When Henry Hernandez thinks about why his farmworker parents came to the U.S. from Mexico, he can understand the Republicans’ point of view. “They’ve worked hard for everything they have,” he said, and they want to protect it by keeping taxes low.
“We have that work ethic: growth, growth growth.”
Hernandez and his four siblings realized their parents’ dream of upward mobility. “We all own our homes … We’re bilingual. We’re able to travel,” said Hernandez, 31, who runs a financial services company in the Central Washington city of Quincy.
At the same time, Hernandez likes the way Democrats are “more in favor of equality” and helping people who are trying to make it but struggling, like he’s sure his parents once were. If higher taxes make their lives easier, “I’m OK with it,” he said.
In other words, politics for Hernandez, who sees both sides to such a degree that he didn’t vote in the presidential race, is complicated.
And so it is, pollsters and pundits discovered as the presidential election results rolled in, for the country’s Latino population as a whole. President Donald Trump’s gains among Hispanic voters since 2016, particularly in Florida and parts of Texas, shocked many who assumed the opposite would happen given the president’s harsh rhetoric about immigrants.
Some argue too much was made of results in a couple of states. Nationwide, President-elect Joe Biden got around two-thirds of the Latino vote, according to polls. “Everyone talks about a blue wall. I see a brown wall,” Henry Muñoz III, founder of the activist group Momento Latino, said in a Zoom postelection news conference.
If so, the wall’s cracks are revealing. In Florida, many Cuban and Venezuelan Americans, who fled socialist regimes and reject any hint of the same, voted Republican.
And in Washington, home to the country’s 13th largest Hispanic population?
There’s little hard data, since polls concentrated on swing states. A survey conducted for The Associated Press capturing a small sample of the state’s Latinos found 73% supported Biden.
Washington’s more-than 1 million Latinos are overwhelmingly Mexican Americans, who have traditionally aligned with Democrats, said Jerry Garcia, a historian and vice president of the Sea Mar Museum of Chicano/a/Latino/a Culture.
Waves of 20th century organizing for farmworker rights and against the Vietnam War, which saw heavy Hispanic casualties, strengthened the alliance, Garcia said. And while he added the GOP might appeal to many Mexican Americans’ religiosity and social conservatism, he said the party’s stance on immigration has largely driven away a population that seen continuous migration into the U.S. since the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848.
A survey of 5,300 Latinos nationwide in the week before the election found 74% of Mexican Americans said they favored Biden — almost exactly matching the AP’s figure for Latinos in Washington, and the highest percentage in the national survey, beating out support for the Democratic ticket among Dominican Americans, Puerto Ricans, and people of Central and South American descent.
All the same, Trump made headway with Mexican Americans in South Texas. Garcia, who is Mexican American and a Democrat, said living under Trump made him constantly worry about being confronted with racism. Many of his relatives in Texas are Republicans. “I think it’s the environment they live in,” said the historian, noting Texas runs conservative.
Washington, of course, does not. Like many, Garcia guesses most Latinos here supported Biden. But, he said, acknowledging the political divisions in the state, “In Eastern Washington, I have no doubt, you have a significant number of Latinos who are Republican.”
Even in Western Washington, Latino Trump supporters can be found, like Olga Gonzales Farnam, a Snohomish resident, third-generation Mexican American and vice chair of the state Republican Party. Farnam, 60, said she became a Republican as a teenager, listening to then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan on the radio talk about self-reliance, personal responsibility and law and order. It resonated.
Choosing a party
Living in conservative Eastern Washington was a big factor for state Rep. Alex Ybarra of Quincy, he said.
A former school board member, Ybarra, 59, said he had no partisan identity when Republican Rep. Matt Manweller’s resignation opened up a seat in the 13th District. To be considered for an appointment, Ybarra had to choose a party.
“Well, I’m Catholic. I’m against abortion,” he reasoned. That and the local political climate led him to the GOP. Ybarra took office in 2019, making him, he said, the only person of color in the Legislature who’s a Republican.
He said he has been labeled racist because of his party affiliation, and called a Tio Taco, or Uncle Tom. “It was really kind of funny,” he said. His brother reminded him he’d been called worse slurs growing up as Mexican American in Quincy, where beginning in third grade he helped his parents in the fields by chopping weeds all day in sometimes 100-degree heat.
His mother told her six kids if they didn’t want to do that for the rest of their lives, they needed to go to college, and they all did. Ybarra eventually earned a bachelor of science and an MBA, worked for a rocket company and then for many years as an energy analyst and auditor for the Grant County Public Utility District.
Ybarra voted for Trump twice, he said, simply because the president was the GOP’s standard-bearer. And what of Trump’s immigration policies and rhetoric, like calling Mexican migrants criminals and rapists?
“I went back and looked at some of the videos, trying to understand what he was trying to say,” Ybarra said. “I gave him the benefit of the doubt.”
Ybarra concluded Trump was referring to only a small portion of migrants who are smuggling drugs and engaged in other illegal activity. And Ybarra sees Trump’s immigration policies as an attempt to fix a broken system, even though the legislator’s own views don’t necessarily track with the president’s.
While Trump declared nobody here illegally was exempt from deportation, criminal or not, Ybarra said that for the many undocumented immigrants who work hard and are great citizens, there should be a way to stay in the U.S.
The Rev. Hilario Garza, superintendent of the Assemblies of God Northwest Hispanic District, which has some 60 churches in Washington and Oregon, also has nuanced views on immigration that did not dissuade him from voting for Trump.
He’s in favor of a wall to stop illegal immigration, and drug-dealing and violence that spill across the border. But Gar
Garza said he’d like to see undocumented immigrants who are “in their hearts and minds U.S. citizens” be allowed to pay a penalty and given a path to residency. Also, he said, “we thank God for DACA,” referring to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which gives temporary legal status to people who came as children.
Trump tried to end the Obama-era program and was blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court. Garza said the president was trying to get Congress to act, rather than having these young people depend on the executive action that created DACA.
Immigration, however, seemed to play a small role in Garza’s mind when it came to the election. “First and foremost,” he said, was “Biblical values.” In particular, he said he was motivated by concerns about abortion.
While Trump once described himself as pro-choice, as a candidate and president, he declared himself anti-abortion.
The freedom to worship in church was also important to Garza, he said, alluding to restrictions on religious gatherings due to COVID-19, supported more by Democrats then Republicans. What’s more, he said, “people want to get back to work.”
According to the national pre-election survey, conducted by several research firms including Latino Decisions, the pandemic was the top issue for Hispanics in the election, followed by jobs and the economy, and health care costs. Those issues pushed immigration, which had been the top concern “forever,” lower down, according to Latino Decisions co-founder Gary Segura.
The majority, however, came at it from a different angle than Garza. Roughly two-thirds agreed with the statement: “President Trump ignored the early warning signs of coronavirus and because of his mismanagement, millions of Americans became sick and more than 220,000 died.”
“My dad still works in the fields,” said Lina Alvarez, a financial planner who lives in the small Southwest Washington city of Washougal. One of his co-workers died of COVID-19.
Alvarez said she liked the Democratic approach of trusting science and helping everyone, including undocumented immigrants, for whom Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee created a $40 million state relief fund.
Alma Chacón, executive director of the Community for the Advancement of Family Education in Wenatchee, cited “all the people who have died” when she said of the Trump administration: “I’ve never felt so angry before in my life.”
Other reasons, Chacón said, include Trump’s family separation policy that locked up children as well as their parents after crossing the border, and the president’s perceived lack of respect for African Americans, women and people in general.
Alvarez, who sits on the state Commission on Hispanic Affairs, but stressed she was speaking as an individual, recounted being at a gas station in Wapato when a white person assumed she couldn’t speak English and told her, in broken Spanish, that her driving was bad and she should go back where she came from. “I attribute a lot of this to Trump,” said Alvarez, born and raised in Yakima.
Yakima grocery store owner and longtime Democrat Luz Bazán Gutiérrez said the left has problems, too, in relation to Latinos. Everything’s about Black people and white people, and Hispanics get ignored, she said.
For that reason, 50 years ago when living in Texas, she and then husband José Angel Gutiérrez founded a new Chicano-centric party called La Raza Unida. It ran candidates and spread to several other states (though not Washington) before eventually fizzling.
When Democrats do talk about Latinos, Gutiérrez said, “It’s all about the farmworker. Of course, we all care about the farmworkers, and respect and value their work. But it’s more than that.”
Many Latinos, she pointed out, are small-business owners. “Economic development is super important.”
Both the Biden and Trump campaigns targeted Latinos with Spanish-language advertising, but to Gutiérrez, the outreach was insufficient. After everybody processes this election and looks toward the next, she wondered, “Are we going to be ignored again?”