Indiana has never elected a Latino to Congress.
Mark Leyva is hoping this will be the year: The gregarious, 60-year-old, second generation Mexican American from East Chicago is running for the seventh time to represent the Hoosier State’s 1st Congressional District.
“I have a lot of support out there. I have union guys, steel worker guys helping me out. I just have a bunch of everybody. I have a big assortment, people from all walks of life,” Leyva said. “I’ve been preparing my whole life for this. I just think that I’m in the right spot, in the right time, with the right movement that is going to … hopefully take me to Washington, with the help of my supporters and the help of God.”
Moreover, this year he won’t have to unseat the incumbent because the district’s longtime U.S. representative, Pete Viscloskly, is retiring. He’s also hoping that the district’s demographics will give his candidacy a lift. Lake County, where Leyva lives, is the state’s second largest and hosts Indiana’s highest percentage of Latinos; they make up 20% percent of Lake County’s population, compared to 7% for Indiana as a whole.
There’s just one hurdle: Northwest Indiana is solidly Democratic with most Latinos voting blue. That will make it tough for Leyva to win, since he’s running as a Republican.
And, Leyva isn’t just a Republican; he’s a Trump Republican.
“The biggest problem Donald Trump has is sometimes the ways he tweets or the way he makes rough comments,” Leyva said. “But his actions are better than any other president that we’ve had in the past. The Democratic Party is losing their Latino base, because this is a president that has done everything that he said he was going to do.”
Neither Indiana (red) or Illinois (blue) is considered a swing state in the upcoming election. But in Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Florida, the voters that Leyva says are out there have Democrats nervously assessing the strength of Latino support. This year, Latinos, accounting for some 32 million eligible voters, are expected to be the largest non-white voting bloc for the first time, eclipsing the nation’s 30 million eligible African American voters, according to the Pew Research Center in a January 2019 forecast.Addressing a few hundred mostly non-mask-wearing supporters at a rally in Crown Point on a recent Saturday, Leyva bellowed into a microphone: “November 3 is a big deal! This is this biggest thing in the history of the country!”
Although Latinos overwhelmingly support Democrats nationally, Leyva believes Trump has delivered the goods to this coveted constituency. “The Latino community sees the actions that this president brought to their families, to their paychecks, to their jobs,” he said.
More than just Cubans and Catholics
The conventional wisdom holds that Republican Latinos are Cuban exiles in Miami or Roman Catholics. Geraldo Cadava, a historian and professor at Northwestern University, says not so fast.
“That’s just not what I found. When I got into the archives, I found that it was a much more diverse, broad movement,” Cadava said. “Even to this day, you’re still going to find about a quarter of Latinos in California, a state where the Republican party has supposedly been dead for 25 years, are going to vote for Donald Trump. It’s really everywhere. It’s a diverse movement.”
According to Cadava, about 30% of Latinos have voted for the Republican Party consistently over the past 50 years, and that level of support has weathered the party’s conservative turn on immigration over the last few decades.
“As a historian, those patterns lead me to believe that [Trump will] have the same kind of success in 2020,” Cadava said. In 2016, Trump garnered 28% of the Latino vote, and Cadava believes there’s a good chance that number could increase.
In his May 2020 book, Hispanic Republican, The Shaping of an American Political Identity, from Nixon to Trump, Cadava traces the path of Hispanics as a heavy Republican voting bloc in the early 20th century to its current levels, which first took hold during the Nixon years. In the 1930s, Hispanic and Black Americans began to trickle over to the Democratic party after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt enacted the New Deal in response to the Great Depression. But it wasn’t until the 1960s, when many Southern Republicans opposed the civil rights movement, that Blacks voters left the Republican Party in droves.
Needing a new source of support, President Richard Nixon courted Latinos, beginning with the 1971 appointment of Romana Acosta Banuelos, a Mexican-American from Los Angeles, as the nation’s first Hispanic Secretary of the Treasurer.
“In 1972, Richard Nixon became the first Republican president to win about a third of the Latino vote,” Cadava said. “Sometimes it’s been a little less, sometimes it’s been a little more. But that 1972 reelection bid really kind of raised the bar for Republican candidates recruiting Latinos in general, and it’s kind of been the same ever since.”
Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush also invited more Latinos into the GOP tent. Under President George W. Bush, Latino support swelled to 40% and 44% in 2000 and 2004 because of strong outreach initiatives and in spite of the continued push by many Republicans to take a hard line against illegal immigration, Cadava said.
“White Republicans have always wrestled with how inclusive to be and how much to remain the white Conservative Party. It’s been an amazing, deep rift within the Republican Party,” Cadava said.
That political calculus is expressed in U.S. Appellate Court Judge Barbara Lagoa’s appearance on Trump’s shortlist to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the liberal Supreme Court justice who died last week at age 87. Lagoa is a 52-year-old Cuban American from the Miami area.
“It’s going to put Democrats in a bind to oppose a Latina Supreme Court justice,” Cadava said. “It’s about Florida for sure, but it’s also about national politics where the Latinos for Trump campaign can travel to Texas and to California and make the argument about how important the Hispanic vote is for Trump.”
Shamed for supporting Trump
In his book, Cadava reflects on his own grandfather, a Panamanian immigrant who voted Republican. He said Latino Trump supporters should not be seen as traitors or unnatural supporters of the GOP.
“I would warn against seeing Latino Republican support for Trump as some sort of self-hatred, selling out, some sort of betrayal of your race,” he said. “I just don’t believe Latino conservatives see themselves that way. I just think everyone has a very different view of what their own interests are.”
Lex Castro, a pastor in Northwest Indiana, says protecting religious freedom is his primary reason for supporting Trump in November.
“Everyone has their own personal views but when you come against freedom, that’s what our nation is about,” said Castro, who is of Puerto Rican descent. “We’re a great nation. We need to stay that way.”
For 58-year-old Nelson Velazquez, who lives in suburban Glen Ellyn in neighboring Illinois, the issues are taxes and crime. In his view, Latinos who support Trump are those who think with their pocketbooks.
“Right now, President Trump is the best candidate. People may say what they say about Trump, [but] he’s the only one that stands for what I believe,” he said. “I’m about context, not emotions. Trump is a businessman. He’s running this country like a business.”
Velazquez’s parents were born and raised in Bayamon, just outside of San Juan in Puerto Rico. In the late ’50s, the two moved to the Chicago area. Velazquez’s mother worked as a nurse at Jackson Park Hospital in the South Shore neighborhood in Chicago, while his father operated a small neighborhood store at 73rd Street and Ridgeland Avenue near the hospital.
For most of his adult life, Velazquez, a former officer with the Illinois Secretary of State’s Police Department, considered himself a Democrat, but he says something changed 10 years ago.
“I was a die-hard, [John F.] Kennedy-style Democrat. I believed in what Kennedy said, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.’ And I still stand by that,” Velazquez said. “I still maintain the old Democratic values which today are Republican standards.”
Like Leyva and Castro, Velazquez brushes off disparaging statements made by Trump against Latinos, including calling Mexican immigrants “rapists” and drug dealers in a speech to launch his candidacy in 2015.
“There are those who oppose Trump who are quick to say Trump said all Mexicans, which is so untrue,” Velazquez said. “Mexico is not sending their best. That’s a fact.” Velazquez also doesn’t take issue with Trump’s claims that corrupt politicians siphoned off emergency aid after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico.
“He’s been spot on. You have individuals in Puerto Rico who say the same thing. The money never gets to the people,” Velazquez said. “He just wanted accountability.”
However, Velazquez voiced what many Latino Trump supporters have come to realize: That supporting the Republican president can lead to estrangement from friends and family.
“Unfortunately, due to the attitude of Democrats, they are into shaming people for what they believe. I’ll let my vote do the talking,” Velazquez said. “We are not cattle. We are single-minded, thought-thinking individuals. I don’t need to vote for a particular person just because I’m Hispanic.”
In Florida, Laura Vazquez said other Latinos think she’s crazy when they find out she supports Trump.
“I think their initial reaction is that I’m kind of a traitor, actually. What do you mean you’re Republican? And you support Trump? He’s a racist,” she said.
The 53-year-old Brooklyn native is a retired county government worker who sells homemade Puerto Rican food at events in the Vero Beach, Fla., area. She said Trump’s harsh ways are that of the typical New Yorker.
“He says what’s on his mind,” Vazquez said. She likes Trump’s protectionist stance against China and credits the president with creating a strong economy. But, she said, her appreciation has come at a price.
“I have lost so many friends because I support Donald Trump. A lot of friction. A lot of eye-rolling,” Vasquez said. “A lot of snickering behind my back and not talking to me.”
Leyva too admits he’s felt the sting that comes with supporting the president.
“It’s been a lonely place for a long time,” said Leyva, one among just a handful of Latinos at the rally in Crown Point. “Politics is a rough endeavor to be in. There’s the good ole boy club and the establishment cliques. I am not in either. I am the people’s choice, not the party’s choice.”
Michael Puente covers Northwest Indiana for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @MikePuenteNews.