican immigrants like herself sometimes question the worth of their vote because elections in Mexico are not as transparent or representative of the votes of the people.
"So when you immigrate to the United States … sometimes they don't believe the vote counts, but here the votes really count," she said. "Sometimes people think, 'I don't know. It's doesn't matter. Why waste my time to go to vote if my vote is not going to count?' But when you tell them people's testimonies, tell people how the vote is important, then people start getting engaged."
For Diaz, the Sparks City Council Ward 3 race is one of the most important on the ballot because it’s the government body with the most direct representative for her home. After running for the seat and losing the second general election slot to Quentin Smith by 47 votes, Diaz said she debated voting for incumbent Paul Anderson or Smith. But Diaz said that a mailer from Anderson with a photo of Smith, who is Black, with darkened skin that she and other Sparks residents said was racist, secured her vote for Smith.
"I don't want my City of Sparks to be racist. I want my City of Sparks to be open and to be accepting," she said.
A Democrat since becoming a citizen in 1992, Diaz said she is voting for Biden. She said he's not perfect but is better than Trump, who she said promotes hate, particularly toward Mexicans and immigrants. She's praying for Trump, too.
"I'm praying for that guy to be a better human being. But right now, I'm praying he's going off," she said. "I need to mobilize people, so people get our vote because we need to change this guy."
— Savanna Strott
David Mendez, 49, Las Vegas
David Mendez said his experience immigrating from Mexico to Reno nearly three decades ago has given him a unique ability to compare the systems of the two countries he's called home.
Mendez registered as a Republican about 10 years ago after deciding he had more opportunities in the U.S. than he did in Mexico, which he described as a socialist country, and concluding that the Republican Party better supports the free market and creates more opportunities for people.
"A lot of Hispanic people are Democrats because they believe that they help them, because they give you welfare, because they give you stuff like that. But all those things are not free," he said. "Somebody has to pay for that. And how do you pay that? They increase your taxes."
Now a financial consultant, Mendez said that he sees America moving closer to socialism and policies he saw in Mexico. He said that a lot of Americans haven't lived outside the country and don't understand the consequences of a socialist government — which he painted as having high taxes that will deter the wealthy from creating jobs, creating long wait times for medical appointments through a free health care system and ending the right to bear arms.
"I think these elections are going to shape the future of America. I really believe that we're getting closer to socialism, and if we don't step up and speak up, we're gonna get closer if Biden wins," Mendez said. "And then from socialism, it's just one step getting close to communism."
Mendez said that the economy is his main issue when voting, and the economy and his personal investments have been good under Trump. But he said he would also like to see DREAMers have a pathway to citizenship.
Mendez shared that wish directly with the president at a Latinos for Trump roundtable in Las Vegas in early September, and Trump responded by saying he agreed that there should be a legal pathway.
"You're going to be very happily surprised. You watch,” Trump said at the event.
But after witnessing holdups in federal legislation such as a proposed second stimulus package because of disagreements between the political parties, Mendez is convinced that Republicans need to take control of the legislative branch too.
"I truly believe that he wants to help, that he wants to do what he says. But we need to have Congress and the Senate, they have to be Republican to be able to pass this law," he said.
Mendez said he is in favor of amnesty for those living in the country undocumented, which he noted the past two times happened under Republican presidents Ronald Regan and George H. W. Bush, while also building up the border wall to stop future immigrants crossing the border unauthorized.
For Mendez, the election boils down to the future he sees each candidate offering and the opportunities that will help him get "my piece of my American dream."
"I just want to have the opportunity to do and be better, and do better for me, for my family," he said. "I want to make sure that when [my son] grow up, and he start having his family, he has the same opportunities or better than what I have right now."
— Savanna Strott
Dennise Mena, 25, Reno
Dennise Mena has been doing election work since 2016, including helping people register to vote and setting up candidate forums in local 2020 elections in her role as a communications specialist for the progressive-leaning Reno-based non-profit Acting in Community Together in Organizing Northern Nevada (ACTIONN).
As Mena organizes get out the vote efforts and informational campaigns, she thinks of her father who immigrated to the U.S. from El Salvador and has a green card, but cannot vote in U.S. elections. She wonders why all citizens don't exercise their right to vote.
"My dad keeps up with the elections. He knows everything about the candidates, he listens to all the debates … but is never able to vote," Mena said. "There are so many people who really want it and deserve the right to vote, who can't have it and might possibly never have it."
Though Mena's father always stayed informed about political goings-on and Mena voted in elections, she said she did not engage in political activism until 2016. She said that President Trump's comments about Latino communities showed her that she needed to get involved.
"He called our countries ‘shitholes.’ He said we were rapists and drug lords, and regardless the United States voted him in," Mena said.
She said that when she speaks with the Latino community members, there is a deep distrust in the political process and a sense of powerlessness that disenfranchises many would-be voters. Mena said part of the issue is that candidates fail to communicate with marginalized communities adequately.
"The response that I hear is, 'Oh, they're a great group of people. And I know the family next to me who is Latinx, and they're great,'" Mena said. "But that is the extent to which they go looking for information from us to better understand us. They're not having these deeper conversations."
Mena explained that many candidates want the Latino community to reach out but that the conversation needs to begin with candidates going to the community to listen and address issues. She said that campaign materials and handouts should be in Spanish and English and that conversations with Latino voters need to go beyond a few Spanish statements during stump speeches.
"We're seeing huge cuts to things like education and the people who are going to be most affected are going to be our communities of color," Mena said. "And so we really need to vote for those officials who are going to represent us, understand us and be willing to talk to us about what our unique issues are. We really need these candidates to listen to us and to talk to us."
As far as recent polling showing members of the Latino community favoring Biden, Mena said that aligns with what she sees.
"Regardless of if you're conservative or you're liberal or whatever, [Trump] has just insulted who we are as a people," Mena said. "And so I think it's really hard to get behind him, even if you agree with all of his legislation and everything he wants to implement."
She emphasized that even though most people are focused on the national elections, the local and state-level elections are almost more important and hopes that is not getting lost.
"We are in a time of crisis both because of the pandemic, but also because we're in this moment where we're fighting for racial justice," Mena said. "What we decide after Nov. 3, really the immediate impacts we're going to see are going to come from the local and state level."
One of Mena's biggest fears is that the rhetoric around immigration reform and immigrant communities will prevent Latinx voters from heading to the polls.
“I am concerned that a lot of the Latinx community is going to feel too intimidated to vote,” Mena said. “I am worried about our community feeling so attacked in this moment that they feel like they have no voice or that there's no one wanting to listen to their voice.”
— Tabitha Mueller
Sayra Cordova, 18, Las Vegas
Although there will be socially distanced lines and face masks, Sayra Cordova is planning to vote early and in-person to have as close to a pre-COVID experience as possible for her first time voting.
Cordova, a high school senior, said the two biggest issues guiding her vote are women's rights and climate change — two issues she sees as having a generational divide in how voters feel about them.
For Cordova, being pro-choice encompasses a woman's right to birth control, the right for her to decide if she wants to have children and overall "just being able to have a say."
"It's not all about abortion," she said. "It's just recognizing how women do need a say over their own body."
On top of the generational gap, Cordova said that there are cultural and religious influences within the Latino community that keep many Latinos voting for anti-abortion candidates. But she said younger people are more likely to view the pro-choice versus pro-life debate as a more holistic discussion about a woman's right to choose what to do with her body.
Climate change is another issue that Cordova said young people have a unique perspective on. She said it is a "dire" issue that needs to be addressed worldwide.
"We really grew up seeing on the news how there's hurricane after hurricane after hurricane. And growing up, you see wildfire after wildfire after wildfire," she said. "I feel like we really grew up in that climate change era … I feel like our anger has grown from older generations and our world leaders not really taking that as a big priority right now."
Though Biden is not her ideal candidate, Cordova said that he aligns with her views on women's rights and climate change. A registered Democrat, she said she sees him as the "only choice."
Over the last four years under Trump, Cordova said she's seen an increase of racism, white supremacy and nationalism, which she said has made people "blind" to the flaws of the U.S. While neither she nor her family have directly experienced hate or violence, she said she's seen an increase of videos circulating on the internet and the news of racist attacks.
"I really feel like it has grown a lot of hate against people of color as well and there has been a rise in hate groups," she said. "It really comes to a point — I know it sounds really silly to me — but it comes to a point where when I see like a Trump flag or anywhere where that's really encouraged, I kind of feel fear in me because I feel like I'm gonna get hate crimes or something's gonna happen to me."
Cordova said she wants voters to look at each candidates' policies — not just their parties — and vote according to their values.
"If you don't think that your vote matters, it does," she said. "It really does make a change in our future."
— Savanna Strott
Cesar Marquez, 30, Sparks
Cesar Marquez, a 30-year-old production supervisor at Tesla, was not particularly interested in politics until the 2016 election. An engineer by trade, he preferred developing solutions to problems instead of pontificating over political issues.
"Before Trump got elected, I voted, but that's as far as I'd go," Marquez said. "After Trump got elected, that put things in perspective and made me realize, oh shit, we do need to pay a lot more attention and try to understand why these things are happening and how we can get more engaged and make our politicians improve it."
Marquez's parents immigrated to the United States in the 1990s. Trump's rhetoric surrounding immigrant communities and the administration's decision to separate children from their families and place children in detention centers, among other issues, galvanized Marquez to pay attention and begin to take action through volunteering with Democratic presidential hopeful Andrew Yang's campaign.
Yang's message about Universal Basic Income (UBI), where every citizen receives a stipend regardless of employment, and the need to prepare for job loss because of technological advances resonated with Marquez, who sees first-hand how technology is reshaping the workforce.
During the campaign, Marquez said that he came to understand that changes at the local scale affect people's lives more directly. So after Yang dropped out of the race, Marquez started volunteering for Sparks City Council candidate Wendy Stolyarov as her political outreach director.
"People need to start paying more attention to what's happening at the local level because there's a lot of decisions that are being made by people that we don't even know about," Marquez said. "And so that's something that I've become a lot more passionate about just being part of your local community and learning more about it and holding your leaders accountable."
Though polls show Biden ahead of Trump for Latino voters, Marquez said there is still a level of distrust in the Latino community stemming from the Obama administration's complicated immigration record.
"I trust the polls a little bit, but that's not to say that we should relax and kind of take it for granted," Marquez said. "We should still keep the pedal to the metal until Election Day."
He added that even though Democratic leaders emphasize removing Trump from office is of utmost importance, that's not going to solve all the problems he sees.
"There's still a lot of work that needs to be done and I think we just need to do a better job of listening to each other and trying to understand,” Marquez said. “Democrats like to blame Trump for all the problems but Trump is just a symptom.”
— Tabitha Mueller
Larry Gonzales, 62, Las Vegas
Larry Gonzales describes himself as "super anti-Trump.”
The Las Vegas resident of 40 years said he doesn't like the comments the president makes, from the "Sleepy Joe" nickname for his presidential opponent to his inaccurate likening of COVID-19 to the flu. Gonzales especially took offense to Trump's remarks about John McCain when he said that he liked "people who weren't captured" in reference to the late senator being a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
Gonzales, a registered nonpartisan, said he voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and will vote for Biden during early voting this year.
"[It's] his character more than anything," he said. "I did say if Trump turned the economy around and did a good job, I'd come around. And he was doing a good job, but I feel that some of his comments are just not appropriate for a president — they're racist."
A retired casino shift manager, Gonzales said that Trump blankets all Latino immigrants as "crooks." He said Trump has incited fear in the community with his anti-immigrant rhetoric, particularly for DREAMers, based on anecdotes he's heard from his daughter who is a teacher at a school with a large Latino and immigrant population.
Gonzales said Trump's abilities as a businessman might have partially redeemed the president in his eyes if he used that experience to help the economy or decrease the national debt, which Trump said he would eliminate over eight years. But Gonzales said Trump is a "bad businessman," pointing to the bankruptcy filings of several of his businesses and the increases of the national debt during his presidential tenure that are expected to further balloon.
Although politicians have been criticized for courting people of color during election years only to abandon them once they're elected, Gonzales said he thinks Biden will support the Latino community even after the results come in. He likened Biden to a white politician from his youth in Los Angeles who was present in the Latino community he represented.
"I think [Biden] will show up. I mean he was vice president to our first African-American president," Gonzales said. "He's not gonna be like Trump."
— Savanna Strott