Latinos make up only 1% of all local and federal elected officials, and that’s a big problem

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From states like Texas and Arizona to New Mexico and New York, the Hispanic vote is helping elect more Latinos.

Inside a banquet hall at the Corona Ranch and Rodeo Grounds, tired couples and little girls with long braids dance to the easy sway of ranchera music.

Election Day has turned into a sweaty-hot May night in Phoenix, and Carlos Garcia, the candidate everyone is here for, is waiting for the votes to be tallied. Standing under a puffy mulberry tree, he’s listening to campaign supporters swap stories and nursing his beer.

The historic race is still too close to call.

If elected, Garcia, a longtime human-rights activist, will become the first Mexican immigrant to serve on the Phoenix City Council. He’ll represent the fifth-largest and fastest-growing city in the nation. He’ll lead a Latino-majority district once known as the segregated part of town where Latinos and black families in Phoenix could own businesses and homes.

As if to ease nerves, Garcia directs the people crowded around him to a woman whose coal-black hair whispers against her shiny hoop earrings. She’s holding a piggy bank the size of a mango. It’s stamped: “Carlos for Phoenix Council District 8.”

“Tell them about the piggy bank,” Garcia says, nodding at Jacinta Gonzalez.

In 2016, Garcia, Gonzalez and other protesters set out to block a road leading to a Donald Trump campaign rally outside Phoenix. Gonzalez was arrested – by deputies of then-Sheriff Joe Arpaio, famous for being known as “America’s toughest sheriff” and for being held in criminal contempt of court for ignoring a federal judge’s order to stop racially profiling Latinos.

After deputies questioned Gonzalez about her citizenship, she sued and won a settlement. And she turned that money into something Garcia desperately needed, the thing many rising Latino candidates lack: campaign funding.

“We don’t have access to big donors, we don’t have access to corporations that are going to invest in his type of leadership, so we have to find other ways to support,” she says. “And so sometimes that’s litigation, sometimes that’s fundraisers, sometimes that’s car washes. We do whatever we’re able to do, because we need hope and we need the belief that we can actually do things differently. And we can change the culture of how people get to office and what people do when they’re there.”

Despite the nation’s ballooning Hispanic population, Latinos running and winning political offices across the U.S. are too often an anomaly. Even in Hispanic-majority districts, Latinos don’t run or win elections at the rates of their white counterparts, various studies show. Now, candidates such as Garcia – and his supporters – are looking to change that.

Nationally, there are an estimated 58.9 million Latinos, making up about 18.1% of the U.S. population and accounting for the nation’s second-largest ethnic group, after whites. Yet only about 6,700 elected officials are Latino, according to a 2018 analysis by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, or NALEO. That amounts to a political representation rate of 1.2% in local, state and federal elected offices.

When Garcia made his campaign public, most people didn’t expect him to win, and not just because of his anti-establishment background. Statistics are stacked against outsider Latino candidates as much as they are traditional ones.

But ahead of the 2020 presidential elections, Latinos across the U.S. have rallied against policies and rhetoric they feel target their community and are working to build momentum. Political activists are recruiting Latinx candidates to run in local and federal contests and aiming to win.

Latinos will need more than passion to reach political equity, said Angela Ocampo, a University of Michigan political science professor. Indeed, if Latinos continue to be elected at the same rate as they have in recent years, it will likely be more than 50 years before parity is reached, she said.

“It’s going to take a very long time,” Ocampo said. “It’s even worse when we look at gender, at Latina representation.”

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