Ahead of the midterm elections, Michel Martin is visiting Charlotte, N.C., to learn more about Latino voters' growing influence in the state. Join Michel for a Facebook chat from 4:30-5 p.m. ET today as she answers questions and shares more on her reporting.
Twenty-year-old Mary Espinosa is eager to get to the polls this Election Day. "I have a lot of friends who are undocumented [and] can't vote," she says. "My parents can't vote, and so for me, using my ability to vote as a way of kind of letting my dad's voice count."
Outside traditional Latino strongholds in the West and Southwest, voters like Espinosa are poised to have an impact in close races. She lives in North Carolina, where Latinos make up 9 percent of the state's population and some 2 percent of registered voters. Many of them are young, first-time voters. And there's a tight Senate race in the state that could hinge on them.
The first generation of people from Latin America arrived in the state in the 1980s, according to the University of North Carolina's Latino Migration Project, and they were "farmers, scientists, builders, housekeepers, teachers, cooks, factory workers and entrepreneurs."
Architect Alina Bartlett moved from Caracas, Venezuela, in 1978 to attend UNC in Charlotte. "There were, what, about nine Hispanic students at the time, and they were very open to diversity in their student body, so they made it very accessible," she says.
Diego Barahona is the editor of La Noticia, the state's oldest Spanish-language newspaper. He points out that, in most of Latin America, voting is compulsory, but not so in the U.S. So voters who don't like the candidates might actually welcome the option of not voting.
In that heated Senate race, according to a new North Carolina study from the National Council of La Raza Action Fund and Latino Decisions, 40 percent of Latinos polled support incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan, while 15 percent support Republican challenger Thom Tillis. That means 45 percent of Hispanic voters are undecided.
Meet Charlotte's Latino voters
"One of the great things about Charlotte is that you can talk to everybody. You can talk to the mayor, you can talk to anybody who is running — you invite them. And because we're Latinos, everybody comes and talks to us on election years. And they love you, and then they forget about you. That's the way that I think they think about most of the Latinos. All the people who are running just went to the Latin American Chamber [of Commerce], and then you don't see them again until the next year."
"As a minority businesswoman, I started my business five years ago, with no money and no experience. When I see that Charlotte opened doors for me and gave me so many opportunities, I thought that I had to give in return something. And little by little, I start having my business get successful and, little by little, saw that Charlotte also gives me the opportunity to speak out about my country. So it's a very interesting experience."
"Twenty-three years living under military dictatorships, that's something to you. And when you come to this country and vote for the first time, it makes you feel that you have an opportunity to sit at the table and make an impact."
On Wednesday night, the Latin American Coalition and National Council of La Raza held a Community Town Hall around voting and the election at Caldwell Presbyterian Church in Charlotte.
Many of the Latinos we met said they feel as though politicians take them for granted and aren't addressing the issues that matter most to the community. According to the NCLR/Latino Decisions poll, 33 percent of those polled said immigration reform is a top issue, followed by the economy (28 percent) and health care (22 percent).
Jorge De La Jara, the chairman of the Latin American Chamber of Commerce in Charlotte, says it's just a matter of time before politicians start paying serious attention.
In the meantime, he says, Latino professionals will help motivate young voters. "You have to be part of the change; you can't complain without being involved, he says."
I'll be returning to Charlotte on Monday for a live event on voting rights that will include a parallel bilingual Twitter chat, in English and Spanish, from 7 to 9 p.m. ET. Pop-up videos from our reporting trip in Charlotte are here on Storify.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
North Carolina is a battleground state this year. It features one of the races that could decide which party controls the Senate and it's a place where a new swing vote is emerging - Latinos.
NPR's Michel Martin is just back from Charlotte, North Carolina where she spent time with members of the growing Latino community and she joins us now.
Hey there, Michel.
MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.
CORNISH: So this shift in North Carolina, it's not like totally new, it's a long time coming, but help us understand why so many Latinos have actually chosen North Carolina to settle?
MARTIN: Well, we wondered the same thing. Now, it used to be when you thought about the Latino vote, you thought the coasts, the southern border, the Southwest, perhaps Illinois, where Latinos have been established for generations. It turns out that the big move of Latinos to North Carolina came in the 1980s and they came from all across Latin America and you can see this that they are represented in a number of occupations. They own a number of businesses there and when we asked people why they moved specifically to North Carolina, they said for the same reasons that middle-class professionals of other ethnicities move there. They talked about quality of life, affordable housing and good schools. Let me introduce you to one of the people we met, her name is Deborah Aguiar-Velez. She's originally from Puerto Rico so she is of course not an immigrant, but her story was instructive. She is a chemical engineer by training, she's a successful small business owner and this is what she told us.
DEBORAH AGUIAR-VELEZ: I was looking for better weather and lower taxes. I used to live in New Jersey. I lived there for 31 years and when we came to Charlotte, I fell in love with the trees, the city's small, the people are nice, the food is good and the weather and the taxes are perfect. So we moved eight years ago and I think that was one of the best decisions I ever made.
MARTIN: You know and Audie, Deborah was one of five Latina professionals whom we met who talked about the fact that it can be an advantage to be Latino in North Carolina right now. Latinos are only 9 percent of the population, but they told us that the networking is excellent. People are very willing to share contacts and the community is growing quickly and that might be about to translate into some political influence, as well. Today, North Carolina has some 231,000 eligible Latino voters. That's up 49 percent since 2009, according to the census.
CORNISH: Up 49 percent and then the thing is, when you look at that figure - 231,000 eligible voters - it's really striking how young they are.
MARTIN: Very young. According to the Pew Hispanic Center - that's a research organization - the median age of Hispanics in North Carolina is 24 and many of these eligible voters are eligible to vote for the first, or perhaps just the second time. We met five young people who matched that description precisely at a place called the Latin American Coalition. That's an advocacy organization that helps immigrants. Now, not all of the people we met are immigrants, it's important to note that. Some just volunteer there.
Now, you would think that these young voters would be quite an attractive target for candidates in close races, especially because a lot of them haven't really kind of formed any political attachment or another, but these voters didn't necessarily see it that way. They all said that the outreach to the Latino community was for the most part minimal, at least as experienced by them. They said sure, there might be some ads in Spanish, but the voters said they really weren't hearing about the issues that were important to them right now, including immigration reform. For example, here's 20-year-old Mary Espinosa.
MARY ESPINOSA: I have a lot of friends who are undocumented and can't vote. My parents can't vote and so for me, using my ability to vote as a way of them - like, I'll ask my dad, hey dad, who do you think I should vote for? What do you - how do you feel about this? And we'll have discussions about it and then we usually agree, but that's my way of kind of letting my dad's voice count.
MARTIN: Let me just give you one more story, Audie, from another young Latino voter. He's 20 years old. His name is Armando Cruz Martinez. He told us about how immigration officials came to his house looking for somebody else early in the morning one day and took his father away.
ARMANDO CRUZ MARTINEZ: And they asked to come in and they came in and they found my dad in bed, sleeping. And they asked him, are you documented? He said, no, I'm not. And they just took him away and then that was last time that we saw him, until my mom decided she was going to move the whole family to his hometown in Mexico because she didn't want to be away from him. And then I ended up staying here to pursue my education and I haven't seen my family in a good almost four years now.
MARTIN: Audie, as you might imagine, Armando says that this has had a very powerful impact on his life if you're wondering why so many Latino voters prioritize immigration reform, this is one example. Many, many people said that they know someone in exactly this situation. And some people might find this surprising, but Armando says it is the key reason he's making sure that he is eligible to vote, that he is registered to vote and that he's going to vote.
CORNISH: And Michel, the backdrop to all of this of course, the new election laws in North Carolina. Among some of the provisions, it bars same-day voter registration. It cuts off a week of early voting and starting in 2016, new requirements for voter IDs. Some are calling this is the strictest in the nation. Did it actually come up in your conversations with these voters?
MARTIN: Very often. You know, there's a real gap between eligible voters and people who actually vote. Latinos make up 9 percent of the population but only about 2 percent are registered to vote. Some of the people we spoke to believe these changes, as you mentioned, will make this gap even larger, but other people say it's a combination of things.
For example, we talked to Diego Barahona. He is the editor of La Noticia, it's the oldest Spanish-language newspaper in North Carolina. He pointed out that in most of Latin America, voting is compulsory, but in the U.S. it is not. So he thinks that voters who might not like the candidates or who might not like what they stand for might actually prefer the option of not voting.
DIEGO BARAHONA: You don't have still immigration reform so many people's really disappointed. And as you know, you have new law - new voting law. So for them, they are - this election is almost - they don't think it's important because they don't believe in their candidates.
MARTIN: But Audie, I'm thinking that as the numbers of Latino voters increase, they will become a group that cannot be ignored.
CORNISH: Perhaps, but are you actually finding that? I mean, did you see local politicians in Charlotte paying attention to this emerging voting block?
MARTIN: We heard wildly different opinions about that. As you heard, a number of the voters said that they did not feel that the current crop of candidates has made any real outreach to them at all, in fact, that there's some polling data that suggests that only a third of Latino voters contacted in the state by various polling organizations said that they have been contacted by any candidate. But, I also spoke with the mayor of Charlotte, Dan Clodfelter. He's only been mayor for a couple of months but he's been in public life for some time now and when I mentioned that a number of people that we spoke to felt this way, he said that he wasn't surprised. But he says, that's going to change.
MAYOR DAN CLODFELTER: I think there's a lag time before people really fully realize the extent to which the immigrant population has come to the community and become invested in the community, involved in the community so there's a little delay in catching up, as it were.
MARTIN: Well, he told us that that's already changing, that there's a task for us, for example that's been created by the city on precisely this issue working to get immigrants involved in the life of the city.
Let me leave you with one more data point. Of the 10 states with the fastest growing Hispanic populations, eight are in the South - nine, if you include Maryland in that - so clearly, somebody's going to be paying attention to this voting group very soon.
CORNISH: Especially you, right? I understand you're headed back to Charlotte.
MARTIN: I am. I'll be there next Monday night, October 27. We are having a live conversation on voting rights at the McGlohon Theater - that's in Spirit Square - and I'd like to mention there will be a parallel bilingual Twitter chat on the same day, in English and Spanish. Use the hashtag #nprmichel.
CORNISH: And if you'd like to learn more about the event you can find more information at npr.org.
Michel, thanks so much.
MARTIN: Thank you, Audie.
CORNISH: And here's a little more about the series of conversations Michel Martin is having around the country. Next Monday's event in Charlotte? It's just the latest. Michel is hosting live discussions in partnership with member stations and NPR Presents, talking about important topics in the news and in culture. As she likes to say, we're taking the studio to the story. Last month she hosted a conversation on diversity on Broadway with a group of acclaimed playwrights, including Lydia Diamond.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
LYDIA DIAMOND: If I'm going to a play, I want to see myself on the stage and it's not rocket science that the more you put people who look like other people on stage, the more they will come to the theater.
CORNISH: And that's just a taste. Upcoming topics are on women in leadership, education and football. We'll be hearing more from Michel on MORNING EDITION and here on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.