Column: How Latino voters in the recall election set up a winning model for the midterms

Demonstrators hold "Yes to citizenship" signs at a march
Immigrant rights activist Angélica Salas, center in black mask, at a Sept. 18 march near MacArthur Park in L.A.
(Jean Guerrero / Los Angeles Times)

If anyone will close the curtain on Trumpism, it will be people like Angélica Salas. She’s a 50-year-old Latina matriarch and immigrant rights activist who helped save Gov. Gavin Newsom in the recall election.

Salas crossed the border from Mexico as an unaccompanied child 45 years ago, and this year, she set a national example for how Latinos can defeat white supremacy at the ballot box.

As executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles, or CHIRLA, Salas knew early on that the Republican recall was an attack on Newsom’s pro-Latino policies. It paralleled the 2003 recall of Gov. Gray Davis, who was demonized by nativists for approving driver’s licenses for undocumented people.


But while Davis rarely and reluctantly supported Latinos, Newsom acted boldly on behalf of the community, nominating Latinos for key leadership positions and securing numerous benefits for the undocumented.

For Salas, there was no question: Latinos had to rescue Newsom. The CHIRLA Action Fund, a political arm of her immigrant rights group, began organizing Latinos against the recall in April — months before Newsom’s campaign kicked into full gear. The takeaway would be simple, Salas told me: “Politicians who stand with immigrant communities, with the Latino community, are going to be rewarded at the polls.”

The campaign knocked on more than 150,000 doors and made 300,000 calls. With the Million Voters Project Action Fund, which includes other grassroots organizations, they reached nearly a million Californians. All-day radio marathons targeted Latinos in the Central Valley.

It worked. Data from the UCLA Latino Policy & Politics Initiative shows Latinos strongly led rejection of the recall — even in traditionally red areas such as Orange County, where more than 80% of Latinos voted no. In parts of the Central Valley, Latinos voted opposite to whites. In Merced County, 75% percent of white voters chose yes, and 75% of Latino voters chose no.

“People underestimated our sophisticated analysis of who’s with us and who’s not,” Salas told me, noting that bilingual Latino families saw hypocrisy in Republican front-runner Larry Elder — disparaging them in English while trying to connect with them in Spanish.


She says most Latinos understand anti-immigrant rhetoric as code for anti-Latino because most Latinos come from mixed-status families. Attacking the most vulnerable in our communities won’t fly.

Salas and other activists have long registered and educated Latino voters to increase the community’s political power, including in Republican areas. Thanks to those efforts, even Central Valley Republican Rep. David Valadao recently voted for the American Dream and Promise Act.

Defeating the recall took years of Latino mobilization for racial justice centered on immigration reform — an issue now under debate in Congress that could determine whether millions of undocumented people must continue to live subjugated and in perpetual fear of deportation.

Four days after Newsom’s resounding victory, Salas led hundreds of people on a march for a pathway to citizenship from MacArthur Park. “If you say ‘yes’ to us, guess what?” she cried. “We say ‘yes’ to you!” This week, she joined thousands in Washington with that same message.

For years, nativists have waged war on immigration “amnesties” by appealing to racial anxieties. But now, the scapegoated immigrant community is fighting back with unprecedented strength.

Fatima Flores Laguna
Fatima Flores Laguna
(Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights)

When Salas was a child, her mother was deported after a raid of a garment factory where she worked. She returned to her daughter in the trunk of a car. Salas never forgot the trauma of that separation. She and most of her relatives legalized their status after a 1986 immigration reform bill. Salas wants the same sense of relief and security for others.

Fatima Flores-Laguna, CHIRLA Action Fund’s political director, is a 31-year-old DACA recipient who came to the U.S. when she was 6. For the recall election, she organized contacts with more than 74,000 people. “We can’t vote, but we can mobilize our communities,” she told me.
And there are other heroes of the recall who tapped into Latino power. Luis Sánchez, executive director of PowerCA Action, focused on Merced County, where Latinos disproportionately work in essential jobs that put them at high risk of COVID-19.

Luis Sanchez
(Power California)

Sánchez’s group reached out to about 270,000 voters with the message that the recall was backed by pro-Trump nativists seeking to repeal masking mandates. Sánchez, a 46-year-old Chicano who came of age in the 1990s, when California was convulsed by anti-immigrant movements, told me that Latinos understood: “The Republicans represent the epitome of what puts them most at risk.”

Activists had to take on right-wing disinformation that targeted Latinos, such as the idea that Newsom sought to harm small business owners with pandemic restrictions. Jess Contreras, civic engagement manager at the Dolores Huerta Foundation — which mobilized thousands of Latino voters in the Central Valley — told me her team got through by reminding people about eviction protections, paid family leave and other relief Newsom provided.

Her group also trained volunteers to watch the polls in places such as Kern County, where they’d previously learned of Latinos being turned away. “We were there registering voters and making sure they weren’t intimidated so they could cast their ballots,” Contreras said.

In San Diego County, where Republicans still have some political power, 80% of Latino voters rejected the recall. That’s largely thanks to the Alliance San Diego Mobilization Fund. Associate Director Chris Rice-Wilson told me he mobilizes Latinos and other voters of color “to build bridges between communities taught to fight each other.” His group recognized the Latino vote is crucial for awakening the “new American majority.”

Chris Rice-Wilson
(Alliance San Diego)

Conservatives are increasingly characterizing the changing electorate as an existential threat to white people. They’ve got that wrong — the Latino vote threatens political strategies based on xenophobia and racism.

The recall election’s Latino-mobilizing efforts provide a roadmap for organizers nationwide come the 2022 midterms. The results were clear: When Democrats show up for Latinos, Latinos show up for democracy.

The Newsom recall is a perfect chance to connect with nonwhite voters who will shape future elections.

July 23, 2021