In conjunction with Latinx student organizations across the state, the University of Michigan’s central Latinx student organization, La Casa, hosted a virtual panel Thursday called “Tu Voto, Tu Voz: The Importance of the Latinx Vote.” The event reached over 1,100 views across Zoom and Facebook. 

Mara Ostfeld, associate professor of political science, moderated the panel, which featured local and national leaders including former Illinois Congressman Luis Gutiérrez, state Rep. Vanessa Guerra, D-Mich., state Rep. Alex Garza, D-Mich. and state Rep. Diego Bernal, D-Texas.

LSA sophomore Xalma Palomino, Internal Director for La Casa, has been working to empower the Latinx community to vote with events through the Latinx vote initiative, which she helped start at the beginning of the semester.

“The Latinx vote is super important because even though we’re the fastest growing and largest minority group and represent a significant share of eligible voters, our voices are still often ignored,” Palomino said.“And oftentimes, our issues take a backseat. So, showing up to the polls will demand change.”

The panel is one of multiple events put on by La Casa that Palomino said she hopes “will truly motivate students — especially since Michigan is a swing state — to vote and be active politically.”

Panelists began by addressing some of the issues that Latinx constituents in their districts are most concerned about, including healthcare, education, affordable housing and COVID-19, which Gutiérrez pointed out has had an extremely devastating effect on the Latinx community.

“There’s the fear of hatred and bigotry that this president has started; there’s the fear of people being deported from this country, whether a dreamer, an undocumented worker; and there’s COVID-19, which has had a devastating effect on our community,” Gutiérrez said. 

Bernal noted that many of his constituents are worried about lack of affordable housing in his district.

“All of a sudden, in the last five to eight years, the urban core of the city has become very attractive to people from out of town and people who have means. And so, what happens then is that people who have lived in these neighborhoods for a long time, either as renters or homeowners, are getting pushed out because the market is expanding and exploding,” Bernal said.

Panelists went on to talk about misinformation campaigns that might be affecting their Latinx constituents as election day approaches. Garza pointed out the fearmongering directed at Cubans that has occurred specifically in Florida.  

“Fears of communism, linking the Biden administration … to communism and saying that Castro himself is going to come back if you elect Biden into office. So, you’ve seen all of this fearmongering about socialism (and) communism,” Bernal said.

Bernal spoke about how, recently, there has been a tremendous amount of pushback from the people of Texas against racist policies that have tried to restrict the Latinx vote, such as strict voter ID laws. 

“It’s not so much that the demographics are changing and, all of a sudden, there’s more Democrat babies being born; it’s that Texas was more of a non-voting state,” Bernal said. “These are people that have been disenfranchised and what’s happened is, they’ve been pushed to the point where they’re starting to vote now.”

Gutiérrez noted how some have this notion of a “sleeping Giant” of Democratic Latinx voters that will turn out this election. He said that while he hopes the Latinx community will have a strong showing on Election Day, he doesn’t believe Latinx voters have ever been “sleeping.”  

Yo no se ningun giant que estaba durmiendo (translation: I don’t know of any giant that was sleeping) because we’ve never been sleeping. You’ve been trying to keep us out, but guess what? We are going to vote,” Gutiérrez said. “I think you’re going to see an unprecedented number of Latinos voting. We not only have to win on November 3, we have to win on November 4 and, moving forward, making sure that we hold (our elected officials) accountable as we do.”

Many students attending the panel wanted to know how they could get more involved in politics, especially those who grew up in families that stayed out of politics. Both Guerra and Garza entered public office in their 20s. Guerra said she was pushed to get involved after realizing the impact politics could have. 

“There’s power in positions of leadership, and I recognized early on that there’s power in politics,” Guerra said. “Because whether we like it or not, politics affects every aspect of our life from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to bed. So, we can either be the people that are voting for people or we can be the people that are actually in the position at the table making those decisions.” 

Guerra highlighted the importance of local politics and said it’s where the power lies to change peoples’ everyday lives.   

While attending University of Michigan-Dearborn, Garza ran for city council in Taylor, Michigan at 19 years old. He said most people did not think he could win. 

“Many people discounted and kind of wrote me off as someone of color, someone who’s young, and someone who (was not) in the community for long,” Garza said.

Garza became the first person of color elected to the Taylor City Council.

To close out the panel, Bernal said it’s time for Latinx people to fight for their rights and vote.  

“We’re at a moment where being not as bad as the other guy doesn’t cut it for us anymore, and that’s how we lose people. Fighting means you’re fighting for people, not just being on the right side of a line,” Bernal said.

LSA sophomore Lesley Tayagua Lua is an annual initiatives liaison for La Casa and worked with Palomino to put the panel together. After attending the panel, Lua said she was empowered watching fellow Latinx people talk about their experiences in politics. 

“It’s not something that you see — minority groups feeling this way because of our history of oppression,” Lua said.

Daily News Contributor Martina Zacker can be reached at mzacker@umich.edu.

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