Nina Vázquez left her hometown of Aguada, Puerto Rico, when she was 13 years old, moving to Meriden with her family.
“I consider my family an economic refugee,” said Vázquez. “The reason why we left was because of an economic downfall in Puerto Rico. We were planning to go back a few years later, but it never could happen.”
Vázquez is 23 now and pursuing her master’s in Latino and Caribbean studies at the University of Connecticut. A few days from the election, she’s been struggling about whether to vote for the Democratic Party as she did in 2016.
She says her family and others are still feeling the impact of the PROMESA bill, a measure enacted under the Obama administration when Joe Biden was vice president.
“A lot of the debate you’re hearing is, well, why are we going to vote Democratic when they’re the ones who put us in this situation and made everything worse,” said Vázquez.
The economy of Puerto Rico is an important issue to Vázquez. She says she still sees the island as her home and hopes to return to Aguada one day, but the economic situation is difficult for young people.
“A lot of us can’t get jobs on the island, or we’re being paid this very sad minimum wage,” said Vázquez. “It can start at $4.25 an hour, and a lot of young people are leaving the island because of this PROMESA bill.”
Latinos are expected to be the largest racial or ethnic minority voting in the upcoming election.
According to the NALEO Educational Fund, every month, 60,000 Latinos turn 18 years old, and many will be voting for the first time in this year’s election. Young Latinos make up 22% of Generation Z, one of the most ethnically diverse voting blocs in United States history. However, many young Latinx voters say the national campaigns don’t speak about the issues they find most pressing.
Joseph Vazquez is among that group and is also Puerto Rican, no relation to Nina Vázquez. Unlike Nina, he grew up most of his life on the mainland. His family moved from Puerto Rico to New York City and then to Connecticut.
“[My family] came here to Meriden then Middletown, and that’s kind of where I’ve had my story ever since. I’m the first from my family to graduate from high school to college,” said Joseph Vazquez.
Vazquez is a registered Democrat, and the issues he cares about the most are housing and health care. As a Puerto Rican himself, Vazquez says he didn’t have an opportunity to learn about his history until he made it to college. Now that he is finally eligible to vote, he also agrees that the national campaigns have missed an opportunity to engage him on issues that matter to him.
“You have people who don’t even recognize Puerto Ricans as citizens,” said Vazquez. “There is so much normalized discrimination, and you’re seeing more media that’s driven to address this and make people have a deeper outlook on these issues.”
Another issue he cares about is racial justice.
“This year we have seen more than ever, at this time of heightened racial injustice, we’re seeing a large wave of younger voters more inclined to vote,” he said.
Joseph said he’s also concerned with what his local elected officials say and has been following how they implement policies that speak to him.
“People think this is a presidential election and this is why they have to vote. But realistically, the items on your ballot matter more of who you’re voting for at the local level, too, just as much,” he said.
For many years, the Latino vote was considered a so-called “sleeping giant” because of the assumption that Latinos in the U.S. engaged less in politics. But Bianca Gonzalez-Sobrino, an assistant professor of sociology at Quinnipiac University, says younger voters are shifting that narrative. She said the Latino vote should not be considered one large voting bloc, but rather one with many complexities and experiences.
“We should be talking about individual ethnic groups within Latinos and looking at the trends of how they vote and also what their interests are,” said Gonzalez-Sobrino. “Often in large political campaigns, we see particularly Democrats talking about immigration reform writ large, and assuming that that’s going to automatically be the key to unlocking what they call the sleeping giant.”
She says that while many younger Latino voters are trending liberal and more likely to vote Democratic, they sometimes feel overlooked.
“They also have these feelings of not being necessarily included in these large-scale conversations,” she said.
Nina Vázquez says that until a couple of years ago, campaigns did not include Latinos in their national conversations. But all that is changing.
“We do make some difference, and we do make something move in the gears of this election,” said Vázquez.
She says she doesn’t have a voting plan yet but acknowledges that young Latinx voters are now the target of last-minute campaigning from both parties.
Brenda León is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.