A House Divided

Colorado Hispanics reckon with Trump's election

by Nathan Davis


If your memory works step-by-step, Trump’s evolving stance on immigration feels like a gradual heightening of pitch or a sort of slow burn from bark to bite. At first it was bluster, then it was a slogan. Then hats, tweets, debates, the convention, a 12-state bus-tour, screaming crowds, a victory speech, confirmation hearings. Finally, a pair of executive orders. Each moment blended into the next.

Or maybe you remember in spurts or flashes, like points on a truncated timeline. In that case, his approach was anything but an evolution. It was a jagged procession of exclamation marks—The “birther” movement! The “rapists” comment! The “Build that Wall” chants! If the issue was like a mountain range, the campaign traipsed from peak to peak, a sign of boldness or brusqueness depending on where you stand—totally unpredictable in either case.

But whether it crept or jumped there, what remains clear is that the issue of Hispanic immigration is now center stage. And as the ink dries on two executive orders, and rumors float about National Guard-led immigration roundups, Americans in general—and Hispanics in particular—are both reflecting and preparing: Where are we?

In Colorado, it’s nearly impossible to pin down a single, unified answer to this question. Although Hispanics make up 21 percent of the Colorado state population (and about 17 percent in El Paso County), talking about a “Hispanic Community” in Colorado, not to mention trying to divine its response to a political event, is near impossible. Rather, the election seems to be a sobering reminder that the Colorado Hispanic population, just like any “population,” is a collection of various individuals with various needs, interests and orientations that sometimes coincide, sometimes conflict and sometimes merely coexist. 

“We can’t just assume that all Latinos are going to be supporting other Latinos just because they’re Latinos,” said Amparo Rodríguez at a recent staff meeting for Centro de la Familia. Centro is a local counseling and advocacy organization serving low-income, “mixed-legality” Hispanic families—that is, families comprised of both full-fledged and partial- or non-citizens. In the eyes of Rodríguez, who has been working as a therapist at Centro for five years, despite campaign rhetoric and attendant news coverage lumping Hispanic immigrants together, the situation on the ground has been much more complex. While many immigrant families have experienced similar difficulties since the campaign began—anxiety, discrimination, misinformation—there are significant barriers keeping them from dealing with these issues together as a community.

“I have seen families pull together to support each other in a more intentional way,” says Rodríguez. “That’s been a source of strength and resiliency.” But it’s difficult to translate these strengthened family ties into a broader network of support. Often, she says of her clients, “their main priority is ‘We need to take care of our children and we need to take care of our families.’ So somehow they have found ways of sometimes becoming kind of invisible. Silence becomes a tool for survival.” 

Eric Pavri, who works in the Family Immigration Services department at Catholic Charities of Central Colorado, echoes this observation. Though Catholic Charities’ work focuses on helping families through the naturalization process, they serve a similar segment of the Springs population as does Centro. 

“Many of our clients don’t have that leisure time, or extra time, to be able to participate politically,” says Pavri. “Almost all their extra time has to go towards paying the rent, or being able to buy groceries that month. That’s always an obstacle. There’s a lot that makes it difficult for immigrant families to express themselves as any unified bloc politically.”

More than other political voting blocs, maybe even more than other ethnic voting blocs, Hispanics in Colorado have to accommodate an extraordinary number of crosscutting cleavages. Differences in income and education level aside, there are also a variety of different races, nationalities and even Spanish dialects represented by the word “Hispanic.” You could divide the population into subsets and sub-subsets ad infinitum. 

And those fissures are further compounded by being situated in the cultural, economic and demographic history of Hispanics in Colorado, which stretches all the way back to the origin of the Hispanic ethnicity itself. Someone whose Colorado roots predate Colorado and someone who emigrated from El Salvador within the last year are both, for all intents and purposes, “Colorado Hispanics” no matter how little else they have in common. 

In Colorado, this division is particularly acute. For example, the percentage of Hispanics in Colorado who speak only English at home (60 percent) is twice the national average for Hispanics. 

“We tend to think of the Latino-Hispanic community in Colorado as very homogenous, as ‘they’re all Hispanic, they’re all Latino,’” says Rodriguez. “But we’re not. We have people from Guatemala, we come from Venezuela, a lot are from Mexico. So thinking that, as a community, we’re always gonna be readily there to support one another—that doesn’t happen necessarily.” She cites generation and income level as having the same effect: “I definitely know Latinos here in Colorado Springs who don’t identify with the needs of the majority of the Hispanics here at Centro and who are actually very far removed from their experiences.”

On this point, Rodríguez actually finds herself in an unlikely agreement with Hugo Chavez-Rey, chairman of the Colorado Hispanic Republicans (CHR), a state-level advocacy and outreach organization. “We’re not a monolithic voting bloc,” he says. “That’s one of the mistakes that the media makes. And that’s not the case. You have to determine who you’re talking to—anywhere from first-generation to tenth-generation.”

Chavez-Rey and the CHR are a testament to an even higher-order division within the Hispanic population. Although groups like Centro and Catholic Charities are not politically affiliated, both Rodriguez and Pavri admit that none of their voting clients—that is, lower-income, but documented Hispanic citizens who still have strong ties to the illegal immigrant population—said that they voted Republican. They knew few, if any, in their social circle who did. While differences in political opinion are real and significant in this subset of the population ,they did not seem to entail diversity of voting behavior. The details of their answers to “Where are we?” might vary depending on who you asked, but would almost always include the word “anxious.”

For Chavez-Rey the answer always includes “optimism.”

“You can classify me as an eternal optimist,” he says. Not only does he think the Trump-era will be a prosperous one for Hispanics, he thinks it may well be the one that initiates a broad-scale conversion to the Republican Party. “There’s no doubt it’s an uphill battle,” he says. “We know, and we understand, that the Republican brand is tarnished in the Hispanic community. But we believe that that can be turned around. And it can be turned around by his presidency.”

If it doesn’t necessarily vindicate him, the data doesn’t prove Chavez-Rey wrong either. Exit polls from the election estimate that Clinton received about 66 percent of the Colorado Hispanic vote and Trump got about 30 percent. The percentages are almost identical nationally. That’s a resounding victory for Clinton, yes, but when you compare it to 2012, when Obama won 75 percent of the Hispanic vote to Romney’s 23 percent, it paints a less encouraging picture for the Democrats. According to many news outlets, this was supposed to be the election that the Democrats cemented their head-and-shoulders superiority with Hispanic voters. What happened?

Chavez-Rey, a former Democrat himself, has a theory. “All they want to do is demonize. They don’t have any desire to really improve the plight of inner cities in this country,” he says. “Democrats do not have our best interests in mind. They take our votes for granted, that’s all they want us for, our votes.” 

And, in Chavez-Rey’s mind, when it’s not brazen exploitation, it’s condescension. Unlike the Democrats, he says, “we look at Hispanics who are here legally, the ones who are citizens, and we don’t want to differentiate between Hispanic citizens or black citizens or white citizens. We want American citizens. We want equal opportunity.”

That outlook may explain why, amidst sustained public outcry regarding several comments Trump made about Hispanics, Chavez-Rey remained unfazed. “I have had opportunities to meet in-person with Mr. Trump and his son Eric,” he told me. “I have had one-on-one conversations with them, and I know that he cares deeply about all the American people, not just the Hispanics or the blacks or the whites. He wants the country to prosper.” 

Chavez-Rey seems to be taking part in an ongoing debate about Hispanic-American identity itself. For him, it should be characterized by a distinct emphasis on the “American” side of the equation. But for others, like recent immigrants, the emphasis may be on “Hispanic” and for more still, it likely hangs somewhere in the balance. 

Between Rodríguez, Pavri and Chavez-Rey, there are a wide variety of interpretations regarding Hispanics’ situation in the new political order, but one (very simple) point underlies them. That word, “Hispanic,” is a catch-all term for millions of people who come from different places, boast different heritages, collect different incomes, receive different educations, speak different dialects and even mean different things when they call themselves “Hispanic-American.” Outside of the abstract world of politics, in the real world of individuals and day-to-day life, the word could mean just about anything to anyone. Talk of “the Hispanic community”—why “they” vote, what “their” interests are, how “they’re” handling the results—obscures much of what is actually significant about the indiciduals that constitute it. 

So where are they after this election? At the end of our interview, Chavez-Rey made an appeal to Hispanic Democrats: “Sit back and watch. Let’s give the man a chance. Let’s see what his word is about. I think he is going to surprise a lot of people, even people who were detractors of his. He’s already hit the ground running; he’s making a difference.” That he will surprise people and make some kind of difference is evident. How those surprises and differences will affect individual Hispanic people—what it will mean to them and how they will respond—however, is not.


Part of the Red Issue