In 1995, a 9-year-old Jess Morales Rocketto excitedly logged onto her parents AOL dial-up to look up the speech Hillary Clinton gave at the U.N. 4th World Conference on Women Plenary Session on September 5. Morales Rocketto absorbed everything – from the pink suit Clinton wore, to her empowering message about women’s importance in our society – and knew even then, that one day she’d work on her campaign. Now at 30, Morales Rocketto is living her childhood dream. “I told my mom I was going to be the first woman president – [unless] it was Hillary. [In that case], I was going to be the second woman president, and I was going to work for Hillary,” she said.
“I told my mom I was going to be the first woman president – [unless] it was Hillary.”
“Hillary’s been my hero since I was a very small child,” she told me during my recent visit to Hillary For America’s Brooklyn headquarters. “I recall looking up this speech. Like, it was so transformative for me. I didn’t know another woman like that in my own life. [The women in my family are] incredibly powerful, but it was within our family sphere. But I just didn’t know anyone who was powerful like that, on world stages.”
Outside of the conference room where Morales and eight other Latino HFA staffers shared stories with me, another 600 campaign staffers sat spread out across two floors. I was at the bustling headquarters to hear what drew these young Latino staffers to Hillary as a candidate, what it’s been like working on this historic campaign, and how they are working to win over young Latino voters – a demographic that has proved challenging for Clinton. While Donald Trump’s repeated attacks on immigrants, women, Muslims, and other minorities have made him very unpopular with young voters – including Latino millennials – many millennials remain unimpressed with their options in this election.
A recent Pew Research Center poll found that the share of Latino registered voters who say they are “absolutely certain” they will vote next month is down, with the sharpest decline among Latino millennials. As The Washington Post reports, the Pew poll finds that just 62 percent say they are absolutely certain to vote this year, compared with 74 percent in 2012. Moreover, almost two-thirds of Latino millennials who support Clinton said their support is more a vote against Trump than a vote for her. These polling results are not necessarily definitive – the difficulty in accurately polling US Latinos has been well-documented. However, they point to a challenge that the Democratic nominee must overcome as she heads into the final stretch of this election.
Every 30 seconds, a Latino in the US turns 18 and becomes eligible to vote. But the voter turnout rate among Latino millennials trails that of other millennial groups – in 2012, just 37.8% of Latino millennials voted compared to 47.5% of white millennials and 55% of African-American millennials. How will the Clinton campaign galvanize this heterogenous young group?
There are far more than nine Latinos working on the HFA campaign both in Brooklyn and across the United States, but the group assembled before me last week was fairly representative of our demographic overall. With an average age of 28.6, they’re collectively just about the median age (29) of US Latinos in the United States – one of the youngest ethnic groups in the country. Hailing from all corners of the US and with roots in Mexico, El Salvador, Uruguay, Dominican Republic, Peru, and other countries, they joined the Clinton campaign for different reasons, many of which were intensely personal. As they shared their stories with me, several broke down in tears, revealing the many challenges young Latinos in this country still face, and how high the stakes are in this election.
For Latino Vote Director Lorella Praeli – who has actively fought for protections for undocumented youth and parents, like her own, with United We Dream – it was immigration policy that made her feel she could no longer continue doing nonpartisan work. “It was about holding everyone accountable on behalf of your community,” she said about her previous job. “When the elections started, we had worked so hard for Deferred Action for Parents of Americans, so that five million people, parents, could have relief from deportation, and at that point, my mom qualified for it, and so many of my friends’ parents qualified for it, or would have been eligible for it. And then Republicans across the country organized the lawsuit, and we have a nationwide injunction because of that. So in that moment, it was very clear to me, it’s like, well, they’re not the same. I want to take a side, and I think these elections are so important for that reason.”
“They’re not the same. I want to take a side.”
Immigration’s an important issue, of course, as Praeli, Regional Digital Director Nichole Sessego, and Deputy Latino Vote Director Jason Rodriguez explain when choking up about their own families, but it’s hardly the only issue that came up during our conversation. So while Policy Adviser Andrea Flores applauds Clinton for making DREAMers an integral part of her campaign since day one, and for her unwavering position on immigration throughout the election, the law student – who actually took a break from her studies to join this campaign – also notes that it’s inspiring to work for a woman with such deep knowledge of policy. “Having the opportunity to work for the biggest policy wonk of them all has been really incredible,” Flores said.
Paola Ramos, deputy national director of Hispanic press, echoes these thoughts, and adds that when it comes to the bigger picture, Clinton “gets that whole vision.” Ramos – who worked on Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, and is famed journalist Jorge Ramos’s daughter – says Clinton’s the person who will move the country forward. “I think she’s the person that will take this country a little bit further,” Ramos said. “And make us a little bit more equal and make us a little bit more just. You need someone like her. And she’s the one that’s going to take us there.”
During the second presidential debate on October 9, one undecided voter asked Clinton and Trump about how they’d handle the Affordable Care Act. Trump once again said that he’d repeal it and replace it with something more functional. But Clinton argued that this would mean losing the benefits that already exist and starting from scratch – something that some families can’t afford. It’s a future that Paola Luisi – who along with Samy Olivares is Hillary Clinton’s voice in Spanish – and her family can’t afford. When asked why she joined the Clinton campaign, Luisi took a deep breath before her voice got shaky.
“I’m trying to tell my sister’s story,” she said, before Jess Morales Rocketto jumped into summarize why Luisi is fighting so hard, even as she faced her own health concerns. This year, Luisi had a tumor removed from her face, but it’s when talking about her younger sister, Elena, that she breaks down and cries. Elena has Wilson’s Disease – an incurable disorder that causes too much copper to build in the organs. It can be treated through medication. As Luisi explained in a blog post at the beginning of the year, because her sister has good health insurance, she pays just $10 a month. A year before Elena’s diagnosis, Valeant Pharmaceuticals bought the life-saving medicine Syprine and raised the price dramatically, to just shy of $30,000. In Canada, the same medicine costs about $100.
“To have to spend hours on the phone fighting with these insurance companies, it takes a lot out of you.”
So while Trump talks about repealing a health care system that made it illegal to deny coverage based on pre-existing conditions, Clinton has lambasted companies for the predatory practices that have for too long prevailed in the pharmaceutical industry. “One thing is to talk about health care policy, and then another is to demonstrate the incredible amount of nuance that you need to know to take these companies on,” she said. “I’ve seen my sister come back from being paralyzed. I’ve seen her, you know, go through so many times. And to have to spend hours on the phone fighting with these insurance companies, it takes a lot out of you.”
The issues they care about closely align with what Latinos as a whole feel invested in, according to a recent Pew Research study. And because we’re not just concerned with immigration, it makes sense that these staffers aren’t limited to just roles that deal with Latino outreach. They work in different departments as policy advisers and data analysts. But with more than 27 million eligible voters this election season, the importance of Latino outreach cannot be overstated. It’s only just recently that politicians have actively sought the Latino vote, and as Paola Luisi explains, there “isn’t a guidebook out there on how to do this.”
Last year, this team released an article likening the presidential candidates to our abuelitas. The post didn’t go over well, and accusations of Hispandering poured in. And while some critics believe that everything Clinton does reeks of Hispandering, it’s an unfair assumption that doesn’t look at the amount of work that goes in from our own community members who work on this campaign, and who juggle a variety of complex considerations when trying best speak to our diverse Latino population. This campaign has considered everything from the platforms Latinos prefer to the differences in Spanish from country to country to the fact that young Latinos speak more English than Spanish at home. But really, they’re trying a little bit of everything. While communicating bilingually is necessary, they’re trying to push the envelope in Spanish as well. “LGBT issues, that’s something that’s a little taboo in our community for older Spanish-speaking folks,” Luisi said. “So it’s interesting on my end as well to push a lot of LGBT stuff in Spanish as well, and to make that sure that we are just accessible to everybody. But I guess sometimes if you only see one piece of content, it’s very easy to draw the conclusion that that’s the only way we are speaking to an incredibly diverse community.”
“[Trump] has no Latino strategy.”
Some have credited Clinton for her use of the word Latino. Meanwhile, on the other side is a man who’s now referring to us as ‘the Latinos Hispanics.’ “He goes out and says ‘the Latinos,’ but then he goes to Arizona and gives a speech basically saying you guys mean nothing to our country,” said Coalitions Press Director Xochitl Hinojosa. “He has no Latino strategy. He does not, is not even attempting to speak to the community. There’s a stark difference between the two.”
As Election Day nears, HFA staffers are heading out to different parts of the country. As they leave behind pennant banners made up of Latin American flags and other knick knacks that represent their culture, they’ll arrive at battleground states to make one final push for Clinton. In a time when some still firmly assert that they can’t support Clinton, the people who have dedicated more than a year to this campaign have one clear message.
“I would tell my Bernie friends – and I have many of them, I have them in my family – the Latino community’s place in this country is not guaranteed and our future is not guaranteed,” Andrea Flores said. “What Trump said in June 2015 is what people still believe, which is that Mexicans, broadly, inclusive of all Latinos, are bringing down our country. And Republicans did not disavow him then, and we still have a candidate who’s normalizing this hatred against the Latino community. And I think it is immigrants and Latinos alike. Look at our history. Our presence has always been questioned.”