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Sanders Looks To Latino Voters To Deliver Victory In California Primary

A person stands up and gestures towards rows of people sitting in folding chairs in a living room with yellow walls.
Peter Hirschfeld
Violetta Alvarez, left, talks to fellow Sanders volunteers at a strategy party in southeast Los Angeles. Sanders' campaign has invested substantial resources in predominantly Latino communities in Los Angeles.

California will hold the nation’s largest presidential primary on Tuesday, and the path to victory for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders runs through Los Angeles County, according to campaign staffers there.

Sanders’ success in southern California hinges on the Latino voters who hold sway in the region, and his campaign is investing substantial resources in predominantly Latino communities.

A local field office on South Atlantic Road in East Lost Angeles is housed in a little strip mall, right between a taco shop and a Peruvian restaurant. Last Friday, 10 days before Super Tuesday, field director Daniel Andalon tried to energize a dozen or so staffers who’ve been working around-the-clock for weeks.

“Greatness comes from sacrifice,” Andalon told his staff. “And sacrifice means putting it all on the line, sacrifice means leaving our families for hours and hours a day, sacrifice means not having a date night — you know with my wife — for a few months already."

A person stands and points in front of a white board.
Credit Peter Hirschfeld / VPR
Daniel Andalon, director at the Sanders campaign field office in East Los Angeles, talks to staffers 10 days before the California primary.

The urgency in Los Angeles is understandable: California awards more delegates than any other state in the country. And the winner of California’s Democratic primary has gone on to win the nomination in each of the last eight presidential cycles.

Lewis Myers, the other field director at this office, told staffers they are the masters of destiny.

“We put it all on the line until March 3,” Myers said. “Bernie wins Los Angeles County … Bernie wins California. Bernie wins California Bernie wins California, 416 delegates Bernie wins the nomination.”

Myers and Andalon, both lifelong Angelenos, said this East Los Angeles field office, the first one the campaign opened in California, is in place known for being “the birth of the Chicano Movement.”

Myers said that wasn’t by accident. Sanders’ populist message is ready made for the Latino voters who make up nearly 50% of the population in Los Angeles County, he said.  

“Nationally, there’s a commonality in the issues that concern all of us as parents, as family, as friends,” Myers said. “But it is unique in … East LA, and in communities of color. And Bernie has been very intentional about talking to folks in these communities, to empower them, to reengage them, to activate the inactive.”

A person wearing a blue shirt stands up in a blue-walled living room.
Credit Peter Hirschfeld / VPR
Nancy Martiz hosts a strategy party for fellow Sanders supporters at her home in southeast Los Angeles.

That grassroots activation is taking root in places like nearby Huntington Park, where Nancy Martiz hosted a strategy party for fellow Sanders enthusiasts at her single-story bungalow.

Martiz, 33, wore a blue t-shirt with the words, ‘Unidos con Bernie.’ She’s spent much of February volunteering for the Sanders campaign.

“Southeast LA, we definitely are a Latino, predominantly Latino, working-class community, very family-oriented,” Martiz said. “We’re a gateway for a lot of folks arriving to the U.S., a lot of folks coming to Los Angeles, especially as immigrants. I grew up, you know, with my parents always housing folks just migrating to the U.S., needing a landing spot.”

Martiz said that cultural heritage defines the political mood in LA these days. And she said a 78-year-old white guy from Vermont has tapped into the moment.

“Everything Bernie talks about, it’s right up our alley,” Martiz said. “The immigrant issues, the minimum wage issues, the health care issues — these are all things that we lack here.”

Silvia Tolentino arrived at Martiz’s house with her teenage daughter in tow. Tolentino is a public school teacher, and also what people in the Sanders universe refer to as a “super volunteer.”

“So as soon as I get out of work, I get on the phone and I start making phone calls,” Tolentino said.

"Everything Bernie talks about, it's right up our alley. The immigrant issues, the minimum wage issues, the health care issues — these are all things that we lack here." — Sanders supporter Nancy Martiz

Tolentino, who has also spent hours knocking on doors in Huntington Park and neighboring communities, said her political activism is newfound. Sanders, she said, is the first candidate that’s ever “called to" her.

“He’s just like me. He’s down to earth, just like we are. He doesn’t feel like he’s better than you,” Tolentino said. “He just feels so like, I feel at home when I see him. He’s just like an uncle to me.”

Jashin Liberto, another Sanders supporter at Martiz's strategy party, said Sanders’ support for undocumented immigrants has compelled her activism on his behalf.

“I think the sense of urgency for me is at this point extreme, because we’ve dealt with a lot of racism in Huntington Park,” Liberto said.

Martiz said residents in her community are also responding to Sanders’ environmental platform.

“There’s a lot of activism here, from the minute we’re growing up, fighting for clean air,” Martiz said. “That shared background is what is making this community finally, you know, rise up. Rise up and take our moments to … actually get out there and vote and select our representatives.”

A sign with a sun symbol and the words "Bienvenidos East Los Angeles."
Credit Peter Hirschfeld / VPR
This municipal sign uses Spanish to welcome visitors to east Los Angeles, where the majority of the population is Latino.

Adrian Pantoja, a professor of politics at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, has been analyzing the Latino electorate for the past 14 years. The scene that played out at Martiz’s house, Pantoja said, is happening across the country right now.

“Historically, Latinos have seen themselves as outsiders to politics,” Pantoja said. “They look at the candidate, someone like Bernie Sanders, who also claims to be an outsider, somebody that is not part of the political system, and that I think appeals to young Latinos: The idea that this guy is fighting the system from the outside.”

Pantoja, who’s also a senior analyst for an organization called “Latino Decisions,”said multiple recent polls, in both California and nationally, all point to the same trend.

“At this moment in time, it seems that there is a Latino electorate that is clearly in Bernie’s camp,” Pantoja said.

A person in a hat and Hawaiian shirt sits in a desk chair with a green blackboard in the backgroud.
Credit Peter Hirschfeld / VPR
Adrian Pantoja, a professor of politics at Pitzer College in Claremont, California specializes in the Latino electorate.

Pantoja said the Sanders campaign is seizing on that trend in California. The field office in East Los Angeles isn’t the only one in a Latino stronghold: Sanders also has offices in places like Pomona and the Inland Empire.

“These are pockets of communities that have large Latino populations, large populations that are also immigrant populations, populations that have been historically excluded from the political system,” Pantoja said.

And they are also populations that Sanders is pinning his hopes on as he seeks to retain his frontrunner status in the Democratic presidential primary.

Update 5:10 p.m. Feb. 27, 2020 This story has been updated to use the term "Latino" instead of "Latinx" when referring to a group of people identifying as of Latin American descent. While the initial term was intended to be gender-inclusive, upon further reflection and consultation with Associated Press guidelines, VPR has changed its references to the latter term.

This is the first of three reports VPR's Peter Hirschfeld will provide in the coming days about the Sanders campaign in southern California. Stay tuned and check back on our Campaign 2020 page for more.

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