- Interview by
- Meagan Day
In 2017, Belén Sisa was arrested with seven other undocumented activists for staging sit-ins inside the halls of Congress, demanding a Dream Act without additional border militarization — a “Clean Dream Act.”
Two years later, Sisa was named the Latino Press Secretary for Bernie Sanders’s latest presidential campaign. Ugly headlines appeared in the right-wing press. “Bernie Sanders hires illegal immigrant to be press secretary,” read one. Undaunted, the campaign set about opening up offices in Latino neighborhoods, canvassing Latino homes and supermarkets, printing materials in Spanish, and getting Bernie’s message on Latino televisions, radio stations, and newspapers.
After an intensive year-long effort to earn Latino support, Sanders walked away with 53 percent of Latino voters in Nevada — three times as much as his closest competitor, Joe Biden, who secured 17 percent. On Super Tuesday, Sanders won 49 percent in California, compared to runner-up Biden’s 19 percent. And he won 39 percent of the Latino vote in Texas, compared to 26 percent for runner-up Biden.
Jacobin’s Meagan Day spoke to Belén Sisa about how the campaign earned those votes, and the necessity of both good grassroots organizing and an ambitious political vision that speaks to the realities of Latino life in the United States.
Were you surprised that Bernie hit it out of the park with Latino voters, or did you see this coming?
I worked for Bernie in 2016. We noticed then that Latinos liked Bernie because he was speaking on the issues that so many politicians refused to talk about that they worried about every single day. But even though we knew that from experience, I never like to make assumptions or guesses. Because ultimately when it comes to organizing, you get what you work for.
2020 was about scaling up, building on the foundation that we had built with Latinos in 2016. We were guided by this goal of not only having people come out to vote, but also empowering them to organize their own communities far beyond 2020. And we knew that was necessary because whether Bernie won or he lost, we were going to have to organize ourselves to win legislation like Medicare for All, free college, immigration reform.
The Bernie Sanders campaign invested a lot in Latino organizing across the board. Latinos have been ignored for so long by the political establishment. We decided to go directly to them. As Latino press secretary it was my job to ensure that our message, our vision, and our agenda were going to Latino outlets that had that broad reach among Latinos, the places that they were already getting their news, which included buying ads in TV, radio, and newspapers, paying a lot of attention to what Chuck Rocha calls “cultural competency.” We also had lots of materials in Spanish and a volunteer team texting in Spanish.
But I think that where we went above and beyond was that we established a physical presence in Latino communities. We left no stone unturned. We opened our first offices in very heavily Latino neighborhoods in California, Nevada, and Iowa. We established our California office in East LA. What other presidential candidate is going to open an office in East LA?
We had small house parties in Latino neighborhoods across different regions, and we had people invite their neighbors and their family and friends. We went canvassing at local Latino supermarkets. You may have seen in pictures of Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Carmen Yulín Cruz canvassing a local Latino market in Las Vegas, for example, but it wasn’t just that one day. We had our organizers canvassing that supermarket every week.
So we never wanted to be too confident and say that we knew we were going to win the Latino vote, because the reality is you can never be sure that you’re gonna win anyone’s vote until they go out and vote for you. But we had a good feeling, because we saw the reaction to Bernie and his message in the community.
I will say that in Las Vegas on the day of the Nevada caucuses, at the precinct I was at, watching people stand up and walk into the corner for Bernie, I started crying. You could tell a lot of them had never voted before, because caucuses are confusing and naturally they didn’t really know what to do. It was multigenerational, young people and their parents and grandparents all standing up and walking over to the Bernie corner.
It made us so emotional. That was what we organized for. These people have been made to feel like they don’t matter for so long, and they believed in our campaign and went out of their comfort zone and cast their ballot because they felt it would make their lives better. I think that shows the strength of our organizing and of our message. The political establishment has long believed it wasn’t worth it to try to get Latinos to turn out, but I think we showed that isn’t true and built a blueprint for campaigns in the future.
I don’t think the broader Left understood the extent of the appetite for wealth redistribution, universal social programs, and general Sanders-style social-democratic politics among Latinos until these last few months. Beyond just good organizing, how can we account for this phenomenon?
Latinos are the fastest-growing segment of the electorate and they’re mostly young, disproportionately eighteen to thirty-five. People often point out that young people in general are attracted to Bernie’s politics, and that’s also true when it comes to Latinos.
But also, compared to other people, Latinos are especially family-oriented, and young people are often the trailblazers in their families. A lot of our family members didn’t go to college or they didn’t even finish high school. Many of them immigrated here, and whatever the young people do, usually the family slowly but surely follows. This is partly why you don’t see as much of a gap between the voting preferences of young people and their parents and grandparents.
But on top of that, Bernie’s policies themselves speak to the issues that affect Latinos in their everyday lives. For example, Latinos are the largest uninsured and underinsured group in the country. They don’t have good health care, they’re seeing the impact that has on their health and their finances. Additionally, a lot of Latino families dream of sending their children to university because they didn’t have that opportunity. And they’re realizing that it’s not going to be affordable and this causes a lot of stress. Medicare for All and tuition-free college speak directly to those problems.
Bernie has reached a lot of these people with the message that your struggles are not your fault. The deck is stacked against you, and we can change it. He has a lot of credit in the Latino community because he’s honest and he doesn’t pretend to be something he’s not. He’s not going to throw out a few phrases in Spanish and assume that’s enough for you to feel that you can trust him.
And that’s a major departure from typical Democratic Party politics, right? It seems like the dominant approach has been for candidates to just make gestures to acknowledge the existence of Latinos without really offering anything substantive.
Yes, and then they point to us and say it’s our fault because we didn’t turn out to vote, when in reality they didn’t give us much to vote for. I think that because black voters are loyal to the Democratic Party, they assume Latino voters are the same, but I can’t tell you how wrong that is. A lot of Latinos think the Democratic Party is making major mistakes. And Trump has been able to take advantage of that to some extent.
We’re going to see it in this election too. Trump is going to say, “Oh NAFTA separated your family. Joe Biden supported that. I was against it.” That will appeal to some people. Of course, others understand how bad Trump is, but they’re not going to be inspired by Joe Biden. It’s just like 2016. I don’t want the same thing to happen again and for Trump to win, but I can’t change Joe Biden’s record, all I can do is issue a warning.
Democrats also make a bit of a mistake in thinking that Latinos just care about one issue and that’s immigration. They do the same with black voters and criminal justice reform. Of course immigration is important to Latinos — if we’re not immigrants ourselves most of us know people who are.
But when they say they want to work on immigration but ignore bread-and-butter issues, they’re ignoring that immigration issues are bread-and-butter issues. The majority of undocumented people are living paycheck to paycheck because they’re not being paid a living wage. Even more than most people, they don’t have health care or good housing. A lot of immigration fights are actually fights about accessing benefits — if you look at the stimulus bill they’re trying to pass right now, one of the huge things we’re all pushing for is to include undocumented people in it.
What were the geographical patterns of Latino support for Bernie?
Our strongest showings were in Nevada and California. But even in other places across the country where we didn’t have landslide wins like in some Western states, we discovered a high degree of Latino support.
One of the shocking things was that everyone said that in Florida Cuban voters would never go for Bernie, because he’s a socialist and Cubans in Florida are supposed to be very anti-socialist. But he actually did pretty well with Latino voters in Florida. I think that’s a huge victory, in that it shows his platform is stronger than the force of political labels. People need health care, better housing, and a raise.
Texas and Arizona were also victories for us. It’s not an accident that these places are known for being very anti-immigrant, very conservative, very racist. I think that this creates a different dynamic where it’s harder to convince people that Trump is a unique threat. In Arizona, where I grew up, SB 1070 was passed a decade ago allowing law enforcement to racially profile people. We were dealing with this stuff before Trump was president, so don’t tell me that he’s the only problem.
The unique history of Cuban immigration to Florida aside, am I right to suspect that the history of egalitarian left-wing movements in Latin American countries actually makes many Latino immigrants and their families more sympathetic to Bernie’s politics?
I completely think it does. I’ve always said I think Latino voters are very sophisticated voters. The countries we come from are no strangers to social movements, and as a result of those movements we’re no stranger to the concept of universal social programs to make people’s lives better. And we’re also no stranger to the atrocities that this country has caused in our home countries.
That’s another reason Latinos were excited about Bernie. He doesn’t bullshit about it the negative effects of US foreign policy on the countries where we’re from. He said he wanted to work with other countries instead of barking demands at them or simply intervening in them. He said there is a reason that people are immigrating to the United States and it’s necessary to cooperate to get at the root causes of the problems in those countries too. In that way I think Bernie assured a lot of people that we don’t want to have to choose between here and there.
How do you think Joe Biden plans to go about securing the Latino vote, and do you think he’ll succeed?
So far, I’ve seen a lot of disappointment among Latinos. So many went out of their comfort zone and got engaged politically, a lot of them for the first time. My mom became a citizen this past year, and her first vote was for Bernie. My hope is that they don’t get disaffected, that we take everything we learned and built through this campaign and keep organizing around the issues that are not going away.
Lots of Latinos are heartbroken that it’s not Bernie, but I haven’t heard from many people about what they think of Joe Biden. I don’t know the specifics of exactly what the Joe Biden campaign is doing to reach Latino voters, but what I can tell you is that it’s been completely invisible. Because if I’m not seeing, regular everyday people are definitely not seeing it. I imagine it will be very grasstops, not grassroots, and that makes me worried about what will happen in November.
I know there are high stakes. But at the same time, Latino votes need to be earned. So if Joe Biden is not going to voice support for the policies that would transform people’s lives, and if he’s going to run a regular campaign and just hold digital panels with the same leaders of the same organizations, I don’t see him connecting to people who are living in the present moment and are worried about right now. I don’t know how he’s going to convince people to believe in him enough to vote, especially during this pandemic when we don’t even know what voting is going to look like.
We’re all disappointed with the outcome of the primary, but we also got some incredible information from it: Latinos are ready to vote for left-wing candidates. What should progressives and democratic socialists do now that this is plain to see?
Whether in California or Nevada or Arizona or Texas or Iowa or South Carolina, where there are Latinos too, we took a big first step getting lots of Latinos politically engaged either for the first time or for the first time in a long time. Now that they’ve gotten a taste of what it’s like, we need to continue to engage them.
We’re talking about communities that are overlooked and ignored every election. They’ve been deemed politically untrustworthy and not valuable because it’s assumed that they won’t come out to vote. I think Bernie’s campaign showed that if we go to them humbly and explain our political vision, they can and will.
We need to take this energy and this organizing skeleton that we’ve built and use it to empower people to keep organizing. But it’s going to take more than just Latinos getting out of their comfort zone. Progressives are going to have to get out of their comfort zone too. Find some local organizers who’ve been doing immigrant rights work and work together, integrate our movements. We’re all fighting for the same thing.