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Ahead of the 2024 election, Arkansans like Josh Sol are working to engage Hispanic voters, one of the country’s fastest-growing electorates.
A native of Springdale, Sol wants to establish a Washington County chapter of the Democratic Party of Arkansas’ statewide Hispanic Caucus.
“It is where I live, it’s also one of the largest Hispanic and Latino populations in the state,” he said. “In terms of competitive districts where we can flip seats, it’s also a prime place to do that.”
Washington County became home to the state’s first Hispanic voting-age majority district following redistricting in 2021. The House District 9 seat is held by Rep. DeAnna Hodges, R-Springdale, who is seeking re-election. She’ll face Democrat Diana Gonzales Worthen next November, a re-match of the 2022 election.
Sol is developing bylaws for the county caucus, which he anticipates will meet regularly and focus on community engagement.
“In the past, people have talked and talked and talked about what we need to do and what we need to not do, but they’re not actually showing up,” Sol said. “When you show up and you show the community that you’re there and you’re consistent and you’re helpful, I think that you can build relationships that last and can be expanded into other productive things.”
An estimated 34.5 million Hispanic Americans were eligible to vote in 2022, according to the Pew Research Center. That number increased by 4.7 million since 2018, making Latinos the fastest-growing racial and ethnic group in the U.S. electorate since the midterm elections.
Arkansas’ worth fighting for and Arkansans are also worth fighting for, and just because they may speak a different language does not make them any less Arkansan.
– Ambar Mendez, Get Loud Arkansas digital organizer
Sol said he would love to see more young Latinos engaging in politics, but has found it difficult to activate his peers. The 21-year-old said disinterested young voters tend to be cynical about politics, but interest can be built by addressing topics important to them, such as abortion access and climate change.
“Finding issues and being able to communicate how you can actually bring about positive change is one of I think the most effective ways to draw in young people and get them engaged,” he said.
Latinos are the second largest group of voters in the country, according to national advocacy group UnidosUS, which estimates that on average 1 million Hispanics turn 18 and become eligible to vote annually.
Sol said there’s a lot of nuance when it comes to Latinos having representation in government. Symbolically, it would be important for the state’s only Hispanic-majority district to have a Hispanic representative, he said. However, electing someone who doesn’t belong to the Hispanic community, but is present and engaged in hearing from that community about its needs would be the next best thing.
For Manuel Tejada, chair of the Arkansas Hispanic Caucus of the Democratic Party of Arkansas, that latter person was former state Rep. Megan Godfrey.
A Springdale High School graduate, Godfrey was an English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) teacher who supported immigrant-focused legislation, such as Act 837 of 2019, which allows Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients to become licensed nurses.
DACA is a federal program that permits certain immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to live and work in the country.
“Though she’s not from that community herself, she’s done a lot of work with trying to advance education and opportunity for immigrants and children of immigrants, and I vibed with that message,” Tejada said.
The son of Salvadoran immigrants, Tejada said politics weren’t discussed much among his family. They talked about current events through the lens of what brought them to the U.S., but “not necessarily how do we engage in our communities to try to make things better,” he said.
That changed in 2016 when Tejada witnessed increasingly negative rhetoric around immigrants. After that, Tejada became civically engaged, voting for the first time in 2018 and becoming the DPA’s Hispanic Caucus chair in 2020.
According to the U.S. Census, nearly 9% of Arkansas’ population is Hispanic or Latino, and the Pew Research Center estimates about 4% are eligible voters.
Giving voice to the state’s Hispanic community means encouraging candidate and voter participation, both of which Tejada said are difficult.
“People really don’t have a ton of time to be focused on all the political discourse going on, all of the issues affecting them because they are so focused on, hey, I just need to pay my bills, I just need to make it week to week,” he said.
A federal report ranked Arkansas last in both voter turnout and registration for the 2020 election.
Tejada said candidates can engage voters by addressing ways to create a social safety net so people can have a better quality of life that will allow them to be more civically engaged over time.
Another strategy is focusing on local races where people can see a more immediate impact of their vote on their daily lives, he said. Tejada points to the 2020 election when Kevin Flores, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and attorney, became Springdale’s first Hispanic city council member.
“I think there was a huge turnout for supporting a candidate like that because he was able to not only talk about the economic message and the need of Latino community, but just seeing the pushback from people who just didn’t want him as a very qualified candidate because of his ethnic background,” Tejada said. “I think people were able to see that and step forward to want to support him.”
While representation is important, Tejada said supporting the Hispanic community isn’t “a completely racial thing.”
“As much as our community does have particular needs and interests, I think it ultimately does come down to our communities collaborating, to people working together and hearing each other out to be able to advance these things because that’s the only way we’re going to have a positive impact in Arkansas,” he said.
Libertarian Party of Arkansas chair Michael Pakko said his party doesn’t have an outreach initiative solely dedicated to Hispanic voters.
“We’d just rather reach out to all voters at this point, cast a wide net,” he said.
The Republican Party of Arkansas did not respond to requests for comment about its efforts to reach out to Hispanic voters.
Immigration status can be a barrier to civic engagement among the Hispanic community because the right to vote is not always afforded to immigrants who lawfully reside in the U.S. under various programs like DACA.
As of 2018, 5% of Arkansas residents were immigrants, while another 5% were native-born U.S. citizens with at least one immigrant parent, according to the American Immigration Council.
Ambar Mendez can’t vote as a DACA recipient, but remains civically involved as a digital organizer for Get Loud Arkansas, a nonprofit that concentrates on voter registration and engagement.
“As an undocumented immigrant there’s very little that I feel like I can do sometimes because I can’t actually vote…they gave me an avenue to get involved that didn’t just involve only voting, but also how I can get others involved civically,” Mendez said.
The bilingual staff member said Get Loud Arkansas reaches out to the Hispanic community by translating educational materials and text messages, and visiting unregistered voters in Spanish-speaking households.
“Arkansas’ worth fighting for and Arkansans are also worth fighting for, and just because they may speak a different language does not make them any less Arkansan,” Mendez said.
In addition to a language barrier, unfamiliarity with the democratic process can hinder civic participation, she said. Undocumented parents, for example, may not be able to explain the voter registration process to their children who are citizens. There are also eligible voters who don’t understand the voting process and don’t go to the polls because they worry someone won’t be there to help them, Mendez said.
While many of Arkansas’ counties don’t hire translators at voting places, Washington County offers a program that provides local high school students credit for translating at the polls. Mendez said Get Loud Arkansas hopes to partner with schools and roll this program out in other counties in 2024.
All voters, not just Spanish-speakers, shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions so they can stay informed, Mendez said. As part of its education efforts, she said Get Loud Arkansas is considering creating Spanish-language videos and translating materials for county clerks that can be shared with voters.
Although she can’t cast her own ballot, Mendez said her civic engagement work is fulfilling because Arkansas has been her home for more than 25 years and she cares about the state’s future.
“It’s hard for me to say oh, not my problem because I didn’t vote when it’s all issues that directly impact me, when it’s stuff that impacts my family, it’ll impact generations to come in our state … I’m still Arkansan and I still care about what happens to our state,” she said.
Arkansas Advocate is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Arkansas Advocate maintains editorial independence. This article was published with permission from the Arkansas Advocate. Contact Editor Sonny Albarado for questions: [email protected]. Follow Arkansas Advocate on Facebook and Twitter.