How Latino Voters Lean in the PA primary

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In the 2008 democratic primaries so far, the percentage of the vote that is Latino has risen dramatically. In California, for example, Latino voter participation in the primary doubled over 2004, and in Texas it increased by 50 percent. Now, candidates are getting increasingly sophisticated in they way they’re targeting Hispanics.

As part of our occasional series, feet in two worlds, Martina Guzman traveled to Pennsylvania, which has a small – but growing – Latino population.

REPORTER: It’s a chilly Sunday evening in a predominantly Latino neighborhood in Allentown, Pennsylvania. A small group of Latinas is canvassing door to door reaching out to Hispanic women on behalf of the Clinton campaign.

[Walking sounds]

[Knocks at the door. Car beeping]

ERLINDA AGUIAR: we wanted to know if we could take a few moments of your time to just ask you a few questions. Are you a supporter of the Clinton campaign, or are you umm undecided?

HOMEOWNER: I’m undecided

REPORTER: Erlinda Aguiar was elected to Allentown’s school board in 2005. She is the only Salvadoran elected official in the state’s history. Loaded with Clinton campaign fliers, signs and clipboard, Aguiar walks down streets lined with modest three story row houses. Aguiar believes Hispanic women have been and will continue to be a major influence in campaigns.

ERLINDA AGUIAR: Because we know that as women and as latinas we have a very strong power. and that is the power to affect and influence everything that happened in our families and our neighborhoods.

REPORTER: for Elrlinda getting out the Hispanic women’s vote is about politics but it is also about changing public perception of Latinas.

ERLINDA AGUIAR: it’s rare when you see a movie or something in the media that really elevates women, especially Latina women I have to say. Every time i go see a movie it’s just about the same thing you know, the hot Latina with the guy and that’s all you do just go and have sex but there is no brain.

REPORTER: while Hispanic men go to the poles alone, Latinas will often take their entire families including grandmother’s sisters and daughters. Lydia Camarillo is vice president of the southwest voter registration education project in san Antonio Texas. she says this election season is the first time her non-partisan organization has specifically made an effort to register Hispanic women.

LYDIA CAMARILLO: what an opportunity for us to think about Latinas in America and how we organize, because we do think about the family, and so our slogan is: Cuando Vota Una Latina, Vota Una Familia, or When a Latina Votes, a Whole Family Votes.

REPORTER: several national studies show that Latinas out vote men, and it’s been consistent over two decades. Rooted in their interest in health care and education, Camarillo says Latinas are voting on behalf of their community and members of their family who can’t vote because they may be undocumented.

[Salsa music]

[Hum of hair dryer]

REPORTER: Latin music plays over the hum of the hair dryers at Ileanette’s salon in Allentown. The salon is more than a place to get a haircut; it’s a weekend gathering spot where Latinas come to relax, swap beauty tips and talk about politics.

REPORTER: Holding a hair dryer in one hand and comb in the other, the salons owner Illiana Antigua says she and a lot women she knows support Hillary Clinton.

ILEANA ANTIGUA: in a way we identify with her. We are hardworking people, just like she is. We want to get ahead, and she’s been getting ahead, working for what she wants, going after a goal.

[Women chatter]

REPORTER: A few blocks away from the beauty salon, Paula Gonzalez lives in one of Allentown’s Paula Gonzalez picturesque neighborhoods. Paula’s family is originally from Puerto Rico. Her impressive Tudor home, bought as a handyman special six years ago, is now the pride of the neighborhood preservation society. But what Paula is most proud of is that her home is used as gathering place for Latinas to discuss food, culture and community. Today’s conversation is not so much about empanadas, but about the candidates and whom women in the neighborhood are going to vote for in the primary election.

REPORTER: Lilia Santiago, is a member of the discussion group, she’s Puerto Rican and seems to be leaning toward with Barak Obama. She’s drawn to Obama’s personal story.

LILIA SANTIAGO: I think for me personally because I’ve struggled all my life. I think that I see him as a person who came from a struggle. And has gotten where he’s at. So to me he seems to be the more, the one that impresses me.

REPORTER: although Paula Gonzalez says it was difficult deciding whom to support she fears race will be Obama’s biggest challenge.

PAULA GONZALEZ: I just don’t see America as ready to vote for a black man, honestly. I think America is still to racist, I read recently that there are 38 racist groups in Pennsylvania.

LISSETTE LAHOZ: it’s just like for us Latinas, I’m damned twice. I’m damned because I’m a woman and I’m damned because I’m Latina.

REPORTER: Lissette Lahoz, who works in public health chimes in. the group of women sits around Paula’s dining room table and continues to talk over café con leche and pan dulce. The conversation about the emerging power of the Latina vote goes on for hours.

For WNYC I’m Martina Guzman

"Feet in Two Worlds" is a project of the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School, linking public radio and ethnic media, and reporting on New York's immigrant communities.