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Harris County Latino voters rank the economy, education, and safety among their top priorities

Houston Public Media interviewed 15 Hispanic residents, as part of a Texas Newsroom statewide project, on what their main concerns are heading into the midterm elections. Listen for more Latino voters’ voices this week as we air a series of montages.

Daisy Espinoza/Houston Public Media
Fernando Diaz, 66 (right), is a pipefitter from Baytown. He named education and public safety as his top priorities heading into the 2022 elections.

If you are a Latino or Latina voter, what issues do you want to see tackled by your candidates? What do you actually want to see changed? Tweet your answer to @Aschneider_HPM

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Nearly one out of three Texans can claim Hispanic heritage, and while not all vote, those that do can sway elections. As a part of a Texas Newsroom statewide project, Houston Public Media spoke with Latino voters across Harris County about their concerns as the midterm elections approached.

Hispanic residents make up roughly a quarter of Harris County's registered voters. Texas as a whole has about the same percentage, which means both in the Houston area and statewide, it pays for candidates to listen to Latino voters. Common threads emerged in conversations with 15 Hispanic residents from neighborhoods as distant as Katy and Baytown. Carmelo Salgado spoke on his way to a baseball game at Minute Maid Park, as the Astros were finishing up their winning season.

"In these next elections, the priority for me is the economy, what they propose to improve the economy, and, more than anything else, security. We are living very difficult times in terms of security, especially in schools, so those are my priorities," Salgado said.

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The economy, particularly the rising cost of living, was the top concern among most of those residents interviewed, followed by education and school safety. That tracked closely with the findings of a recent poll by Univision, as well as with those of political scientists who study Hispanic voting patterns.

Jeronimo Cortina, an associate professor of political science at the University of Houston, said the top concern of most Latino voters are "the normal issues that you would expect amongst the electorate, and those issues are related to, you know inflation, high prices, especially when you go to the supermarket (as well as) gas prices."

That's certainly the case for Luz Canchanya. Originally from Peru, Canchanya was getting food donations at Ripley House, a community center in Houston's East End.

"This food delivery helps us a lot because everything is very expensive as everything has gone up. Eggs, meat, vegetables," Canchanya said.

Juan Antonio Sorto, of East Houston, just earned his Ph.D. in urban planning and environmental policy from Texas Southern University. His mother fled the Salvadoran Civil War in the 1980s. Sorto is the first member of his family to attend college, and for him, the economy and education are bound together. He's carrying $200,000 in student debt.

"And so now I’m having to tell my younger sister, I’m having to tell my future kids, do you want a house, or do you want a college education?" Sorto said. "Which one do you want? Because you’re not going to have both right now."

Andrew Schneider/Houston Public Media
The economy and education are the main worries of Juan Antonio Sorto, 37, of East Houston.

It’s little surprise that, for many, the issue of education is tied to school safety and gun control. It's been just five months since the mass school shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, where nearly all of those murdered were Hispanic.

"The security issue," is what's important for Edgar Castro, a native of Venezuela who now lives in Katy. "That they try to be a little more rigid, a little stronger on arms possession. (Guns) have taken the lives of children in schools and in various parts of the country."

The same goes for Patricia Mares of Spring, who attended the Astros game with her 15-year-old son. "I think we need to be talking about the safety of our kids in schools. I think that’s something that’s important," Mares said.

Immigration only ranked third as a concern among those polled, and it tied with concerns about crime and public safety, as well as the quality of infrastructure such as traffic and drainage.

Robert Ramos of East Houston sees the issues of immigration and public safety as intertwined. "Concentrate on the crime," Ramos said. "We can’t have open borders. We have to protect the American citizens first." There is no direct evidence connecting undocumented immigration to crime.

Particularly in Texas, Latinos' views on immigration are as diverse as the Latino community itself. Mark Jones, a professor of political science at Rice University, conducted research on Hispanic voters' priorities for the Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation.

"Texas Hispanics are directly affected by what happens on the border and by immigration directly, both when they’re down on the border, but also in areas like Harris County and Houston, where the neighborhoods where most recent immigrants go are Hispanic neighborhoods. So, Texas Hispanics are more directly affected by immigration and border security than are say Hispanics elsewhere in the country, or Anglo Democrats in places like San Francisco and New York," Jones said.

It's also worth remembering that many Latino Texans are not recent immigrants themselves but come from families that have lived in the state for generations.

"The longer your family has been in the United States," Jones said, "second-, third-, fourth-, fifth-generation or beyond, you’re more likely to align with Governor Abbott’s policies. But if you’re a recent immigrant yourself or first generation, you’re more likely to support Joe Biden’s policies."

Stephani Vélez of Katy, for example, wants compassion for people who come to this country who want to work but lack all the necessary documentation.

"They contribute so that the country continues to be prosperous," Vélez said. "It is not like most people think, that an immigrant arrives and an opportunity is taken away from a person here. Because the majority came to do the jobs that those from here do not want.”

Henrietta Castillo of South Houston, who spoke at a refreshment stand in Pasadena, was disappointed with both Republican and Democratic leaders for how they've dealt with the issue of immigration.

"I went into the Freedom Riders in 2000, when (George W.) Bush was there, and they didn’t do nothing. They just postponed," Castillo said. "(Barack) Obama, the same thing. Now, Joe Biden is improving a little bit, but it’s always a debate between Republicans and Democrats. It is always a controversy."

Daisy Espinoza/Houston Public Media
Henrietta Castillo, 64, of South Houston named immigration as her main concern.

Another issue on Hispanic voters minds is reproductive rights, particularly in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision overturning Roe v. Wade. That triggered a Texas law effectively banning abortions in the state.

"I think the abortion laws coming up in Texas really do keep me up about how reproductive rights for females are going to be looking in the next few decades," said Lidiane Zamarripa, a University of Houston student majoring in social work.

That brings up a major factor dividing the Hispanic Texas population on political matters: religion.

"The sharpest split in opinion related to immigration and abortion occurs between Texas Hispanics who are Evangelical Protestants and those who have no religious identification or (are) Catholic – with Texas Hispanics who are Evangelical Protestants being far more likely to support Governor (Greg) Abbott’s abortion policies as well as Governor Abbott’s immigration and border security policies." Rice University's Mark Jones said.

Evangelical Protestants account for between one-fifth and one-quarter of all Texas Hispanic voters, with most of the rest being Catholic or not identifying with a particular religion. It's an important distinction, given that Democrats are staking their hopes on Texas' Latino population to help return them to statewide office.

"The Hispanic community — if it continues to vote roughly 40% Republican, 60% Democrat — will ensure that Republicans retain majority control in Texas," Jones said. "The only way that Texas Democrats actually obtain majority control is by moving that split from 60/40 up to something closer to 70/30. And Republicans know that."

Daisy Espinoza contributed reporting to this story.

Andrew Schneider

Andrew Schneider

Politics and Government Reporter

Andrew heads Houston Public Media's coverage of national, state, and local elections. He also reports on major policy issues before the Texas Legislature and county and city governments across Greater Houston. Before taking up his current post, Andrew spent five years as Houston Public Media's business reporter, covering the oil...

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