Friday, July 12, 2024

Talking ‘el aborto’ with Latino voters to pass pro-abortion measures

Talking ‘el aborto’ with Latino voters to pass pro-abortion measures


This story is also available in Spanish and can be read here.

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — “Votando por libertad,” read the flier in Tony Vargas’s hand. Voting for freedom.

The retired police officer considered the message. In the parking lot of his stucco apartment building, canvassers were out on this hot morning to meet Latinos like him. Their goal was to persuade as many as possible, regardless of political affiliation, to vote for a November ballot measure that would establish the right to abortion in a state with one of the country’s strictest bans.

“El aborto” needs to remain “seguro y legal,” the flier urged. Safe and legal.

“I believe in a woman’s choice,” said Vargas, who is 65 and an Independent. The canvasser from the grass roots organizing group Mi Vecino — my neighbor — marked him down as a ‘yes’ this fall.

This fall, against a contentious national backdrop, voters here and in at least half a dozen other states will decide whether to enshrine abortion rights into their state constitutions. Latinos could make the difference in passage or defeat for several of those measures, and their potentially pivotal influence explains the outreach to their communities.

In Florida, which arguably has the highest-stakes ballot question, Mi Vecino and a coalition of voting rights organizations are campaigning for Amendment 4 by devoting bilingual resources to wooing Latinos. The opposing campaign, Too Extreme for Florida, is also distributing materials and posting ads in Spanish. They accuse proponents of acting deceptively — of a bait and switch, or “gato por liebre.

In Arizona, canvassing by both sides is expected to ramp up fast in both languages once state officials certify that enough signatures were gathered to put the question on the ballot. One in four voters there is Latino, according to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund (NALEO), with a recent poll by the nonprofit advocacy group Lucha showing 75 percent of Latinos supporting access to reproductive health care and women’s bodily autonomy.

“Latino voters will play a crucial role in the success of passing this abortion initiative,” said Abril Gallardo, Lucha’s chief of staff in Phoenix.

Yet the groups stress the need to do more than just translate messages into Spanish or air ads on Spanish-language radio. To motivate Latinos to turn out on Election Day, they say organizers need to meet them face to face now.

“You want to make sure your message is resonating,” said Denise López, Nevada campaign director for the Washington-based Reproductive Freedom for All, which is canvassing in Spanish for several states’ measures. “The way that we reach them is by gaining trust, using messages that will reach them and terminology they will understand.”

The strategy gets more complicated for reasons of culture, religion and heritage. In communities with roots in Puerto Rico, Cuba, Colombia and Venezuela, views often reflect the status of abortion in those places. In Puerto Rico and Cuba, it is legal. In many Central and South American countries, it is outlawed.

Canvassers were initially wary of abortion stigma among Arizona’s mostly Mexican American communities, “the historic demonizing of the word ‘abortion’,” Gallardo said. Women often avoid even using the word aborto, talking around it in Spanish with phrases like “no se logró” — meaning, a pregnancy couldn’t happen.

During its recent outreach, however, the group found people more willing to directly address the issue. “We know that when an individual makes a decision to embark on an abortion journey, it’s not simple,” Gallardo said.

Florida’s 2.4 million Latino voters make up 18 percent of the state’s electorate, according to NALEO, and a recent Fox News poll showed more than two-thirds are in favor of Amendment 4. With the poll indicating equally strong support among voters overall, proponents believe they could have well above the 60 percent required for the amendment to succeed this fall.

In Florida, a constitutional amendment to protect abortion is on the ballot this fall. Mi Vecino is courting Latinos for crucial support. (Video: Reshma Kirpalani/The Washington Post)

In the same apartment complex where Vargas lives, Naomi Rojas is another supporter. The 20-year-old social work student, a Democrat who is Puerto Rican-Dominican, told the canvassers that she had a recent pregnancy scare and wants to ensure access to abortion. She has been trying to persuade her mother, a conservative Christian, to vote yes, too.

“At one point we lived in a shelter, and we saw a lot of women who had a lot of issues. A lot of them were not ready to be mothers,” she said.

Since last summer, Mi Vecino says it has logged more than 100,000 conversations with Latino voters — exchanges that often flipped spontaneously between languages as personal stories were shared. The group’s internal polling, however, shows the campaign has yet to reach that critical threshold for passage. That makes the next four months critical, co-founder Devon Murphy-Anderson acknowledges. The biggest target is unaffiliated Latino voters (37 percent), who outnumber those identifying as Democrats (32 percent) or Republicans (29 percent).

“These are the voters that will make or break this amendment,” Murphy-Anderson noted. Many “have heard narratives in their communities about abortion and yet remain undecided about whether they would vote for a constitutional amendment to protect abortion for others even if they don’t believe in it for themselves.”

And while President Biden is pushing abortion rights nationally — with his campaign touting Spanish-language ads and billboards about abortion in places like Pennsylvania’s Route 222 Latino corridor — organizers here are keeping their distance from partisan politics to avoid alienating independent voters.

Alex Berrios, Mi Vecino’s other co-founder, says its pitch goes something like this: “You can still vote for [Donald] Trump and support rights for women. You may not like Biden and you may have no intention of voting for him, but you can still support this issue.”

Latino men have been particularly receptive to a message leveraging elements of traditional machismo, namely that the ballot measure is about limiting government interference in their right to protect their family and community. Of the 13,000 signatures that Mi Vecino gathered to get the amendment on the fall ballot, 70 percent came from men.

“This is about our role as men in the family,” said Berrios, a tattooed Cuban-Puerto Rican ex-boxer who helped craft how the conversation should go. “Protecting our mothers and daughters, people we care about, and giving them the right to make decisions.”

The group’s canvassers have focused on Central Florida’s 9th Congressional District, especially cities like Kissimmee, Poinciana and St. Cloud, where more than half the population is Latino, according to the most recent Census. Berrios joined the effort one day last month, knocking on doors near Kissimmee’s downtown and meeting 70-year-old Elena Moya.

Moya, a registered Democrat, is a seamstress who was born in the Dominican Republic. As a Catholic, she said in Spanish, she opposes abortion for religious reasons. “It’s a life. You have to consider that,” she added.

As Berrios listened, Moya allowed that some exceptions should be made to protect the life of the mother. The exchange, he’d say later, was fairly typical of what Mi Vecino staff hear while canvassing.

“Long conversations, a lot of honest opinions, just neighbors talking to neighbors,” he noted. “That’s what it felt like. That’s our goal.”

The next day, Mi Vecino canvassers visited a mobile home park in neighboring St. Cloud, where “Boricua” yard signs signaled deep Puerto Rican roots. Its team found reasons to be buoyed — and worried — by residents’ thoughts about abortion.

“You give the right to the women and the doctors,” said retired truck driver Roberto Torres Dias, who is 68 and a longtime Democrat.

“For me, it’s a crime, a sin,” said Luz Santos, speaking Spanish. The retired J.C. Penney clerk, 72, considers herself an Independent.

Such responses dovetailed with what canvasser Veronica Lucha has learned while discussing abortion in Latino communities: Women can be more difficult to reach than men — more cerradas and cuadradas, closed and inflexible. They often voice conflicted emotions — about the economics of having children and the beliefs of their faith.

“They think they are going to have problems with God,” said Lucha, who is a native of El Salvador and wears a cross and a Virgin of Guadalupe medallion.

She sometimes shares her own story with Latina voters, how she and her physician husband made the difficult decision years ago after she caught chickenpox when she was pregnant. She named the fetus after her father, Hectór.

“After I explain my experience, they say, ‘Oh, you’re right. You have another side of the story,’” she recounted at day’s end. “Before they thought it was a sin, something bad. But after, they see they could be in a similar situation.”

Latino voters’ willingness to discuss abortion at their doorsteps has surprised Ivanna González, a Venezuelan who was raised in Miami and serves as campaigns director for Florida Rising.

“When we started this campaign, we were like, ‘Oh my, is this something that we’re going to be able to talk to our community about?’” she said. “It’s a little bit of tempering the stigma that all of us carry.”

Florida Rising canvasser Dian Alarcón, a native of Colombia, was ringing doorbells a few weeks ago amid the maze of homes in Hialeah Gardens northwest of Miami. Cellphone in hand, she searched for specific addresses on NW 127th Terrace and adjacent NW 127th Street, sometimes doubling back beneath a canopy of palms swaying in the late afternoon breeze.

No one turned her away, though the opinions she heard — all in Spanish — were very mixed on Amendment 4.

Mara Leiva, who is 58 and Cuban American, told Alarcón she felt divided about abortion: “There are lots of contraceptives. A woman shouldn’t have to have an abortion.”

But her husband is an OB/GYN, so Leiva said she understands complications could lead some women to choose to abort a pregnancy rather than give birth to a baby who will suffer and die because of severe congenital anomalies.

“That’s why we say it’s a question between a woman and their doctor,” Alarcón said.

“Exactly!” Leiva replied. She hadn’t voted in 2020, she said, but now intended to go to the polls this fall, at least to support the abortion question.

The canvasser next approached a man arriving home from work, pickup loaded with supplies for his hurricane window and door business.

“If a woman is pregnant, she should have the baby. If you don’t want to be pregnant, take care of yourself,” responded Joan Valdés, 48, holding a keychain that features photos of his daughters, ages 26 and 18.

Valdés, who emigrated from Cuba eight years ago, also didn’t vote in the 2020 election but now plans to cast his ballot for Trump. Alarcón handed him a flier, then pressed the point about a woman’s right to make personal medical decisions with her doctor “without fear of criminal prosecution.”

“That’s why we want this amendment,” she continued, to prevent the criminalization of abortion for young women like his daughters.

“I didn’t understand,” he said, looking worried. “I don’t want them to go to jail.”

Alarcón smiled as she walked away, finished for the evening. She’d talked to 27 people that day, voters who she thought better understood the stakes now. Even those opposed, she believed, would make a more educated decision.

“You no longer have someone who is not informed,” she said, “but someone who is seeking to be informed, who is going to vote in an informed way, whether they vote in favor or against.”



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