On Tuesday, Opinion Editor Jessica Montoya Coggins spoke to Rafael Benavides, Spanish Press Secretary of the Texas Democratic Party. They discussed the impact of COVID-19 along the border and the Party’s plans to reach out to Latino voters. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
COVID-19 is having a disproportionate impact on Latinos in Texas. What are some of the things you were hearing from potential voters in November, as they are deciding between Joe Biden and Donald Trump?
You know, COVID absolutely does have a disproportionate effect on Latinos. Before, starting with the Texas Democratic Party, I was the city of Laredo’s public information officer and spokesperson, so I dealt directly with COVID at a municipal level. And I was working directly with the county as well. But what we saw on the border and we continue to see is that there’s been a failed response from the governor and from the president to deal with this crisis, not only on a national scale and state level, but specifically on the border. For a long time we have had some of the poorest counties in the state and in the country. We have some of the highest rates of comorbidities in the Latino population, and there’s certainly a high percentage of people who are Latino on the border. There’s some of the highest rates of people without health insurance and access to health insurance. So that sells a perfect storm for what was gonna happen with COVID-19. And we’re seeing it now in the valley and across the border where Latinos are dying and they’re getting very sick and there’s no room for them anymore. Just this week, I had 10 people close to me on Facebook and everyone had someone either their parents or their aunt or uncle that died due to COVID. It’s horrible. It seems like we’re like in some type of post-apocalyptic world where we’re just kind of becoming desensitized to it. And I also had another friend, she and her younger brother reached out to me when I was still working in the city, and they said, “hey, we don’t know where else to turn to, my brother’s very sick. He has Covid.” He was in his twenties and she said they went to one of the ER clinics here in Laredo and they turned him away. I asked “why did they turn him away?” And she said they turned him away because he didn’t have insurance. So I said that’s not right. So I asked if he’s having trouble breathing. She said yes, he is gasping for air. I told them to go go to the ER at an actual hospital and demand that he get seen. They have some type of fund there for urgent care. So they did, and they saw him on and he was intubated immediately. He was there for a few days, and then she called back two days later and said, I need your help with something else, I have nowhere else to go to. There’s a $250,000 bill for him, just for those few days that he was there. And we don’t have the money, obviously.” So there’s a number of things that are just attacking Latinos due to failed leadership at the state level and at the national level where we don’t have the resource to begin to have a fair fight in this. Even when they see that we’re dying, they don’t provide the resources. Many times we’ve made STAR requests and calls to make sure that we get him remdesivir. We don’t seem to get resources that other places seem to get very quickly. And time and time again, we’re forgotten or intentionally ignored by Republican leadership.
As you think about flipping states house seats from red to blue, how are you engaging and working with the Latino voters that are gonna help us win this?
Sure, I think one of the things that we’ve taken for granted is that we tend to think of all Democratic voters as voting the same, having the same values and having the same ways of voting. For the most part, that’s true but when you really dissect it and go into the different groups and different demographics, you find that it’s different even within Latinos. Even though percentage-wise we’re one of the highest of demographic groups in the state and in the country, we still seem to be one of the most misunderstood groups. So even within the Democratic Party, we tend to think that Latinos will vote like every other Democrat or they’re a monolith, and they really aren’t. There’s different types of Latinos, even within the state. There’s people who have been here for countless generations. For example, my family has been in the area since the 1700s, and that’s a common story here on the border and in South Texas. And then you have recent immigrants who, of course, have different values, different concerns. We are still all Latino, but even the way you speak Spanish or how much of it you can speak, even within our own community that’s one of the ways we can kind of discriminate amongst each other in a certain way. I was talking with Jonathan, who’s one of our staffers at the Texas Democratic Party who helps to run a social media group. We’re coming up with ways to kind of engage Latinos, especially in those areas, where they’re not traditionally Latino but the demographics are changing; So I asked him, “how are you engaging? How are you writing the posts?”He said it depends. Sometimes we have England sometimes have Spanish, and sometimes in Spanglish. I said that’s great! Spanglish, that’s what that’s what we are in Texas as Latinos, we’re a mixture of all these things. Sometimes you have people speak one language better than the other, but if you can combine the two in a successful way that is amazing. I remember, a couple years ago I was walking on the subway in New York, and I saw an ad for vitamin water and it was one of those ways of advertising that unless you are completely bilingual, you won’t get it. And there’s also another ad here in South Texas for another insurance company and “Pronto Insurance, faster than a flying chancla”, and it reminds a bunch of Latinos of how they grew up. So if you don’t get the reference to the chancla and if you don’t understand both languages, you won’t understand that advertising. But it goes to show you that there is a way to really understand people and to understand the culture and for Latinos to vote in the Democratic election, we really need to engage them. It can’t be someone who is white that studied Spanish in in a different country who has a privilege of speaking to other demographics from a different perspective. It has to be people who are from those communities. So people who are from DFW who are Latino, who understand what people are going througn. That’s what we’re doing. What’s really good is that in the Texas Democratic Party, the actual staffers look just like Texas. So 40% Latino, very mixed. We have a bunch of people from different backgrounds within Texas. That’s what our strategy is. We have to make sure that we’re reaching out to people through phone banking, thorough text, through social media. We’re engaging a lot with traditional media as well, as well as more younger demographic type of media like TikTok. There’s different ways to get through to Latino voters but that’s one of the things that I think we really need to focus on. It’s engaging with them with people who are from there and not just, you know, doing it during the general election but having that sustained type of relationship that we really need to make sure that they stay within the party.
You mentioned the chancla, and that brings back many memories, most of them very not good. [laughter]
Yeah for a lot of us it isn’t but it’s a way of understanding. You have to use those type of references to make sure that you let people know that we’re not someone that’s just wearing a mask, speaking Spanish, and talking about immigrant rights. We know the people who are here in Texas. We know that there’s a very diverse group of Latinos that have a lot of different things at play that are very important to them. One of those things is family. In our culture, family is very important to us. That’s one of the main reasons why on the border, discussing COVID earlier, it was very hard. I know I was speaking with the council members and our public health authority and they’re saying, “why is it that we’re having these clusters of people that keep getting together for events.” Every type of event, whether someone gets an A in the report card or someone gets a new job, there’s always an excuse to get together. It’s not necessarily, just the brothers and sisters, they might invite a neighbor over. It’s the aunts and uncles and cousins and second cousins. So before you know it, it’s a group of 60 people in your house. That’s the way we live and that’s why we enjoy each other’s company. For Latinos there’s a lot of pressure for them to stay home, to take care of their family, to take care of other members of their family as well. So it’s discouraged for a lot of them to go farther away to go to college or to get a job or they’re gonna leave that family unit. But going back to COVID, it’s very hard to tell people who really cherish family and family values, “you can’t get together, you cannot see each other. You cannot celebrate together because there’s a threat out there and the threat is very real.” Going back to outreach for Latinos in the Democratic Party, we really need to treat it like a family and family sticks together, we don’t forget about each other. And we have to have that constant contact in a way that they can understand.
Many younger Latino voters actually gravitated toward Senator Sanders. How have you been working with those former supporters of his and making sure that they stay engaged through November and then beyond.
Well, I don’t have to go very far just because actually I was one of them. I did go first for Senator Bernie Sanders and I do believe in a lot of his principles. The movement doesn’t end with him, it’s about all of us. So part of being Democrat is understanding that yes, sometimes the person that you want originally is not the person that is chosen. But you have to support the candidate whoever they may be. And we’re stronger together than we are separate. I understand completely, a lot of those principles called out to me because as I’ve lived here on the border I’ve seen a lot of injustices. I question all time why is it that our city, our county, our area doesn’t have the same things that other places in the state have. It just seems that we’re always left out of everything, and it kind of does something to us. Granted, we do have a history over here of corruption with local officials, but that can go back to a number of different reasons. So I think that also contributes to the fact that Latinos think a lot of times that things are the way they are, and they’re not gonna change. But we have to change that. We have to make sure that we change that for them. For those who were going for Bernie Sanders, they have to understand that the same fire that they have to change things to make healthcare more accessible for everyone, to make the world a more equitable place for everyone, that is resonating within Democratic Party. It’s not with any one candidate, itt’s within the Democratic Party. We are stronger together than we are separate. So, yeah, those are issues and a lot of them tend to be angry about what happened but we need to reach out to them and we say we have a way of going forward together. At all costs we have to make sure that Donald Trump does not win. And we have to put more people like us into power to make sure that we do see a change. So I do understand those concerns. What was good about that campaign is that they actually reached out to a lot of young people, and we tend to to reach out to more traditional voters and we leave those younger people behind who have actually gone through different things. I’ll give you one example. So I graduated in 2009 and I studied journalism. I was actually interning in New York, and I asked the senior vice president of UNICEF what can we do to kind of make sure that we have a good career. Where do we start off from? What do you suggest? You know, just kind of like pointers as we actually graduated from college and started lives in the real world. She said you’re just graduating at a really bad time and she had nothing good to say to us. That’s really been the experience, because in 2009 we had the economy collapse and it seems for a lot of younger people who were really starting out with their lives, it really never got better. We’re waiting for something else to happen, for things to get better for us to have a better chance so we can afford houses and jobs and a good quality of life the way that our parents did. And it doesn’t seem to happen for us. So I understand the frustration, but we need to do a better job. Is the Democratic Party to reach out to those younger people who are frustrated and make sure that that passion translates into votes and to change.
Well, thank you so much, Rafael. Is there anything else that you want to share with us about the TDP going forward and about engagement with Latino voters?
I’m really excited because our chair is Hispanic and from the border. A lot of people in communications and high roles in the Texas Democratic Party are Latinos from Texas. The state director for the Biden camp is Rebecca Acuña. She’s also a Latina from the border. So I’m really glad that the Democratic Party in Texas looks just like what Texas looks like and has given the opportunities to people who have not had that opportunity before. So we really put our money where their mouth is, and we’re changing not only the party, but we’re trying to change the demographic as well to ensure that we have the right people leading the cause and leading the change that we want.
Photo: Texas Democratic Party/Wikimedia Commons