Posted on August 15, 2020

He Set Out to Mobilize Latino Voters. Then the Virus Hit.

Nicholas Riccardi, Associated Press, August 13, 2020

Like many Americans, Ricky Hurtado had different plans for his summer.

He formally announced his first bid for public office in March and expected to spend sweltering days knocking on doors, clenching glossy campaign literature and making his case directly to voters. This was the summer he was going prove that a 31-year-old son of Salvadoran immigrants could give Latinos a say — even in North Carolina, even in part of Donald Trump’s America.


The novel coronavirus upended the Democrat’s campaign for statehouse in an exurban district. Hurtado stopped door-knocking. The closest he came to potential voters was standing 6 feet (1.8 meters) or more away while volunteering at food banks or a virus testing site. And, still, he contracted the virus himself.

Across the U.S., the coronavirus outbreak is disrupting Latinos’ long and difficult climb up the political ladder. The disease has disproportionately sickened Latinos, destabilized communities and impeded voter registration ahead of the November presidential election. In North Carolina, only 5,000 Latinos have been added to the voter rolls since mid-March, less than half the number added during the same period four years ago.

The virus and the economic fallout it triggered is crashing down on Latinos just as they hit an electoral milestone. For the first time, there will be more Latinos eligible to vote than any other minority group — 32 million, the Pew Research Center projects.

Latinos have long seemed on the cusp of realizing their potential at the ballot box, only to see their impact undermined by disappointing turnout and an Electoral College that favors heavily white states. In 2016, fewer than half of eligible Latinos cast ballots {snip}

But if states such as California, Florida and Nevada were the proving grounds in elections past, North Carolina represents the future. The state has 1 million Latino residents, many immigrants being drawn to work in manufacturing and agriculture. Yet two-thirds are not eligible to vote because they are either under age 18 or not citizens — the second-highest rate in the nation, just behind neighboring Tennessee.

In Alamance County, among the housing tracts and thick forests reaching between Raleigh and Greensboro, there are three Latinos who cannot vote for every one who can.

For decades, those numbers meant one thing: Latinos’ growing population in the state didn’t translate into political power. {snip}

Now the children of immigrants are coming of age, finding their voice and their leaders. Hurtado and his generation are acutely aware of the weight demography and politics have placed on their shoulders.

“It really all depends on me,” said John Paul Garcia, a 20-year-old Hurtado campaign volunteer and the only member of his family of six who can vote. “I’m my sister’s voice, my brother’s voice, my parents’ voice.”

Trump won North Carolina by less than 4 percentage points. Hurtado’s Democratic predecessor lost the statehouse seat by 298 votes in 2018.

Hurtado knows it would be easier for him to focus on white voters, still the overwhelming majority in the district. But he wants his campaign to be about more than just winning the seat, flipping the legislature or even putting a Democrat in the White House.


“I want the 21,000 Latinos in Alamance County to know they’re very much part of the conversation here.”


Hurtado grew up in a mostly Black neighborhood and he was conscious he was viewed as different. He tried not to speak Spanish in public. He’ll never forget when a fellow seventh grader, a girl he considered a friend, called him “just another Mexican by the side of the road.”

“No somos ni de aquí, ni de alla,” is how he describes his feeling of alienation, using a common phrase that translates to: “We’re from neither here nor there.”


Out of school, Hurtado went to work at a consulting firm focusing on racial equity. He won a scholarship and earned a master’s degree in public affairs from Princeton. He was ready to take a job in Oakland in 2014 when he abruptly decided California could wait.

North Carolina’s governor at the time, Republican Pat McCrory, was pressing the federal government to deport the thousands of unaccompanied children who were crossing the border to flee violence in Central America.

“I just felt like, ‘That’s not the North Carolina I know,”’ Hurtado said.

He moved back to the state and began running a program for first-generation students at his alma mater and plunged into the local activist scene, where he met Yazmin Garcia. They spent one of their first dates picketing a Trump rally.

After they married, Hurtado and Garcia settled in Alamance County in one of the commuter suburbs outside of Chapel Hill. But their neighborhood wasn’t far from the old industrial strips that are punctuated with Salvadoran food trucks and Mexican groceries. Hurtado moved his parents there, too.

“Help your parents buy a house — that’s the American dream, isn’t it?” Hurtado said. He now has a different way of describing his roots: “Soy de aquí y de alla.”

“I’m from both here and there.”

The work of finding Latino voters — the 1 in 4 — was always going to be difficult. Fear of immigration authorities is ever-present. Families members hold a patchwork of legal status. Doors don’t just open for anyone.

That’s partly due to the enduring power of Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson, a Republican who first came to office in 2002 when he ran TV ads that warned of “aliens” in the county and played music from the old TV series “The Twilight Zone.”

Johnson was the only sheriff in the country other than Arizona’s notorious Joe Arpaio to be sued by the Obama administration’s Justice Department for civil rights violations against immigrants.


{snip} His agency has an agreement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to house detained immigrants, which has drawn continued protests over the years. Just a reference to Johnson’s name can feel like a deportation threat to many Latinos. When a Latina clerk at cell phone store recently asked a white customer to put on a mask, the man said he was going to “call Terry Johnson” on her, said Tyra Duque, another clerk who witnessed the incident.