N.H. Latinos Seek Political Voice Amid Clamor of Presidential Primary

Jan 14, 2016

Politics is a common topic of debate at La Fama Barbershop, a popular business in the midst of Nashua's growing Latino community.
Credit Natasha Haverty

In the 2016 presidential campaign, few issues have been as fiercely debated as immigration. Here in New Hampshire, the US Southern border thousands of miles away can feel like an abstraction. But a small and growing number of voters in New Hampshire take the immigration debate very personally: the state’s Latino community. And as that community grows, so does its resolve to find a political voice. 

Olmer Villavicencio was almost killed -- twice -- spent thousands of dollars, and swam across the Rio Grande in search of a life that was better than the one he had in Ecuador.

And he says he knew that better life had started, one winter day, when he got to New Hampshire where a cousin was living, and walked into Market Basket.

"So I come to New Hampshire, first I remember I go to Market Basket," Olmer recalls. "I say, 'Wow! That is America. That is America!'"

  That was more than 20 years ago. Today, Olmer is 43, and a US citizen. He shops at Market Basket every week, works on the line at Parker Industries every morning at 4 am. He’s raising a teenage daughter.

Olmer’s also a kind of fixer here in Nashua, his home town. In the city’s small but growing community of immigrants, he’s the guy who’ll set you up with a good Spanish speaking doctor, or tell you how to register your car.

These days, politics is his game. Specifically, getting Latinos out to vote.

"I wanna make sure people know how vote, when go vote," he says. "And another one: make sure people know their rights."

But figuring out how to get friends and neighbors to get out and vote isn’t easy.

This is what New Hampshire’s Latinos are grappling with: What does it mean to live on the front row of the presidential race every four years, but feel politically invisible? How do you find a political voice when you’re still grappling to understand the system?

Olmer Villavicencio and his daughter, Jocelyn.
Credit Natasha Haverty

Becoming citizens just in time

A good place to look for answers is along West Hollis Street. This is the hub of Nashua’s Latino community—signs in most shop windows are in Spanish, selling tortillas, calling cards, insurance.

Latinos make up 1 in 10 Nashua residents —three times as many as all of New Hampshire. Documented and undocumented; citizens and non-citizens; Mexicans, Colombians, Dominicans, and more.

Working one chair inside La Fama barbershop today is Jose Vargas. Like all the barbers here, he’s Dominican, and wears a navy vest with his name embroidered in red.

Vargas smiles as he tells me this is the first U.S. election he gets to participate in.

"I believe it’s a part of when you choose to come to this country, to be able to choose the person who will lead the country," he says. "I’ve been seeing things the past few years I don’t agree with, and I want to be part of the decision to decide who’s going to run this country."

Vargas knows a lot of friends and neighbors who, like him, are becoming citizens—just in time to vote this year.

"Well, I’m a little fed up with what’s happening in the elections," he says. "I feel like the Republican Party is being so hard on us Hispanics. Especially Donald Trump. He doesn’t represent American values."

Trump’s proposals to put major stops on immigration have mobilized Latinos like Vargas.

Giving up -- or pushing on?

But it’s not just Republicans Latinos say are throwing blows—it’s also President Obama’s failure to pass immigration reform.

Back in Olmer’s living room, friends Jose Inaya and Dulvis Polanco say they’re so disappointed, they may not even vote this time.

"I voted twice for (Obama)," Jose says. "And he let me down. So what means that another president is going to rise me up?"

As his buddies go on, Olmer sits on the arm of the sofa, just kind of  shaking his head.

But Olmer’s tall skinny 14-year-old daughter, Jocelyn has also been listening. She steps in.

"So you’re saying you’re gonna give up?" she asks.

Jose and Dulvis remind Jocelyn of the 2 million people deported under Obama, all the protests they say led nowhere.

But she doesn’t back down.

"If you wanna prove that we’re all equal, then why stop?" she says. "If you’re saying you’re gonna give up, then maybe I one day am gonna say I give up too. If you’re gonna start doing that everybody’s gonna give up!"

One thing everybody here does agree on is that doing nothing can seem a lot easier than trying to get involved. In part, that's because smaller Latino communities like this one face kind of a double challenge:

There’s the isolation of being a minority in a mainly white, rural state. Then, there’s the instinct to be invisible; many immigrants start out undocumented, keeping a low profile.

"They're not talking to us"

Put all that together, when you’re just trying to hold down a job, and politics can seem frivolous.

Sitting in her chair at the peluqueria, hair still in curlers, Luz Betancur is shy to talk to me. Twenty years after coming to the states from her native Columbia, she says there’s still a lot she doesn’t know about politics here.

"Yes, I’m going to vote," she says. "But I don’t feel that involved. Candidates come to town but I’m busy working and usually I don’t even know they’re here."

Luz says she’d like to get more involved. She’s been a citizen for 7 years.

"I always said I wanted to become a citizen so I could vote—I don’t want to be defined by those candidates that say Latino immigrants come here to do harm to the country. My vote is how I rise out of that."

And she says the biggest barrier can just be the language.

She wanted to go see Hillary Clinton in Salem just a few miles away—but she says she would have been embarrassed if anybody talked to her.

"Don't be invisible"

This is an old story is America—a group of newcomers struggling to establish themselves in society, and in politics.

On the way home, Jocelyn says they’ve been learning about the Pilgrims in school. She thinks it’s a lot like what Latinos are going through here in New Hampshire.

"They came here for freedom," Jocelyn says. "They sacrificed. Why can’t we have that opportunity too?"

I ask Olmer how he feels about his daughter’s future, here in Nashua, in this country.

"I talk to my daughter," he says. "You see how she is. She has her own opinions. So when talking about rights she pushes hard. So always, I say, 'What are you planning to do to fight for those rights?' "

In the weeks ahead, before Primary Day, Olmer says he’ll be standing out on Nashua's Main Street whenever he can, handing out fliers, urging people to go vote. In big words across the bottom, the fliers read, in Spanish: “Don’t be invisible—get counted.”