'A good villain': Trump aids Latino activists in trying to turn Arizona blue

Richard Estrada, born in the United States, experienced his share of bigotry as a teen. He felt pressure not to speak Spanish. His white high school classmates in Tucson taunted him as "Rico Suave," the name of a 1990 Spanglish hit by an Ecuadorean singer.

But that was mild compared to what he sees as institutional bigotry today facing his three young children in Arizona, the modern-day epicenter of the nation's immigration wars.

"There's an angst, an anxiety in the air," he said.

So Estrada has dedicated much of his life to making the state more hospitable for his children and other people of color. The 40-year-old logs dozens of hours every week registering voters, urging them to vote in Tuesday's state primary and convincing them whom they elect matters.

Republican front-runner Donald Trump and his incendiary rhetoric — build a wall, deport everyone here illegally — are helping the cause, Estrada said.

"A good villain is a terrible thing to waste in Latino politics," said Antonio Gonzalez, president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project.

Estrada is a volunteer for one of several groups aiming to register 3 million new Latino voters across the nation by November.

Political experts have predicted that historically conservative Arizona would eventually turn into a swing state and possibly a Democratic one because of changing demographics. No one thought the shift would occur any time soon.

The Latino population is 30.5% of the total and growing. But Latinos vote less frequently than their white counterparts; they make up 17% of the state's registered voters, according to the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

If Trump is the Republican nominee, "people are actually saying Arizona could be competitive this year," said Rep. Ruben Gallego, a Democrat who represents Phoenix and its suburbs. Previously "many of us thought that maybe in 2020 we would be a purplish swing state."

Latinos here have been particularly receptive to the get-out-the-vote efforts because many have lived through some of the toughest anti-immigration laws passed in recent years in this country.

Officials and the electorate mandated workplace raids and empowered police to detain those they suspected of being in the country illegally. They required noncitizens to carry papers to prove they were in the country legally, and new voters to show proof of citizenship to register.

Many of these provisions have been struck down by the courts, but the tension and fear they created persist.

Arizona's politicians — notably former Gov. Jan Brewer and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio — gained national fame because of their hard-line approach to immigration policy, long before Trump was a presidential candidate. Both have endorsed him and campaigned with him Saturday.

Arizona is going through what California experienced two decades ago during the battle over Proposition 187, which would have ended many taxpayer-funded state services to those in the country illegally. Voters approved the measure in 1994, but it was nullified by the courts.

The aftermath — growing Latino clout at the ballot box — is among the factors that turned California, a once-red state home to Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, into a cobalt blue state that last elected a Republican statewide a decade ago.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, whose father is Mexican American, said he sees the similarities.

"People are mobilizing," he said in an interview after rallying volunteers at a Phoenix phone bank for Hillary Clinton, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. "The abuelas are like, 'It's finally time to become citizens,' and I think that's going to be a force in a lot of states, in places like Colorado and places like Arizona, some that have been in play for a long time and some that haven't."

Organizers are taking a three-pronged approach: persuading legal residents to apply for citizenship, registering citizens to vote and urging those who are registered but don't participate to head to the ballot box. Nearly half a million Latinos in Arizona fall into the first two categories, according to another group, Mi Familia Vota.

Last week, Estrada targeted registered voters in a working-class neighborhood here who had not recently cast ballots. Few were home or answered their doors, temperatures topped 90 degrees, and there were growling dogs to avoid.

Estrada barreled on in his two-decade-old Jeep, eventually meeting Jocelyn Balderas as she parked in front of her mother's modest red-brick home.

Balderas, a 29-year-old citizen whose parents emigrated from the Mexican state of San Luis Potosi, registered to vote years ago but has never been to the polls. Clutching the hand of her 9-year-old son, she promised Estrada that she would vote in the primary. She wasn't sure whom she would support, but said she was motivated by whom she wants to stop: Trump.

"He says he's not a racist," she fumed before pointing to the Manhattan businessman's charge that illegal immigrants from Mexico were "criminals, drug dealers, rapists."

"This is the year I am going to vote," Balderas said, "because I want to get Trump out."

Estrada beamed.

"Thank you for doing your civic duty. It matters," he said.

His children's future in a state that has been home to three generations of his family motivates Estrada, who works as a caterer and house remodeler.

His parents, who held dual citizenship, lived in Nogales, Mexico, and attended elementary schools in the U.S. border town of the same name. People easily traveled between the two nations then.

In the 1950s, their families moved to the same block of Pajarito Street in Nogales, Ariz. They met, wed and moved to Tucson, where they had Estrada and a daughter. When they were young, Estrada and his sister spent summers in Mexico with relatives.

Then came the crackdowns, leading some Latinos to flee the state. Estrada's family never seriously considered leaving Arizona.

During the height of the workplace raids, the population in the elementary school his son attended shrank by a quarter because parents in the country illegally feared they would be separated from their American-born children. Entire families, including friends of the Estradas, packed up and left, abandoning their belongings, he said.

Estrada feared being mistaken for an illegal immigrant and worried that he could be detained and separated from his family. He's had talks with his 11-year-old son to always be respectful of police and to submit to their requests.

"I worry," he said. "I hope to do all I can to make sure everything is OK for them."


Twitter: @LATSeema

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on March 21, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Latinos in Arizona get out the vote - Trump immigrant comments helping cause, activist says" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe