Apr 05, 2024

‘It’s coming,’ demographer says of Latino voting power that could sway key NE elections

Posted Apr 05, 2024 3:05 PM
 A virtual summit to be held Saturday, April 6, looks at the potential of Latino voting power. (Courtesy of Las Voces)
A virtual summit to be held Saturday, April 6, looks at the potential of Latino voting power. (Courtesy of Las Voces)

Cindy Gonzalez

Nebraska Examiner

LINCOLN — Ness Sandoval left his western Nebraska hometown for more schooling and later returned, with a doctorate in hand, only to visit.

While pursued over the years for positions at other university systems around the country, Sandoval said, Nebraska has never been as interested in the expertise of a native Latino who today is a professor of sociology and demography at St. Louis University. 

At age 55 and with a growing family, Sandoval said uprooting at this point is not appealing — even if he were recruited today to a job opportunity. 

Whether a growing tide of younger Latinos feels connected and stays in their Nebraska communities is a factor in when the state reaches the kind of Latino voting power that can shift major elections, Sandoval said.

It’s also a matter of getting immigrant families more engaged in civic activities, including going to the ballot box. 

“The Latino vote. The Latino vote. The Latino vote,” Sandoval said, parroting political pundits. “Before there is the Great Latino Vote, you have to have the Great Latino Registration. Then we have to exercise that right.”

Boosting civic engagement

Sandoval will return, virtually, to his home state for a Saturday summit hosted by Las Voces Nebraska to help boost Latino civic engagement and voting. 

Dubbed “The Nebraska Latino Vote Will Count,” the event features a lineup that includes keynote speaker Rosie Castro of San Antonio, the mother of politically active twin sons Joaquin and Julian Castro. Joaquin is a U.S. congressman representing Texas and Julian is a former San Antonio mayor and Obama administration cabinet member.

Rosie Castro, a firebrand in her own right, is a civil rights activist and educator who just recently served a stint on the San Antonio City Council when a seat was vacated. That moment on the council came last year, 52 years after she ran unsuccessfully for the same political entity in 1971 — on a platform that the at-large council member system in effect at the time stymied diversity and representation.

Scheduled also to speak on a panel are Latino officials including State Sen. Ray Aguilar of Grand Island, former Lincoln City Council member Michelle Suarez, Grand Island School Board member Erik Garcia and Wood River City Council Blanca Rodriguez.

Business and civic leaders from cities such as Fremont, Scottsbluff and Omaha are set to talk about efforts in their communities. 

J.S. Onesimo “Ness” Sandoval — the St. Louis professor who grew up in Scottsbluff and specializes in research on patterns of social, economic and environmental inequality —  will set the stage with a look at the state’s demographic landscape.

‘Not small growth’

Inevitable, Sandoval said, is continued sizable growth in the number of eligible Latino voters in Nebraska, many from families of earlier immigration waves.

Hispanics are a relatively young population, he said, and pointed to Census data: 12.4% of Nebraska today is Latino/Hispanic, compared to 2.3% in 1990.

“This is not small growth,” said Sandoval. “It’s going to continue to grow as you go forward.”

While such growth will translate into voting power, Sandoval said that won’t happen in a game-changing way until more young members of newer immigrant families come of age to vote.

It will likely be closer to 2050, he said, before Nebraska sees the sheer numbers of Latinos that could shift major elections.

“It’s coming,” he said.

Differences among Latinos

Variables, he said, include how soon and deeply the population engages more in community and civic affairs.  

He questioned why the City of Lexington, which has a majority Latino population whose immigrant community is more established than most rural areas of the state, hasn’t yet had a Hispanic mayor.

Places like Schuyler and Madison also have majority Hispanic populations, but Sandoval said many of the children of immigrant families there are still too young to vote.

Of course not all Nebraska Hispanics share the same political views, just as not all share the same ancestral roots or country of origin, Sandoval and others note. 

That can contribute to the difficulty of organizing newer immigrant leaders and voter education efforts, which Rebecca Gonzales of Las Voces said is expensive and time-consuming. Results aren’t easy to quantify.

She recalled her earlier work with Nebraska Appleseed, when she and another Spanish-speaking staffer began traversing the state in 2008 to build a “basic infrastructure” through which immigrants could better understand worker rights and access resources.

Those seeds have helped yield fruit, she said, citing nonprofits such as Unity in Action of South Sioux City, which is about to celebrate its 10th anniversary. Gonzales noted other strides including the formation of Empowering Families of Scottsbluff, a nonprofit born in 2018, and the Fremont Spanish Networking Group, a program under that city’s chamber of commerce.


Momentum in building diversity programs has reversed, though, in recent years, said Gonzales, a lawyer. She said increasing political “backlash” against new migrants also has impacted established third- and fourth-generation immigrants.

“We’re basically in a situation where we’re struggling for our civil rights,” Maria del Rosario “Rosie” Castro said in an interview.

She cited the controversial Texas immigration law that would allow state police new and broad powers to arrest migrants.

She also referred to Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen’s alliance with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in sending State Patrol troopers to help at the Texas border.

In some ways, Castro said, she sees a return to the 1970s, when immigrants and Latinos became the “boogeyman.” 

‘Way to change things’

Meanwhile, she said, activism among community leaders is not as strident as was the case decades ago. People who have benefited from the battle for civil rights have become “busy” with life, she said. 

To be sure, opening doors to more opportunity was a reason for past activism, she said. But progress in diversity, equity and inclusion is “being eroded,” she said, and she touts events such as Saturday’s summit to help inform and provoke more engagement in communities.

Said Castro: “Voting is a way to change things.”