Bilingual caucus locations historic first for Latino voters in Iowa
A "united for Bernie" family getting ready to caucus in Iowa. | Al Neal/PW

DES MOINES—Iowa is small. Iowa is 90 percent white. It has no professional sports team, only four major college teams, and supplies seven percent of our nation’s food. And yet, the land of the Rolling Prairie plays an outsized role when it comes to national politics—in particular, the race for president every four years.

Iowa represents the heartland of America. A place where time, for the most part, seems to have slowed down. It’s a place where you’d go for a taste of midwestern kindness, cold cheap beer, and to experience the now questionable old-timey social and political values.

It’s our parents’ memory of what America was when they were young, and blissfully ignorant of the underlying racism and prejudice in their parents’, our grandparents’, ever so polite nature.

Of course, time waits for no one, and the face of Iowa is changing rapidly.

As the countdown to election day, 2020 began—in reality, the countdown to Iowa Caucus 2020—Democratic presidential hopefuls began courting Iowa voters often. Last year in August, candidates had a microphone in one hand, the other stretched out as far as possible towards the throng of Iowans, and stood on varying soapbox alternatives, making their case for the White House.

Turkey legs, deep-fried everything, and cowboy boots, while silly at first to picture, is the best place for candidates to get one-on-one face time with voters in the state who will decide first. But goofy photo ops and carnival games will only go so far in the cutthroat world of electoral politics. Candidates need to do more and reach out to all voting communities.

For Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), that meant focusing his campaign’s outreach efforts into the growing Iowa Latino community. By July of 2019, his campaign was sending out Spanish-language campaign literature, and the months leading up to the Feb. 3 caucus, Latino voters have seen targeted snail-mail, social media ads, and phone calls.

Sanders’s campaign wasn’t the only one to have similar outreach efforts, but “Feel the Bern” ground operation here has had the most consistent impact. And any savvy political organizer and operative will know to never discount the might of a militant minority.

As of today, 70 percent of voting-age Latino Iowans are registered to vote and will represent one out of every four caucusgoers—in a small state, small city, the grassroots push ensures Latino voices would be heard at the statewide caucuses.

Spokespeople for the Latino communities in Iowa were not exaggerating when they appeared on cable TV shows last night and said their communities would have a real impact on the results in a state that the media repeatedly emphasized was “90 percent white.”

Statewide, Latinos make up 6.2 percent of its total population, and as of July 1, 2018, it makes people of Hispanic or Latino origin the largest ethnic minority group.

Their activism and determination led to the installation of bilingual satellite caucus locations for this year’s Democratic nominee decision night—the first of its kind in Iowa caucus history.

The Iowa sky was fairly dark and mostly grey throughout the day, and by the time 6:30 p.m. arrived, the moment the caucus doors opened, the only noticeable change was the chill in the air.

The parking lot outside the South Suburban YMCA was filling up quickly. Parents carried, or dragged their kids behind them, younger voters chatted excitedly about their first-time caucusing, and as you entered the community recreation center, your senses were overwhelmed with the sounds and sights of a politically electrified room.

All signage was in Spanish and English, and caucus volunteers, huddled together, went over last-minute prep, and patiently answered attendees’ questions. Inside the basketball court, Spanish news media crews were set up along the far back wall. Bernie supporters worked quickly to post up “Unidos con Bernie” posters on their side of the court. By 7:00 p.m. the hallway outside the court was lined with people waiting to get signed in, or registered.

As I made my way up the line, I was stopped by Isabel Martinez-Santos, a volunteer and Bernie Sanders supporter. Her job was to make sure the press went one way, and caucusgoers another.

“Are you excited about tonight?” I asked.

“I am very, very excited…this is my first-time caucusing, I have voted before but this is my first caucus,” she said. “I have always been involved in my community and with other progressive organizations, but this is my first, and I think it’s very important.

“As a result of all the injustices happening, and the government taking advantage of so many people, I become more and more active and supportive of people who raise their voices.”

“What was the one issue that moved you personally?”

“There are so many issues, but at this time, as a mother and immigrant, as a woman, I care about immigration, women’s rights, free education, and healthcare for everyone. I moved here from Mexico, and Trump’s immigration policies have affected me personally, mentally, and emotionally,” she continued.

“We can’t let him keep getting away with it, which is why my preferred candidate is the one who dared to speak up for those that are vulnerable, who has the guts to take a look at the bigger issues we face, he’s Bernie.”

Our conversation was cut short as another volunteer pulled Martinez-Santos out of her current assignment and into another one. I snaked my way through the crowd, seeing the glimmer of hope, and glinting excitement in the eyes of every Latino face as they shuffled forward in line—me tapping my foot with the rhythm of Cumbia music blaring from the Bluetooth speakers.

White plastic fold-up tables and chairs were filled with volunteers checking voter registration—registering those who weren’t already, and explaining what would happen in the next hour.

Almost instinctively, Bernie supporters made their way immediately to their section—chanting, “Tío Bernie! Tío Bernie!” They wanted to get it done and ensure Bernie took Iowa.

I counted three Biden supporters, two for Buttigieg, three or four for Warren, one for Klobuchar, and two for Biden. I had expected to see teams of campaign staff representing each candidate out in force, their mission to realign voters to their side. Strangely enough, though, only Sanders and Buttigieg had representation. It made me wonder why now, at this critical moment, candidates would choose to forget their Latino voting base.

Did they just assume all Latino voters they reached out to would automatically vote for them on election day? Did they lose faith in their turnout potential?

So many questions lacking appropriate answers.

The caucus was loud, fast-paced, and over in record time. By 7:45 p.m. Bernie Sanders became the only viable candidate at this caucus location and won the maximum number of Latino delegates: Nine.

As the crowds dwindled, parents heading home to put the kids in bed, while others set off to join the Sanders caucus watch party, I made my way over back to the folding tables. There I met and spoke with Caucus chairperson Marlu Abraca—it was her second time caucusing, first time chairing.

“So, a pretty obvious question, but now that Bernie won here, how do you feel?”

“I’m tired, I’ve been stressed out about this process,” she said. “I caucused for Bernie in this count (but as chair) I tried my best to reach out to all the candidates so that my community has every (political) option available to them.”

Iowa caucus goers for Bernie join the thousands who began the electoral battle against Trump in Iowa last night. | Al Neal/PW

Abraca continued: “Candidates were given time to speak tonight…unfortunately, my community was not able to hear from all the candidates running for office, had they (candidates) been here, I’m pretty sure folks would have realigned their vote.

I’m a bit disappointed, but so elated, that I think I’ll cry when I get home because I’m just so happy we had such a huge turnout when there were people in the Democratic Party who heard about this site and did not think anyone would show up—I should add this is the first time the Democratic Party has created a Spanish-speaking caucus site.”

“Why do you think the candidates didn’t send staffers?” I asked.

“You know, I think they may have also heard the Democratic Party rumor no one was going to show up, so maybe they thought, “Eh, not worth the effort to send someone’ or I could also see the issue of not having enough staff, like Bernie—who has a large following in the Latino community since 2016, after all the great work he did—the other campaigns might not have been able to keep up with those kinds of resources,” said Abraca.

“You’d think they wouldn’t want to miss such a historic moment?”

With a hand on her chin, she answered thoughtfully: “Who knows, but what I do know is that this is a pivotal moment for the Latino community here, because, at some point in time, someone told them that their voices didn’t matter…what we’re doing today is changing minds and showing them that they truly have a voice, that we can get the max amount of delegates in our first try, and that together we can change politics to benefit all of us.”

Iowa caucus night 2020 ended on a high note for many Iowans.

And despite the ensuing chaos and confusion—thanks to a faulty mobile phone app—this historic moment will truly be the first of many for the proud and active Latino community of the Rolling Prairie state.


Al Neal
Al Neal

Award winning journalist Al Neal is PW associate editor for labor and politics. He is also the chief photographer for People's World. He is a member of the Chicago News Guild, Society of Professional Journalists, Professional Photographers of America, National Sports Media Association, and The Ernest Brooks Foundation.