Sergio Arellano has seen the face of war head-on, having been injured as a U.S. infantry soldier by a bomb in Iraq and coming home as one more wounded warrior. Wracked by pain, he ended up homeless on the streets of his native Tucson.
But Arellano, 37, who is no longer homeless and lives in both Tucson and Phoenix, is about to go again to a different kind of war, but this time in Arizona — a key battleground in the upcoming presidential election. President Donald Trump and his campaign are counting on Arellano and other Hispanic volunteers as his ground shock troops to help him tilt the border state to his favor by courting perhaps the most widely contentious and, his critics say, his ultimate adversarial group of voters: Latinos.
Arellano and Latinos for Trump, a group of volunteers formed after the 2016 elections, are back on the hot streets of Phoenix, Tucson and Yuma, where most of Arizona's population is concentrated. Arizona went for Trump in 2016 with the support of rural dwellers.
But the state has seen a surge of new residents and voters coming from California and other blue strongholds, who have led political observers to believe Arizona is up for grabs. The desert state's voters could end up giving a decisive edge to the president or former vice president Joe Biden to nab a victory in November.
For Arellano, who is now on the advisory board for Latinos for Trump, its a very personal decision to join the Republican Party in a state where, like most Western states, most Latinos are Democrats. He recalls that as a homeless vet in the 2000s, he reached out to the Democratic Party, as for decades it had been considered the natural political fit for Latinos:
I never got a call back. Then I appeared at a Republican event. As soon as they saw me they brought me in with open arms. They said, "Hey, you belong with us, and this is our platform." It was pro-small business, less taxes, pro-second amendment. Those are things that I definitely stand for and value.
Now, after years of struggling and receiving medical treatment for back pain, Arellano is back on track. He currently has a small marketing company and believes that voting for Trump will help Arizonans and especially Latinos reach their goals.
"Latinos are conservative, they just don't know it," Arellano told a crowd last week during President Trump's visit to Phoenix for a Latinos for Trump roundtable.
In spite of criticism from Democrats that he is against minorities, Trump has a slew of grassroots minority volunteers on his side, albeit without the big coffers and trained street activism of the Biden-Harris campaign. Latinos for Trump has at least 25 Hispanics on its advisory board and 16 field offices in key states, focusing on voter registration and turnout.
Every presidential election season, partisans on both sides of the political divide say the particular race before them is the most important to date, but this time they really mean it. Democrats and progressives are determined to defeat Trump and Vice President Mike Pence come Nov. 3, while many conservatives believe that a loss would mean not only a death blow to traditionalists but the end of the country as they have known it.
With such a tight, unpredictable and rabid race, supporters on either side say a victory could boil down to even the slightest minutiae in the electoral process. In comes Latinos for Trump.
In 2019, the number of Latinos in the United States reached 60.6 million, up from 50.7 million in 2010, according to a report by the Pew Research Center. That's a stark contrast to 1970, when Hispanics made up barely 5% of the nation's residents. In 2019 they are up to 18%, making them the largest minority group in America.
With 32 million Latinos eligible to vote in the upcoming elections, up from 27.3 million in 2016, Hispanics will be the largest racial and ethnic minority group in the elections, according to a Pew report. The report adds they will account for just over 13% of the eligible voters this November.
Four in five Latinos are U.S. citizens, and people of Mexican origin, like Arellano, add up to over 60% of Hispanics. Still, though Latinos share many common traits like being Christian (mostly Catholic), the use of Spanish language and many traditions, they are not a homogenous group.
The second-largest group of Latinos is Puerto Ricans, the third is people of Cuban origin. Many other Latinos come from several countries in Latin America, Central America, the Caribbean and Spain.
With the exception of Florida — with its large population of voters of Cuban origin, who have consistently voted for conservative candidates and issues — Biden is expected to carry the majority of the Latino vote nationwide, especially in four of the five key states where most of Latinos reside: California, Texas, New York and Arizona.
But the question that worries many top-level Democrats right now is by how large of a margin can Biden take Trump with the Latino vote? The Biden-Harris campaign did not return email requests from Church Militant for interviews regarding this story, but many Latino Democrats are vexed that while the Trump campaign has been vigorously working to get new Hispanic voters, Biden has lagged considerably in courting Latinos.
One concerned Democrat is former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, the only Latino who ran in the Democratic presidential primary. Castro, a San Antonio native, told The Washington Post he believed that Biden's campaign should have started pursuing Latino voters sooner.
"The campaign understands that this is a priority, but at the same time there needs to be a little bit more support shown," he told the Post. "If we allow a narrative to take shape that somehow the issues of concern to this growing community are not prioritized, then we risk backsliding in the years to come."
Even so, Democrats say Trump has far bigger problems than Biden-Harris has with Latinos. They deride Trump as a racist who in 2015 announced his presidential campaign by thrashing Mexico and vowing to build a wall on the Southern border and having Mexicans pay for it.
"When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending the best. They're not sending you, they're sending people that have lots of problems and they're bringing those problems," Trump said in a speech at Trump Tower in New York. "They're bringing drugs, they're bringing crime. They're rapists and some, I assume, are good people, but I speak to border guards and they're telling us what we're getting."
Since then, Trump has become one of the most reviled figures among many Latinos. For some, the mere thought of Latinos for Trump is blasphemy.
"Have they no shame? Of course they don't. They're nothing more than opportunists kissing up to Trump to attract attention to themselves," wrote Elvia Diaz, a columnist for the Arizona Republic, a daily newspaper in Phoenix, after Trump's visit last week, referring to the members of Latinos for Trump who showed up.
Arellano — who is of Mexican origin, speaks Spanish and visits relatives in Mexico often — says he reconciles Trump's allegedly racist words with the fact that many "coyotes" — human smugglers — repeatedly rape immigrant women as they cross the border with no documents or force migrants to smuggle drugs. He adds that he personally has known people and family members who, while crossing, have been held for ransom by cartels or were intercepted by hit men, forcing them to carry drugs at gunpoint.
"Let's be real, as real as we can be. I can tell you by firsthand. That is the reality we are facing," Arellano says. "How do I consolidate that with voting for Trump? It's by knowing the facts, doing the research and educating the people as to what's really happening."
As for the immigration debate, Arellano, whose parents migrated from Mexico to Arizona and, along with about 3 million other undocumented immigrants, received an amnesty from then-President Ronald Reagan during the late 1980s, says Democrats have vowed for decades to help immigrants but have never delivered. The only amnesty granted to undocumented folk was done by Reagan, a Republican; two other proposals were pushed by Republicans George W. Bush and Trump, but were stalled by Democrats.
"They [Democrats] didn't do squat for the Latinos, for immigration. Obama was The 'deporter in chief.' He deported more Latinos than any president in the history of the United States," Arellano says.
Both Biden and Trump are currently in full campaign mode. But Trump has clearly been more active on the trail, including visits to Latino groups. He showed up for a lightning visit to Phoenix last week for a roundtable that was attended by Arellano and other prominent Latino supporters.
In spite of Arizona's current ban on 50 people or more at one place, at least 300 people showed up to see Trump. The lively crowd gave Trump a warm welcome that led the president to say: "This is supposed to be a roundtable but it looks like a rally," as the crowd cheered on.
Two days later, Ivanka Trump, 38, showed up at the Latinos for Trump office in Phoenix, where she joined the volunteers at the office in phoning voters.
Vice President Pence appeared in Phoenix two days later for a Veterans for Trump event and for a Hispanic Heritage month celebration. The day before, his wife Karen was campaigning in town.
Arellano says that clearly, Latinos are important to the Trump campaign.
The Biden-Harris ticket may have been late in campaigning for Latino votes, but it's preparing a veritable blitzkrieg of advertising, outspending Trump and Pence, booking $125.1 million in ads in September compared to $65.1 million for Trump, according to Advertising Analytics. In addition, Mike Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City and one-time presidential candidate, has committed $100 million of his own money to the Biden campaign to be used in Florida, a state with a large Latino voting sector and a must-win for Trump.
When a reporter points out to Arellano that the Biden campaign is about to unleash its vast, ardent war machine to pluck Latino voters from Trump, he smiles and says he is confident the president's message and accomplishments will resonate with Hispanic voters. Also, he believes in the Latinos for Trump volunteers, their hard work and zeal to their cause.
"We have actual offices in Arizona. When you put that in contrast to the other side, they have zero Latino offices. I don't know why. I think they still continue to take Latinos for granted and never give them anything in return," Arellano says.
Latino partisans for Trump have directly or indirectly affected many Catholic Latinos, says Luis Román, the popular YouTube personality and host of Conoce, Ama y Vive tu fe (Know, Love and Live your Faith). Román, a Florida Catholic who attends the Tridentine Mass, is openly backing Trump and extolling his hundreds of thousands of viewers and podcast listeners who can vote to do so come November, despite the president's sometimes less than suave personality.
Román tells his listeners that Trump's opposition to abortion, along with the Democratic Party's ever-deepening allegiance with anti-Christian forces and support of the LGBTQ movement's agenda, make it a no-brainer as to which candidate to choose in November.
Sure, Trump is no saint, he says, but at stake here is not only choosing the more likable candidate, but an entire platform and team that will lead the most powerful country on earth.
"I'm not going to deny it, there are things in Trump that we may not like. But definitely the Republican platform, one can identify with it more than the platform of the Democrat Party. Sometimes people forget we are not just voting for one man," Román says.
Hispanics make up 35% of Catholics in the United States and have fueled 71% of the growth of the Church in the country since 1960, according to an August report by the United States Conference of Bishops. The report adds that 68% of Latinos in the country are Catholic.
Just one month before the 2012 presidential elections, Pew published a study that found that three-quarters of Latinos would vote for President Barack Obama. Since then, some polls say that Latinos are leaning more and more towards progressive stances, including LGBTQ causes.
But Román says that Catholicism, as well as family life, is so ingrained in most Latinos, that issues like immigration, a favorite theme among many lapsed Latino and progressive Catholics, take a back seat to their faith. Issues like being pro-life come first, he says.
I cannot compare abortion with immigration. When you have a party that is supporting this genocide, that wants to permit girls to go to abortion clinics without them telling nothing to their parents, that promotes gender ideology where there can be three moms and a son and two dads and a son, destroying the traditional family, that promotes that it should be the government who decides what will be taught to our children, as a Catholic, I am frightened.
But Román is far from alone in supporting Latinos who are for Trump.
Jesse Romero, a former Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy-turned-Catholic preacher penned the book, A Catholic Vote for Trump: The Only Choice in 2020 for Republicans, Democrats, and Independents Alike.
Like Román, Romero says that because Latinos are very pro-family oriented and Catholic, the Republican party is the "natural home" for them. He adds that most Latinos really don't know the actual Democratic platform, which he says has shifted away from old-school, blue-collar family values in favor of extreme, progressive ideology. Romero explains:
Especially with moral issues, the issues of life, of marriage. The average Hispanic is horrified when they hear the Democratic position on those issues. The Democratic Party left the Catholic faith a long time ago. It's been hijacked by extremists — by progressives. A lot of Latinos still suffer from nostalgia. They still think they are back in the '60s Democratic Party. Nope. That's gone.
In comparison, Romero sees Trump as the most pro-Catholic president of his lifetime — appearing at the Annual March For Life, for example. He says he finds it refreshing that the president invokes the name of Jesus Christ constantly.
Romero adds that Trump has from the beginning of his presidency taken on behind-the-scenes cabal world power players and other lurid special interest groups to prevent more wars and a Chinese communist takeover of American life.
"That's why he has made so many enemies," Romero says. "He's not for Wall Street, he's for Main Street. That's why they tried to impeach him from day one."
"The man loves this country," he continues. "What billionaire would take a job and work for free? Ten to 15 hours a day and be subject to having his wife, kids and grandkids harassed 24-hours-a-day from the mainstream media and still gets up the next day."
"Why?" Romero asks. "Because he loves this country. Love, according to Catholicism, is doing and desiring what's best for another person. He demonstrates he loves this country by his actions."
While Latinos for Trump duke it out for voters against Biden-Harris supporters on the streets of Florida, Arizona and other key states, a new battleground has emerged between the two forces: the Spanish-language media and Hispanic entertainment shows.
The war for voters for the presidency of the United States has spilled into the posh world of Latino pop singers, the glittery soap opera world of Telenovelas and the Spanish-language entertainment programs of media network giants Univision, Telemundo and Mexico's Televisa and TV Azteca.
Democrats have for decades enjoyed the support of Latino media and entertainment stars. In 2016, Mexican Ranchera legend Vicente Fernández encouraged Latino voters to vote for Hillary Clinton. In 2020, his son, singer/superstar Alejandro Fernández, is supporting the Biden campaign by singing anti-Trump songs.
Former teen idol Ricky Martin is also campaigning for Biden, saying that Trump has been bad for Puerto Rico. And Luis Fonsi, the Puerto Rican ballad singer who had a hit with Daddy Yankee, "Despacito" (Slowly), sung in the often sexually charged reggaeton genre, is also bidding for the former vice president.
In fact, Biden played "Despacito" on his smartphone before delivering a speech last week in Kissimmee, Florida, during a Hispanic Heritage Month event. Biden threw in some dance moves to the rhythm of Fonsi.
"I'll tell you what, if I had the talent of any one of these people, I'd be elected president by acclamation," Biden said, referring to Fonsi, as well as singer Ricky Martin and actress Eva Longoria, who also spoke ahead of Biden in the event.
Biden's Despacito dance captured headlines, but in the Spanish-speaking media in the United States and Mexico, it was Telenovela actress Patricia Navidad (often called Paty Navidad), who garnered the most attention. In a long Tweet, Navidad, a recording artist with several gold records in the Mexican regional music genre and a soap opera superstar, appeared wearing a red MAGA hat. She called on Latino voters in the United States and Mexicans to support Trump, saying he was the best choice for Mexico.
"The best thing that can happen to the world in these moments, especially to Latin America and even more so, to Mexico, is for Trump to win," Navidad tweeted.
Navidad has over 181,000 followers on Twitter. In the last months, the former beauty queen from the Mexican Pacific state of Sinaloa has been harping against what she calls a new world order, criticizing some billionaires and a mysterious cabal of people whom she says are plotting to introduce lurid vaccines in the name of COVID-19.
Her pro-Trump comments sparked a firestorm in Mexico, where Twitter users criticized her for wearing the MAGA hat, calling her a traitor and bashing her as mentally unstable. Her comments also caused an uproar in Spanish-language media in the United States.
But Navidad pressed on. She said Trump is the sole champion who is left to defend the world against an axis of evil.
"Without a doubt! Donald Trump must win," she said. "He is against the globalist agenda, the dictatorial N.O.M [new world order], against socialism and Marxist/communist ideologies, against pedophilia and more. He defends the family, life, the values and sovereignty of countries — he is in favor of truth."
Biden's Latino supporters had not yet recovered from the Navidad scandal when they learned also last week that Trump had asked Eduardo Verástegui, the Mexican movie star (who starred in Chasing Papi), to join the president's Advisory Committee on Hispanic Prosperity.
Verástegui, who started his career as a model in the early '90s, had a spiritual conversion in his Catholic faith in the mid-2000s. He has since turned into a champion for pro-life and other humanitarian causes.
Critics from progressive circles in Mexico bashed Verástegui for appearing in a photo next to Trump and Pence. Verástegui told digital media channel López Dóriga that his nomination for the Trump team was the culmination of 16 years of work, after he promised his parents that he would never take part in movie or projects that put down Latinos, including portraying them as gang members or sex objects.
"I know it's a decision that generates conflict but it's something I want to see as an opportunity ... to build," he told López Dóriga. "With honey you gain more than with bitterness, and now that I have the opportunity of, like they say in my hometown, go all the way into the kitchen, I must go in."
But Hispanic Catholics who are faithful to the Magisterium like Verástegui, Román or Romero are not the only Christians who are supporting Trump. Former archrivals for Latino Catholics in the United States and Latin America are now stepping up to come to their aid in electing Trump: Evangelicals.
For almost a century, Hispanic Evangelicals used to pound Catholics, overcoming them in proselytizing wars, street by street, house by house, often winning battles and securing millions of members for their churches. But now, Rev. Samuel Rodríguez, President of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC) — the largest organization of Latino Evangelical churches in the world, with over 42,000 churches affiliated across the United States and the Spanish-speaking world — says it's time for Evangelicals and Catholics to stop bashing each other and come together for a common cause.
Rodríguez, who besides heading the influential NHCLC has also served as an advisor to former president Barack Obama and now for President Trump, is reaching out to some Catholic bishops, including Abp. José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Rodríguez, 50, who is of Puerto Rican origin, says he believes Evangelicals and Catholics must join forces for these upcoming elections and beyond.
"We can't move forward as Latino Evangelicals as it pertains to advancing the Lamb's agenda without collaborating with our Catholic brothers and sisters," said Rodríguez Friday. "We can't advance life, religious liberty and local justice in the name of Jesus unless we are collaborating with our Catholic brothers and sisters."
Rodríguez has been in the middle of the fracas between Trump and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi regarding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) or Dreamer's Act, which offers legal protection to undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children. Rodríguez and several Evangelical pastors tried to mediate with Trump, telling him to build his border wall but to give DACA youths a legal path to legalization.
The controversial program has been in court limbo and still rages on. But for Rodríguez, who makes clear that the NHCLC does not officially endorse any candidate, the agendas of Republicans and Democrats are clear. In 2008, half of Evangelicals supported Barack Obama, but he adds that the Democrats have shifted so far leftward that they cannot back them this time.
"Latinos are the most pro-life community in America, according to Pew Research," Rodríguez says. "How in the world can the most pro-life community support a candidate or a party that believes in late-term abortion up to the ninth month and even when the baby comes out of the womb? Are you kidding me?"
"So you have to sacrifice your baby and your Christian worldview on the altar of political expediency if you support the Democratic Party and the candidacy of Joe Biden in 2020," he adds.
As a pro-life, pro-religious biblical justice movement, the NHCLC is asking Latino Evangelicals to vote accordingly, Rodríguez says. But as a pastor, he says Latinos should avoid voting for Biden; he says that the former vice president's party's agenda will turn-off Latinos and send them scrambling to vote for Trump.
"Latinos, we can't in any form or shape drink the kool-aid. I don't care if Joe Biden sings 'Despacito' or dances the Macarena and participates in a Jennifer Lopez video," Rodríguez says. "I can assure you more Latinos will vote for president Trump this time around. He got about 28–30% of the vote [in 2016]. The minimum he will get is 35%. I wouldn't be surprised if he captures 40%."
The plan from now until Nov. 3 is to work with Mike Huckabee, the former presidential candidate and governor of Arkansas, in the "My Faith Votes" movement, which promotes Evangelicals to take part in elections and vote according to their faiths.
With violence in the streets, anarchy, mob rule, abortion, COVID-19 and other maladies, there is no question that these are dark times, Rodríguez notes, adding these afflictions are due to decadence and spiritual apathy.
"Our current reality is, 'Dorothy, we are not in Kansas anymore.' We are living in some of the darkest hours in human history," Rodríguez says.
Still, despite the quasi-Apocalyptic mien, there is hope not in a political ideology or not even in the upcoming elections, but in the redemptive grace of Jesus, Rodríguez says. He also believes there is hope in Evangelicals and Catholics working together and standing side by side.
"All of these believers need to come together — I don't care what denominational stripe. We need to come together and advance the Lamb's agenda," he says.