Estela Gonzalez isn’t a U.S. citizen. She will not be able to vote on Nov. 2, but Gonzalez, 44, spends her spare time talking to other Latinas about going to the polls.
“We are many, many Hispanic women in Chicago and we are only a little involved,” said Gonzalez, who lives in Pilsen. “We can help by talking with other women and encouraging them to vote.”
Gonzalez, a divorced mother of two, owns a small company that sells beauty products. She studies English in night classes at Richard J. Daley College. “A lot of Hispanic women say to me, ‘Oh, I don’t know anything about the issues.’ But I say to them it is time to learn.”
She doesn’t have a favorite candidate, she said, “but I like the Democrats.” The Democratic Party seems to care about her concerns—things like affordable health care, good jobs and college grants for low-income students, she says.
“I don’t have health insurance because it’s too expensive. So if I get sick, I go to [Stroger Hospital’s] emergency room,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez is a member of what could someday be a sizable voting bloc in the United States. There are 21.6 million Hispanic females of voting age in the U.S., according to the Census Bureau. About 13.2 million Latinas were eligible to vote in 2000, but only 5.9 million did. That means only 44.6 percent of Latina citizens eligible to vote cast their ballots in the 2000 presidential election.
By comparison, 56.8 percent of eligible African-American women voted in 2000, and 57.7 percent of white women went to the polls, the Census Bureau reported. Anyone who is over 18 and a citizen of the U.S. is eligible, according to federal election laws.
“Latina women spend a lot of their time in the community being caretakers. They take care of their kids and their parents,” said Maria Socorro Pesqueira, president of Mujeres Latinas en Accion, a bilingual agency that helps Latinas in Chicago. “We get our kids to school, then we have to make it to work. By the time we get off work, the polls are closed.”
Most Latina workers are paid by the hour, she said. “We can’t take off work to vote,” she said. “And we can’t leave work because we could lose our jobs. Yet there are issues that affect us deeply and we need to be involved.”
Clarissa Martinez is director of a civic participation project for the National Council of La Raza, a Washington, D.C.-based, non-profit, non-partisan organization established to reduce poverty and discrimination for Hispanic Americans. Most non-voters say they stay away from the polls because they are short of time, Martinez said.
“Hispanic women are not in jobs where we can get an OK from the boss to take time off and go vote,” she said.
Many Latinas hold down two jobs, she added, and transportation is often a factor. “You can’t get to the polls before they close if your polling place is very far away from where you work.”
Language is another barrier. “Many Latinas may not know they can get a ballot in Spanish. We need to get the word out to help increase voter participation,” Martinez said.
Numbers turned up by the Washington, D.C.-based League of Women Voters tell another part of the story behind the low Latina turnout. The league reports that 2 out of 5 Hispanic women are unmarried. One of every 5 heads a single-parent household and more than one-third live in poverty.
“There are many obstacles and barriers that stand between Latinas and the voting booth,” Martinez said. Still, many advocacy groups argue that Latinas are a growing powerhouse within the Hispanic community and could make a difference in upcoming elections. The National Women’s Business Council reports that nearly 4 in 10 minority women-owned firms are owned by Latinas.
The approximate 470,300 Latina-owned firms in the U.S. generate $29.4 billion in net sales, the council said. Between 1997 and 2002, the number of Latina-owned firms increased 39 percent.
Groups like Mujeres Latinas en Accion have mounted a voter registration and get-out-the-vote drive to get more Hispanic women voters to the polls on Nov. 2.
“We’re telling Latinas they have a lot at stake in this election and they should be getting out there to vote.” Pesqueira said. “We’re saying their voices are power. If we are looked at as less likely to vote, we’ll be less likely to be represented.”
Pesqueira explains the goals of her organization in simple terms. “If you’re registered, vote. If you’re eligible to vote, register. (The deadline to register to vote in Illinois was Oct. 5.) If you’re eligible to become a citizen, get naturalized. If you know anybody who should vote, do your part to encourage them to go to the polls. We believe everybody has a role to play.”
Martinez said La Raza conducted a poll among Hispanic women last spring. Education, jobs, the federal deficit and the war in Iraq were the top concerns among those polled.
Female Hispanic workers are among the lowest paid in the nation, she said. “We occupy the most vulnerable sectors of the economy, so when there is an economic downturn, which there has been the past four years, we are hit hard by it,” she said. “We are looking for better jobs and better pay.”
Martinez faults both major political parties for failing to reach out to Hispanic voters.
When the Bush and Kerry campaigns try to connect with the Hispanic community, they emphasize immigration issues, Martinez said. “That’s not the only issue anymore, but that’s where they stop. For most Hispanics, the big issues now are jobs and education.”
Martinez said many Hispanics have been disappointed in the administration of President George W. Bush. “We had high expectations for him. When he was governor of Texas, he held the line on anti-immigrant rhetoric,” she said. “He was inclusive and he didn’t spend a lot of time suggesting that immigrant Mexicans were out to take jobs away from American workers.”
But Bush’s support for the federal No Child Left Behind Act has disappointed many Hispanic voters, because it calls for reforms that are not federally funded, she complains.
She said the campaign of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry has made only half-hearted efforts to reach out to Hispanic women and men.
Many Hispanics were pleased with a speech Kerry made in June to the National Association of Latino Elected Officials. In that speech, Kerry noted that Hispanic unemployment has soared by more than 30 percent in the last three years, leaving 1.4 million Hispanic workers unemployed. “But Kerry hasn’t sealed the deal. He hasn’t said what he plans to do about those problems,” she added.
As for Gonzalez, she can’t cast her ballot for either Kerry or Bush next month. She hopes to take the exam to gain U.S. citizenship next year and promises to vote in 2008.