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Going 360 on Latino representation and politics: Does population growth translate into power at the polls?

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Posted at 12:13 PM, Nov 08, 2022
and last updated 2022-11-08 13:49:10-05

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Ask any Latino what they think about the future of their people and you might hear the same thing: It’s growing.

And it's true. The Latino population in the United States has grown more than sixfold since 1970 and is more than 62 million strong today.

According to the U.S. Census, the Latino population increased by 27.5% in Kansas between 2010 and 2020.

In Missouri, the Latino population increased by 42.6% in that same timeframe.

But does that growth translate to who holds positions of power? Does it carry over into the voting booth?

We're going 360 on this topic.

We start with Clarissa Martinez, the vice president of the UnidosUS Latino Vote Initiative.

Unidos US is the largest Latino civil rights and advocacy organization. One of their goals is to encourage Latinos to go out to the polls and get involved.

“Latinos are now the second largest voting age population in the United States,” Martinez said.

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One million Latinos in the U.S. turn 18 every year. As the Latino electorate grows, capturing swing voters' attention will be important for both parties. That starts with getting to know Latinos.

“For Latinos, the economy and jobs have usually been the number one or number two concern for decades,” Martinez said. “And that makes sense, right. This is a community with a very high labor force participation.”

According to UnidosUS's recent poll on Latino voting issues, abortion rights entered the top five, which has never happened before. Another rising concern is gun safety in the midst of the tragic Uvalde and El Paso massacres.

“People are willing to look at candidates based on their positions and not just for their party, which then would make it even more imperative for candidates to introduce themselves and reach out to these voters,” Martinez said.

Historically, about a third of Latinos have supported Republicans and 2/3 have supported Democrats.

According to a UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Institute study that came out this past summer, Latino voters still chose Democratic candidates over Republicans. But the margins are no longer as large as they've always been.

“What you are seeing right now is generally Republicans gaining some of the ground they had lost and Democrats not solidifying gains they have made,” Martinez said.

Until more groups start expanding grassroots efforts to get young Latinos to vote, Martinez says we won't truly see the power of their vote.

“Because, again, Latinos generally reject extremes and oppose taking rights away from people, I think growing the Latino electorate is important,” Martinez said. “I think it could be part of that stabilizing force we need to tone down the toxicity in our politics and actually turbo-charge accountability for those who seek to represent us.”

For Mary Lou Jaramillo, Latino engagement and representation starts at the neighborhood level. She saw that example as a child.

“My parents were community-oriented, whether it was through church, the elementary and high school I went to,” Jaramillo said. “How to get started? Do something local.”

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The lightbulb went on when she worked for the then Minority Supplier Development Council, helping connect minority-owned businesses to resources and volunteered with MANA de Kansas City, a Latina leadership group.

“Those two combined changed my life, 'cause it introduced me to how things work for some and how they don't work for others,” Jaramillo said.

Although Kansas City has many more Latino leaders than when Jaramillo first came on the scene, representation is still at the top of her list.

“My question I keep asking today is, 'What progress have we made?'” Jaramillo said. “I want more. I want more, fast for us.”

That means making sure Latino leaders have support from their own community and the big donors in the city; Not just being in the room where decisions are made but being the decision maker. Jaramillo says these examples will make the difference for young Latinos.

“Will they stay? Do they see the potential of staying here?" she asks.

Community leader Manny Abarca did. He was born and raised in Kansas City.

We chose to interview him because of the multiple roles he holds in the community. He's the first Latino executive in the Missouri Democratic Party, the only Latino on the Kansas City public school board, and he's hoping to be the first Latino man elected to the Jackson County legislature.

“I can't effectively wear all those hats at once,” Abarca said. “I'm constantly looking for who's next, who's out here leading communities that maybe don't see themselves as an elected official that we can just say, ‘Hey, I think you can do this.’”

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The climate now is different than those who came before him, who were fighting just to be seen at all.

“Latinos have been in politics for a long time. And I think giants like Lali Garcia, Paul Rojas, and even Chris Medina and John Fierro, those folks have created those paths for me to stand here today,” Abarca said.

Now, he says Latinos have this 'unabashed presence' that will move the needle forward even more.

“I think it's incredibly important we instill in the younger generations who have the power to vote, to vote,” Abarca said. “We know our families and how they can act sometimes about politics. They'll get mad at an issue but never vote. And that's the kind of stuff that's like, we’ve got to be consistent about this. Other communities are and they’re getting so much more than us. There’s enough out there for everybody, we just need to harness our potential.”

Studies show more young people of color showed up to the polls in 2020 than they did in 2016.

More Latino youth voted red than Black and Asian youth.

The Latino voting bloc, like Latinos themselves, is not a monolith. That is represented in the Kansas City group, Young Latino Professionals. We visited them at their quinceañera, their 15-year celebration. We wanted to hear what drives them to vote and what they think about Latino representation.

“Historically, we've done a terrible job, and I think you see that with some of the parties and the amount of energies they put into us Latinos,” Justin Reyes, president of YLP, said when talking about Latino voter turnout. “I think the generation behind me - I'm a millennial - I think Gen Z is going to transform it.”

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“I think there's going to be a huge wave of having resident Latinos become U.S. citizens and push for that further civic engagement,” YLP Vice President Maria Locascio said.

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“Get out there and vote,” YLP board member Braulio Rivas said. “Everybody has a responsibility in this country, and that's what makes this country the greatest country in the world is because we have the right to.”

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Editor’s Note: The broadcast version of the story said that Manny Abarca is seeking to become the first Latino man to be elected to the Jackson County Legislature. That claim is incorrect. Fred Sanchez served in the legislature in the 1980s.

As part of KSHB 41 News' commitment to providing context and depth in our reporting, we've excited to share our latest project, which we're calling 360. This project takes stories and topics that our communities are talking about and explores different perspectives on the issue. You can be a part of the process by e-mailing your ideas and thoughts to us at