On the first night of the Democratic National Convention (DNC), four Republicans spoke in support of former Vice President Joe Biden. That’s the same as the number of Latinxs who will be given time to speak during prime time for the entire week of the convention. While the first face to appear on-screen during the first-ever virtual DNC was Eva Longoria, the activist and actor of “Desperate Housewives” fame, only three other Latinxs received prime-time billing: Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nevada), the first ever Latina to serve in the U.S. senate, was given 120 seconds to speak the first night. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-New Mexico) was given a short slot to speak on Wednesday. And the most prominent Latina in the Democratic Party, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York), only spoke for 97 seconds on Tuesday.
The DNC’s decision to limit Latinx voices baffled some observers — in 2020, Latinx voters will be second only to white voters as the largest eligible voting bloc in the country. Especially in the midst of a Biden campaign that bills itself as centered on racial justice, it was confusing, to say the least, that Latinx issues weren’t more highlighted.
However, while minimized in the nightly prime-time coverage, Latinx Democrats took their own space during less prominent daytime sessions: On Monday and Wednesday, conference calls built around the Congressional Hispanic Caucus became a space to amplify the seriousness and vigor of activism taking place among Latinx Democrats.
The Hispanic Caucus seems to be aimed in part toward giving space to Latinx leaders who were not given time to speak during the main proceedings. One of the more prominent snubs of the convention was made toward Julián Castro, the former secretary of Housing and Urban Development and former San Antonio mayor who ran for the 2020 Democratic nomination. Despite having given a historic keynote address during the 2012 DNC, Castro was not invited to speak at this year’s convention, despite a #LetJulianSpeak campaign on social media.
While Castro was ignored in the DNC’s main proceedings, the Hispanic Caucus invited the former secretary to give its keynote address on Monday, during its first session in the early afternoon. After being introduced to an instrumental rendition of “Oye Como Va,” Castro gave a short speech: “I only have a few minutes to speak to you today, so I thought that I should get right to the point,” Castro said. “I don’t have to tell the folks on this call that the Latino community is in a state of emergency.”
Castro went on to describe how the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked unique devastation on Latinxs. The vast majority of Latinxs have not had the option of working from home, and the community has formed one of the bedrocks of the essential workforce — as nurses, doctors, fieldworkers, grocery store clerks, delivery people, and other critical workers. This work, as well as environmental and health inequities, has led Latinxs — alongside Black and Indigenous people — to both catch the virus and become hospitalized at horrifyingly higher rates than white people.
Castro’s short address set the tone for members of a diverse community facing down a crisis — and standing in solidarity with one another. But while the prominent Latino gave a stirring keynote, the proceedings made one fact clear: It is Latinas who are the future of the Party.
The second meeting of the Hispanic Caucus, broadcast live on Wednesday, centered the work of Latina activists and politicians. Latinas are one of the fastest-growing electorates in the country; historically, they’ve also been one of the most disenfranchised. Increased turnout among Latinas could turn the tide of this election, and future elections, in such critical states as Texas, Florida and Arizona.
An introductory video to the day’s session highlighted the work of organizers with ¡Mujeres Mobilized!, a DNC Latina-led effort to get out the Latina Vote. A collection of young women and femmes from around the country gave short descriptions of their work: “I want to empower my community, and win the representation that we deserve,” Tess Ortega, an organizer in Austin, Texas, said. Christina Lopez, a regional organizer in Las Vegas, spoke about overcoming gender stereotypes to become a leader in her family and her community. And Cynthia Jasso-Rotunno, Latinx political director for the DNC, offered strong words about the importance of Latinas in political advocacy: “At a time when the Latino community is often used as a political wedge issue, it’s critical that we tell our own stories and push back on the falsehoods and fear tactics that attempt to paint us as invaders. Latinas are often the leaders and influencers of our families and a vital part of the organizing strategy to expand this electorate.”
Other speakers and guests during the two days of the Hispanic Caucus conferences included Latinx candidates running for office, like Candace Valenzuela, who is running for Congress in Texas’s 24th district, as well as members of the Hispanic Caucus, like Castro’s twin brother Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas).
It was clear that, besides the limited number of Latinx voices, the DNC also struggled to find its message on immigration, an issue of serious importance for many Latinxs. It took until Wednesday before segments about immigration ran in prime time. Though the night included a powerful video featuring voices from a family whose mother was deported in 2018, the most prominent speaker on immigration was former President Barack Obama. The irony of Obama’s speech was likely not lost on many Latinxs who had loved ones deported under the former president — in his eight-year term, Obama deported more people, at a faster average rate, than any other president in history, including Trump. Today, many of the images of “kids in cages” actually come from 2014, a year in which Obama kept thousands of unaccompanied Central American children behind bars, before eventually deporting the majority of the minors, who had fled a historic wave of violence in El Salvador and Honduras.
Obama and the Democrats’ troubled history on immigration has endangered the reliability of the Latinx vote. While Biden has spoken of a deportation moratorium, such a policy does not appear in his official platform. Given Biden’s lack of emphasis on the issue, and his status as vice president to the man many see as the “deporter-in-chief,” support for Biden within the Latinx community has been lackluster. In the primary, Latinxs overwhelmingly supported Biden’s opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders (besides the matter of immigration, Latinx voters tend to support social infrastructure and public investment at a higher average than other groups). More than simple formality, the DNC’s set list might speak to who Biden sees as his base: Non-Latinx voters.
While in 2020 there’s little risk of a majority of Latinx voters showing up for Trump, depressed turnout is a real threat for Democrats — and the future of the Party’s relationship with Latinxs is also in doubt. During the same week as the DNC, Castro told Axios that the country “could see a potential slide of Latino support for Democrats,” even after a Biden victory in November.
While many of the people who appeared on screen spoke of the importance of electing Biden to replace Donald Trump in November, much of the messaging focused on down-ballot races for Congress and state offices. When Castro gave his keynote, it was hard to detect any enthusiasm in his voice when he declared, “We need to change this country for the better by electing Joe Biden for president in November.” But passion returned to his speech as he went on to say, “And [electing] senators, governors, people up and down the ballot.”