When Arizona enacted a law in 1972 effectively preventing farmworkers from organizing, Cesar Chavez and I met with local Latino leaders here who were skeptical that change could ever happen in the state. No se puede, they repeated. In Arizona, it can’t be done. These leaders were facing a seemingly all-powerful agribusiness lobby and an unsympathetic governor, who had said in reference to farm workers, “as far as I’m concerned, those people don’t exist.” But I had seen the transformative power of grassroots organizing. I told them: si se puede. Yes, we can.
What became the refrain of the farmworkers’ campaign here and across the country—and eventually President Obama’s campaign slogan—could just as easily be the rallying cry for the 2016 election. At a time when Latino communities are under attack, when the Republican presidential nominee wants to forcibly deport 11 million undocumented people and paints Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals, yes we can fight back and create a more hopeful political reality. Si se puede.
When commentators talk about the potential impact of Latino voters on 2016, the focus tends to be on a few battleground states with a large number of Latino voters—namely, Nevada, Colorado, and, of course, Florida. But there are other places where Latino voters could cast the deciding ballots this year. Here in Arizona, the growing Latino electorate could make a difference in the outcome of the presidential election in a way conventional political wisdom hasn’t previously thought was possible. Arizonans could not only decide the election, but this year could also determine who controls the Senate.
By any measure the numbers are there if we vote. Arizona’s changing demographics, as well as efforts to register and mobilize Latino voters in the wake of the draconian anti-immigrant SB 1070 bill and in the years following, could be helping to push the state from red to purple. Latino voters in Arizona have shown that they are willing to fight back at the ballot box against attacks on our communities. Consider this: In the 2008 election, Latino voters cast less than 12 percent of the ballots in the state. After SB 1070 was signed into law in 2010, that number shot up to almost 19 percent. The state’s Latino electorate has only grown since then, and with Trump’s anti-immigrant hate at the top of the Republican ticket, there’s plenty of reasons to show up at the polls again this year. Latino communities here in Arizona may be on the cusp of turning the tide and realizing the kind of political power we envisioned in that 1972 meeting.
Those who say it can’t be done only need to look next door to the example of California. It was never easy there, and vested interests against us were strong. In the 1994 California governor’s race, Pete Wilson campaigned on a horrific anti-immigrant measure, Proposition 187, that prevented undocumented immigrants from accessing essential services like health care and education. Even though Wilson and Prop 187 won at the ballot box that year, the GOP’s anti-immigrant hate set off a transformation of the state’s politics, with Latino political participation skyrocketing and the state ultimately shifting from red to blue. The lesson? If you push anti-immigrant and anti-Latino policies—if you push exclusion and division—and if we simply vote, you will lose out, in a big way.
It’s a lesson that Republicans don’t seem to have learned. Donald Trump has taken every opportunity to smear Latino communities, from peddling damaging stereotypes to questioning the ability of a federal judge to do his job simply because of his heritage. He is pushing his own anti-immigrant agenda and demonizing an entire community of people. And Republicans across the country are falling in line with his extreme agenda.
So here’s a warning for the Party of Trump: What happened in California won’t stay in California. It can happen right here in Arizona, and it can happen across the country. Latino voters can raise our voices against the anti-immigrant hate poisoning our politics, and we can decide an election through turning out and voting on Election Day. The words I first said in 1972 in this state still ring true today: si se puede. Yes, we can.
Civil rights leader Dolores Huerta is the co-founder of the United Farm Workers and serves on the board of People For the American Way.