Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY, speaking in support of Bernie Sanders at a forum in Spanish in Las Vegas Sunday. (Photo: Jeniffer Solis).
This weekend, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders presidential campaign held several events in Nevada including an all-Spanish language town hall featuring one of the most high-profile Latinas in Congress, New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
The town hall was held entirely in Spanish, but the meaning of the event was clear in any language: Sanders wants to claim the Latino vote in Nevada.
“Thank you for your patience, this is my first speech in Spanish. This is a personal project for me because I want to develop my Spanish and improve my Spanish,” said Ocasio-Cortez in her second language.
Her speech was one the congresswoman has told many times before about a life split between two zip codes and the stark difference a 30 minute drive can have on the quality of an education. A life that started in a one bedroom apartment with a mattress on the floor, and a crib in a closet — “This is how we started our American dream,” she said.
“It took everything my family had to give an opportunity to the next generation. That’s a Latino story, it’s a story of our community,” Ocasio-Cortez said.
Ocasio-Cortez pitched Sanders as an ally with a deep understanding of issues affecting the Latino community and a candidate with a bold vision for healthcare, education, climate change, and immigration reform.
“The poor and the powerless are faulted for their poverty. It wasn’t until I heard the ideas and the campaign of a man named Bernie Sanders that I started to see a path to reclaim our value as human beings,” Ocasio-Cortez said.
The town hall centered around themes of inequality, like any other Sanders event, confronting attendees’ worries and grievances around rising rents, stagnant wages, and the risk of deportation for undocumented family members.
Latinos build communities and are then pushed out by rising rents and gentrification, said Carmen Yulín Cruz, mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, a Sanders campaign co-chair who also spoke at the event. Lack of affordable housing is an issue the Sanders campaign has focused on, and one it believes resonates with the Latino community.
Despite the all-Spanish format, the questions asked were largely the same as any town hall for the Sanders campaign.
Question: How easy will it be to fundamentally change healthcare from a system we’ve always lived under?
Answer: It won’t be. Vote.
Question: How will Sanders be able to pass Medicare for All in Republican Senate?
Answer: Beat them at the ballot box.
One avenue into the Latino community that Sanders supporters and staffers have also pushed more is his own family’s immigrant story.
Sanders doesn’t talk about his personal story very often, said Cruz, but his father came to the United States to escape poverty and anti-Semitism at age 17 without knowing a lick of English or a penny in his pocket.
“That is the story of many Latino families,” Cruz said. “That is the story of people who come to this country looking for opportunity.”
“I’m the daughter of an immigrant and when I hear the Senator talk about his mom and his dad in many ways I hear my own story. The story of many of us,” said Analila Mejia, the political director for the Sanders campaign, who spoke at the event.
Sanders has been polling strongly among Latinos. Recent polls by the Los Angeles Times, Telemundo Station Group and Latino Decisions all show Sanders as a top Democratic presidential candidate among Latino Democrats — particularly young Latinos. Sanders has also received more donations from Latinos than any other candidate, according to Politico.
“Bernie does have pretty good support within the Latino community,” said Erika Castro, the organizing manager of the Progressive Leadership Alliance who spoke at the event. “He understands that when he is bringing these women here to talk to the community in their native language that they will be more inclined to vote for him because he’s actually listening to them. He’s actually paying attention to their needs.”
In Nevada the Sanders campaign has put an emphasis on courting Latino voters. The first office the campaign opened in Nevada was in East Las Vegas, a predominantly Latino section of the city.
Lalo Montoya, the political director of the Make the Road Nevada Action who participated in the town hall, said he hopes more campaigns will hold Spanish language events in order to hear directly from parts of the Latino community that are often shut out of politics.
“The people most affected by the problem should be in the lead uplifting their stories and uplifting their solutions,” Montoya said.
While historically thought of as a demographic with low voter turnout, that has been changing in recent campaign cycles, and perhaps especially under President Donald Trump. National Latino turnout in the 2018 midterms hit 11.7 million, nearly doubling from 2014, according to figures from Pew Research.
Trump’s presidency and anti-immigrant rhetoric loomed over the town hall. The San Juan mayor, Cruz, talked about Trump launching his 2016 presidential campaign by calling immigrants from Mexico criminals and rapists.
Like Ocasio-Cortez, Cruz has been a frequent target of Trump Twitter attacks.
“But we know better than that. We are nothing like that. We are hard workers and any man or woman who works two or three jobs deserves a president that has a heart and recognizes the value of immigrants in this country,” the mayor said, eliciting loud applause.
Earlier in the weekend, Cruz visited the Las Vegas Broadacres Marketplace, an outdoor swap meet with over 1,100 vendor spaces catering largely to the Latino community. She doesn’t bring pamphlets or campaign materials — although she’s wearing a Bernie beanie hat and a Bernie pin.
In most national polls as well as several state polls, including those in Nevada, Sanders trails Joe Biden among Democratic voters overall, but Cruz questioned their reliability.
“The polls always say I’m not going to win and then I win,” Cruz said in her native Spanish in an interview at the market Saturday. “The polls don’t capture the electorate that hasn’t been a part of the political process.” That includes Latinos.
Ideas that were once “radical” are now commonplace throughout the country, the mayor said, adding Sanders has the most individual campaign donations, the biggest crowds, and the most volunteers.
The mayor stopped at a shop that sells pinatas, traditional Mexican sweets, and fruits. She and the shop owner discussed cooking styles for tamales from both Mexico and Puerto Rico and swapped recipes for other cultural staples from both their cultures.
The shop owner explained that it’s a busy time of year due to the Posadas, a Mexican Christmas tradition that takes place over nine nights leading up to Christmas where piñatas are traditionally used.
“Piñatas fascinate me,” the mayor said.
While both women are lumped into a generic group dubbed “Latinos” in reality the demographic group is made up of over a dozen countries and territories each with their own cultural practices and traditions. Still, the mayor believes finding common goals is the key to movement politics.
She is two generations removed from extreme poverty and remembers it was her grandmother’s dream to own a home, the same hope Sander’s own mother had when he was growing up in a rent controlled apartment. She didn’t support Sanders in 2016, but says his consistency and dedication to affordable housing and healthcare won her over.
“Human beings are human beings whether you’re from Mexico or Guatemala or New York or Las Vegas. We all want the same thing, a peaceful life,” Cruz said. “Everyone wants opportunity.”
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