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'A sleeping giant’: Baltimore-area organizers aim to turn out vote of growing Latino community

Kenneth Ramos waves a large Mexican flag as a colorful caravan of floats, trucks, cars, motorcycles and horses cruises along Eastern Avenue from Grundy Street to Patterson Park on Sunday afternoon to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month.
Kenneth Ramos waves a large Mexican flag as a colorful caravan of floats, trucks, cars, motorcycles and horses cruises along Eastern Avenue from Grundy Street to Patterson Park on Sunday afternoon to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month. (Amy Davis)

A parade of cars and mounted horses stretched for blocks down Highlandtown’s Eastern Avenue, many blasting Spanish-language music and waving the flags of Puerto Rico, Mexico and El Salvador.

The caravan that weaved Sunday through Southeast Baltimore was both a celebration of the city’s Hispanic community and a call to action. Organizers said they hoped to see the same kind of energy come Nov. 3.

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“The turnout we have today, we want to see that for the election,” said Jesús Perez, one of the coordinators of the Hispanic Heritage Month event. “It’s our future.”

Near the front of the car parade was a truck encouraging onlookers to vote the full Democratic ticket, from Joe Biden for president on down to Odette Ramos for City Council (Ramos is expected to be Baltimore’s first Latina elected official).

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Then, at the end of the parade, volunteers from the League of Women Voters set out to register people to vote and urge them to craft a plan for how to cast their ballots in a hugely consequential election that’s been upended by the coronavirus pandemic.

The volunteers aimed to answer questions about mail-in voting and distributed pocket-sized copies of the U.S. Constitution translated into Spanish. “Nosotros, el Pueblo de los Estados Unidos, con objeto de formar una Unión más perfecta,” the preamble reads.

Valeria Fuentes, one of the organizers, called the Latino vote “a sleeping giant.” A record 32 million Latino Americans are projected to be eligible to vote this year, according to Pew Research Center, marking the first time that they’ll represent the largest minority group of eligible voters.

Too often, Fuentes said, people assume members of the Latino community aren’t eligible to vote and ignore them in their political outreach.

“The key here,” she said, “is not only Latino representation and celebrating Latino identity, but highlighting these voices.”

Horses clip clop along Eastern Avenue, as part of a colorful caravan of cars, trucks, floats and motorcycles traveling from Grundy Street to Patterson Park on Sunday afternoon to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from September 15 to October 15.
Horses clip clop along Eastern Avenue, as part of a colorful caravan of cars, trucks, floats and motorcycles traveling from Grundy Street to Patterson Park on Sunday afternoon to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from September 15 to October 15. (Amy Davis)

Hispanic elected officials in Maryland said this election is an especially vital time for members of this diverse voting bloc to make their voices heard.

“Our life is really on the ballot. Our dignity is on the ballot,” said state Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk, a Democrat who represents parts of Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties. “And if you don’t vote, guess what? You are allowing someone else to be your voice, and you’ll be silenced.”

Angelo Solera, executive director and founder of Nuestras Raíces Inc., the group that sponsored Sunday’s caravan, said the organization wanted to reimagine last year’s Parade of Nations with a caravan that followed COVID-19 guidelines: “It was a message to Baltimore that we are here. And empowering the community to come out and to be honored of who they are and not to be afraid.”

Republican President Donald Trump launched his presidential bid by calling Mexicans rapists and has since pushed hardline immigration policies, including those that separated children from their parents at the border.

In battleground states with large Latino populations, presidential campaigns have been working on efforts to get out the vote. While Hispanics nationwide tend to vote Democratic and support Biden, the demographic is far from monolithic. A September NBC News/Marist poll found Trump and Biden tied in Florida, with the former vice president underperforming with Latino voters there.

In Maryland, where Trump is deeply unpopular, about 10% of the population is Hispanic.

This election, voters in Baltimore will also have an opportunity to cast their ballots for the first Latina members of the City Council. Ramos, the Democratic nominee in District 14, has virtually no opposition in the general election. In District 12, the Green Party’s Franca Muller Paz is fighting an uphill battle to unseat Democrat Robert Stokes.

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The day before the parade, both women attended a virtual panel that stressed the importance of voting and Hispanic representation in government.

Ramos said that, in this election in particular, voters need to “make a conscious plan” for voting because of all the ways COVID-19 has made the process more complicated.

“You can’t just wake up on Election Day and go, ‘I’m going to go down the street,’" Ramos said. "No, it’s not going to be that easy.”

Maryland residents are encouraged to request their ballot by mail to limit their exposure to crowds on Election Day. Ultimately, state election officials expect half the voters who participate in the election to opt for a mail-in ballot. Requests must be received by local election boards by Oct. 20.

Residents also have the option of in-person voting on Election Day at more than 300 centers across Maryland and early voting, starting Oct. 26, at more than 80 locations. People can also deposit their ballots into more than 280 drop boxes across the state.

Hispanic leaders also sought to spread awareness that undocumented immigrants in some Maryland cities, such as College Park, are allowed to participate in local municipal elections. Baltimore does not allow this.

Muller Paz said that non-citizens can still find ways to participate in the political process, from calling their City Council members about needed changes in the community to sending letters to state delegates and Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican.

“We all have the ability to change politics in our city,” she said. "And if you’re excited about a candidate, you can knock on doors.”

The Latino population in Maryland has been disproportionately hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic. Roughly 63% of the state’s confirmed COVID-19 cases where information on race was available, 59,516, were found in Black or Hispanic residents. The two demographic groups represent less than half the state’s population.

The current atmosphere made Sunday’s event feel especially important to participants.

“We are bringing happiness to the community,” said organizer Lucia Islas, “and information, too, at the same time.”

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