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Organizers hit the streets of North Philly to talk to Latino voters

Mijente, a group ‘fighting for Latinx rights, justice, and radical change’, has a long game when it comes to electoral politics

Sonia Pagan places an information sheet on a house on the 4000 block of N. Fairhill Street on Monday. She and other volunteers are working with Mijente to encourage Spanish-speaking voters to go to the polls Tuesday.
Sonia Pagan places an information sheet on a house on the 4000 block of N. Fairhill Street on Monday. She and other volunteers are working with Mijente to encourage Spanish-speaking voters to go to the polls Tuesday.Read moreAlejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer

Erika Almirón, a Philadelphia organizer at Mijente, believes Latino voters are often an afterthought throughout election season. Her Latinx rights organization wants to change that.

“When it comes down to the wire, candidates look at and crunch numbers. Had they been engaging since the beginning, there probably wouldn’t be such a panic,” Almirón said.

Latinos are the fastest growing population in the city and in the state, with Philadelphia nearly 16% Latino, according to Census figures. Yet the community also has one of the lowest voter turnout rates recorded with only 4% of voters in the 2020 general election identifying as Latino or Hispanic, up 1% from the 2018 general election. According to Almirón, there are about 148,000 Latino or Hispanic registered voters in Philadelphia while Pew research shows that there are 521,000 eligible Latino or Hispanic voters in the state.

“Are we doing a halfway decent job of registering folks? Are they just not excited to come out and vote?” Almirón wondered. “If we actually tapped into the potential of the Latino vote and if we had politicians that could talk to our folks and know how to do it, [we] could have a situation where Pennsylvania is no longer a swing state.”

The organizer has a long game. “The objective is to start the conversations now but to later have doubled or tripled the number of Latinos showing up to the polls in the 2023 mayoral race and the 2024 presidential race.”

Taking matters into their own hands this election season, Mijente organizers and volunteers set out to knock on 37,000 Latino doors throughout North Philadelphia over the three days leading up to Election Day. As of Monday morning, the volunteers had knocked on almost 5,000 doors and had 1,437 conversations. But their method is less traditional; Mijente values meaningful conversations over the number of doors knocked.

The expected rate of conversations for this type of canvassing is 8%, but Mijente reached 30%. Organizing Director Chio Valerio-González noted that people are more likely to open their doors and have conversations with people who are from their own community.

The organization is no stranger to wide-scale canvassing. During the 2020 election, Mijente, which is made up of Latinx and Chicanx people that organize movements for justice, set out on a mission to knock on every Latino door in Georgia. Here in Philly, their canvassing journey started as far down as Kensington and south of Lehigh Avenue near Norris Square, went beyond Frankford Avenue, then crossed Roosevelt Boulevard to canvass the Fox Chase and Olney neighborhoods.

“This is our city. I’m never gonna give up. This is home.”

María Méndez

North Philly historically has the largest population of Latinos in the city,” Almirón said. “The history goes back 80 years. There used to be a barrio on Spring Garden and it keeps moving North. It’s a community that has also been heavily disinvested in for a very long time.”

“Even as we see the city being gentrified and our folks are being pushed out of their neighborhoods, they all seem to be kind of moving into North Philadelphia. And that includes Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, South Americans, Mexicans. So it’s like a melting pot up there at this point,” said Almirón, who is Paraguayan and also from the neighborhood.

‘I feel like we’ve created a family here’

Each morning, Mijente organizers and volunteers met at La Iglesia Episcopal de Cristo y San Ambrosio to have breakfast during their daily pep talk. Volunteers asked questions in Spanish about what to do when someone slams the door in your face, how to deal with mean Chihuahuas, and the general discomfort that comes along with knocking on a stranger’s door.

Ruby Fuentes was scheduled for gallbladder surgery on Monday at 11:30 a.m. but she still showed up for day three of canvassing in her neighborhood.

“I still felt the need to come out here and speak to people, let them know that they’re important,” Fuentes said. In her time volunteering with Mijente, she learned that there are 80,000 Hispanic or Latino eligible voters in the 7th Council District, and only 3,000 are voting. “How can we expect change if we don’t step up and vote?”

Canvasser Frank Fuentes stressed the importance of making sure their neighbors understood the weight this election carries. “Every [voter] has to come out; it doesn’t matter if they come out in the morning or if they come out at night,” he said. “Teaching people, it’s a blessing ... because you teach that one person, that person goes and tells his neighbor or calls her sister. Now we have a community rallying together. ... Not all of us are here for money, we’re here to save our community.”

María Méndez, an 18-year-old canvasser with Mijente and staffer at Juntos, brought a high level of energy to the early morning gathering.

“I feel like we’ve created a family here,” she said. “I’m so happy to see so many people from North Philly come out and encourage their community to listen to us, hear us. That’s so powerful and I’m so honored to be here. ... This is our city. I’m never gonna give up. This is home.”

Breakfast concluded with Valerio-González leading the group in a chant: “I do it for my people! ¡Yo lo hago con Mijente!”

‘Recognized by the electoral process’

A recent study by Emerson College that surveyed Latino voters in Colorado showed that voters in these communities felt equally pessimistic about Republican and Democratic candidates, and that some Latino voters felt like a “token” to candidates.

“There are many undecided people, there are many people who are angry with the politics,” said Sonia Pagan, a canvasser with Mijente. “We as Latinos, our role is to prompt these people to learn, that is, to educate them and say, ‘Look, this is not a matter of politics, this is a matter of us being Latinos and we have to increase the number of Latinos voting because the more of us there are, the more power we’ll have.’ ”

Pagan took her daughter-in-law, 18-year-old Alondra Plaza, out to canvas with her. Plaza, a first-time voter,hopes to see this election lead to a safer city.

“Voting is really important this year,” she said.

While the number of doors knocked may be fewer than Mijente wanted initially, Almirón explains that their ambition runs deeper than a single number. “We want them to feel recognized by the electoral process,” she said. “[That is] the beginning of getting them excited about showing up to the polls.”

The work produced by the Communities & Engagement desk at The Inquirer is supported by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Editorial content is created independently of the project's donors.