On a cold Saturday night in January, about 150 players — mostly Latinos, although there were also Bosnian, Nepalese and Bhutanese players — gathered at East High School for some 5-on-5 indoor matches. Members of the diverse high school’s JV soccer team, which Gomez coaches, were also there.
Before play began, campaign organizers coached players in Spanish and English on how to participate in the nation’s first presidential nominating contest and explained why they should caucus for Sanders. A Salvadoran team won the tournament and, as a prize, will meet Sanders on Sunday. The campaign walked away with contact information for 150 people.
Although Latinos make up just 6 percent of Iowa’s population — the vast majority of the state’s residents are white — they have more than doubled in number over the past two decades. There are more than 50,000 registered Latino voters in the state, plus thousands more who are eligible, making them a potential force in caucuses that campaigns expect to draw up to 240,000 voters.
Sanders’s operation has done far more than his competitors in seeking the support of those voters, having belatedly realized in his 2016 campaign the growing heft of Iowa’s Latino voters — and their attraction to him.
It estimates that fewer than 3,000 Latinos participated in the 2016 caucuses overall, and hopes to dramatically increase that number this year. The campaign says it is in regular communication with tens of thousands of Iowa Latinos, and the League of United Latin American Citizens in Iowa — whose leaders are excited by the heavy investment Sanders is making in the sort of organizing they have done for more than a decade — has separately set a goal of getting 20,000 Latinos to the caucuses.
The campaign hopes its Latino effort in Iowa will serve as a template for states with much larger Latino populations that will soon vote, including Nevada, California and Texas.
The other major campaigns have not ignored the Latino community, but their footprint is far smaller. Former vice president Joe Biden has a Latinx organizer who is based in Storm Lake, a small city in northwest Iowa that’s 38 percent Latino. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has a similar organizer who is based in Des Moines, and the senator appeared on “Qué Pasa Iowa,” a popular Spanish-language political show on Facebook. Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., has Spanish-speaking organizers in cities with large Latino populations, including Des Moines, Storm Lake, Iowa City and Marshalltown — where one of his volunteers is a musician from Brazil who cannot vote but persuaded his boyfriend, who voted for Donald Trump in 2016, to caucus for Buttigieg on Monday.
“We either need a woman or a minority or a gay man [elected president] to gain back the respect of the world,” said Hudson Lourenço, 27, who started out liking Warren and Sanders the most. “It would be historic, and it would be a way to show the world that we’re not behind.”
Julián Castro, a former San Antonio mayor and federal housing secretary, hadbeen reaching out to the Latino community before he ended his campaign. Castro endorsed Warren and has been campaigning for her in Iowa.
Cristal Garcia, 18, worked on Castro’s campaign and is now a LULAC organizer. She is torn about her caucus choice, feeling thatshe should follow Castro and commit to Warren, whom she has met.
“But then there’s Bernie, who I relate to a lot,” Garcia said. “I’m just kind of stuck between them.”
For months, the Sanders operation has been quietly doing things Latino activists have long begged presidential campaigns to do: Hire a diverse staff instead of a single Latino organizer; have Spanish-speaking staffers or volunteers visit or call the homes of Latinos instead of sending volunteers who can’t pronounce their names properly; visit diverse communities and listen to many viewpoints instead of meeting just with community leaders; create advertising and content that’s specifically for Latinos instead of simply translating (often badly) existing materials into Spanish; and talk to Latino voters about issues beyond immigration.
Most campaigns focus their time and resources targeting Iowans who have already attended a caucus — a group that’s even whiter than the state’s overall population. Across Des Moines and its suburbs, routine caucus-goers often complain of an onslaught of attention. That’s not the experience of most Latinos living on the city’s south side, even if many say they have heard from the Sanders campaign.
“Where are the other campaigns?” said Joe Enriquez Henry, LULAC Iowa’s political director.
Henry notes that nationally 67 percent of eligible voters are white and the percentage is lower for eligible voters who lean Democratic.
“They need to be hearing from people of color. They need to hear about our issues,” Henry said. “If they’re not hearing us, they’re not going to be prepared for the general election.”
Under pressure to make the Iowa caucuses more inclusive, the Iowa Democratic Party has added six satellite caucus locations that will be conducted in Spanish. Some activists worry that the party is not providing enough interpreters for its regular precincts, especially those in rural areas — giving an advantage to campaigns that have Spanish-speaking supporters already in the room.
Misty Rebik, Sanders’s Iowa director, co-founded the Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa and has spent years organizing Latino workers. While the campaign has the same list of caucus-goers that most campaigns purchase from the Iowa Democratic Party, it has built its own lists of college students and Latinos.
“It’s not difficult to find pockets in communities where there’s a large population from a certain ethnicity that live in that area, so it’s like: Oh, okay, this is a Latino neighborhood, we’re going to go to every single door here,” she said.
Gomez, the soccer tournament organizer, moved to Iowa in 2001 on a tourist visa, was a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipient and hopes to soon become a citizen like hiswife. He keeps fliers on the counter at his family’s tire shop and talks with customers about the caucuses.
“My dad was kind of annoyed. . . . There’s a couple times when he was like: ‘Hey, you’re going to scare off our customers. You shouldn’t be so political in here.’ But this is stuff that’s real life, it goes beyond a conversation about politicians. It’s about the things that help our community and will affect my kids when they grow up,” said Gomez, 31, whose children are 6 and 1.
Supporters are encouraged to wear their “Bernie gear” whenever possible and engage those who comment on it. Mara Ramirez, 19, was working a shift at Starbucks, and she complimented a customer on his Bernie T-shirt. The customer enthusiastically pitched her on attending a caucus.
“I told him I’m scared to go because I’ve never been to one. . . . But he seemed really happy and positive about it. It felt like a lot of people like him are going to be there, so it sounds friendly and open, so I might as well go,” said Ramirez, who is bringing a friend.
Like many Sanders supporters — Latino and not — Ramirez is in part drawn by his calls for Medicare-for-all and free public education. She is studying to be a nurse at thecommunity college and works full time — 25 hours a week at Starbucks and waitressing at a family restaurant. She pays about $3,000 a semester for tuition, taking out about $1,000 in loans each semester. Her siblings have warned her against taking on debt, but she thinks the investment is worth it.
While all of the candidates have offered plans for making college more affordable, only Sanders and Warren have proposed making public higher education free for all, while wiping out student loan debt.
Alicia Carranza, 20, went to the University of Iowa for a year anddropped out because of the stress of trying to pay for it. She’s now an assistant manager of a grocery store and has about $8,000 in loans from those two semesters; she can only afford to pay the interest each month.
Carranza went to high school in the small town of Murray in southwestern Iowa, and tears come to her eyes as she recounts the debates her classmates would have about immigration. Of the 27 students in her graduating class, she said, 20 were Trump supporters.
“There was just one day when . . . I was sitting in there crying because they were saying things about immigration, saying just really rude things, knowing who I was,” said Carranza, who now lives in Grimes, a Des Moines suburb.
In 2016, her class held a mock caucus — but only for the Republican candidates. Sanders’s message resonated with her then and still does. She plans to caucus for him on Monday, as long as she can get to her precinct in time after work. Last weekend, she attended a Sanders rally in Perry, where a third of the population is Latino.
She sat behind the senator as he spoke, and he patted her shoulder as he took the stage. Carranza also got to see one of her idols: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who has been campaigning with Sanders.
“She’s like everything I want to be,” Carranza said, a sentiment echoed by many Sanders supporters.
Ramirez proudly noted that Ocasio-Cortez was once a waitress like her, and Gomez took his daughter to an event with the congresswoman and told the 6-year-old: “Look, it’s someone like you.”
On Thursday night, the campaign hosted a concert on the south side of Des Moines that featured Las Cafeteras, a Chicano band from East Los Angeles whose music explores the immigrant experience, politics and civil rights movements.
The band changed some of its lyrics to honor Sanders, and the singers kept reminding the audience of the upcoming caucuses.
“It’s 2020, y’all,” Hector Paul Flores said at one point. “And we can’t look to anyone to do it for us.”