A vote of faith: Converting Latinos to registered voters

Members of the Society of Toribio Romo receive a blessing at St. Agnes of Bohemia.
Members of the Society of Toribio Romo receive a blessing at St. Agnes of Bohemia.

By Alex Ortiz

Just before the end of 1:30 p.m. mass at St. Agnes of Bohemia in Little Village Sunday, the congregation participated in a blessing for the Society of St. Toribio Romo, named for the patron saint of immigrants. The group is on a mission —  not to convert others to the faith — but to turn followers into voters.

Their neon yellow shirts read “Tu voto es poder. Hazlo por mi,” Spanish for “Your vote is power. Do it for me.” About 20 members aim to convince neighbors to get registered and have their voices heard.

“We know that it’s important to get out the vote,” said Rita Aguilar, an organizer for the 6-year-old organization that advocates for immigration reform in Little Village and Pilsen. While they have been frustrated by the lack of progress on immigration policy, they still see the 2016 election as an important opportunity. “Those who cannot vote need the voices and those votes of those who can vote.”

Like many Latinos, Aguilar is concerned about anti-immigrant and xenophobic rhetoric from Republican nominee Donald Trump. He opened his campaign in 2015 calling Mexican immigrants criminals and “rapists,” saying he would deport undocumented immigrants if elected in November.

The Society of St. Toribio Romo gets its name from the patron saint of Mexican migrants,  Toribio Romo González, a Roman Catholic priest during the Mexican Revolution and was killed in 1928. He was canonized after immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border claimed he appeared to them and helped them cross safely.

That desire to help immigrants  is carried on by the group.

Louis Peña, who attends St. Agnes, is a lifelong Chicagoan. He has voted in every election since 1972 when he was 18. He feels so strongly about getting others involved he helped a fellow congregation member apply for citizenship so she can vote and took her to a naturalization workshop earlier this month so she could fill out her application. Peña has seen the voting power of Latinos grow and wants to continue that to bring about positive change.

“It’s getting more attention,” Peña said. “It’s getting stronger now. Everybody gets involved now.”

Research shows political engagement is strongly influenced by how involved people are involved in their social circles. That is the case for Peña, too. His wife, Maricia, originally convinced him to join the society, and now he is helping his friends become eligible to vote.

Nationally, applications for naturalization tend to increase during election years. Even though applications have risen almost 15 percent nationally in 2016, turnout rates for the 27 million eligible Latino voters have historically trailed African-Americans and non-Latino whites. Only 48 percent of eligible Latinos voted in 2012, while 66.6 percent of African-American and 64.1 percent of white eligible voters turned out.

Society of Toribio Romo shirts say "Your vote is power. Do it for me" in Spanish.
Society of Toribio Romo shirts say “Your vote is power. Do it for me” in Spanish.

Even though the full potential of Latino voters has yet to be seen, Aguilar has heard frustration from community members. They are discouraged over the lack of comprehensive immigration reform from the Obama administration. Still, Aguilar reminds them Obama implemented DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), which allowed immigrants who entered the United States before they turned 16 to get a work permit and exemption from deportation.

“They are very little steps,” Aguilar said. “It hasn’t achieved the ultimate goal that we’ve been looking for, but it’s still a work in progress.”

There is also no denying this presidential election cycle has motivated some to get registered. In a recent Pew Research Center study, only 19 percent of “Hispanic registered voters” said they would vote for Trump.

Although the Society of Toribio Romo is nonpartisan, Aguilar admits they do talk about which candidates would be more likely to pass comprehensive immigration reform. Some society members have expressed concern about the possibility of a Trump presidency like Joanna Corral of Little Village. Even though she is only 14, she’s been watching the news about the election and has been inspired to become involved in the Society of Toribio Romo along with her mother, Rosalva Davalos.

“I’m a little scared for whoever is going to win the election,” Corral said. “It makes me think more outside the box, more about political things.”

That fear is shared with many of society members. They’ve been attuned to the anti-immigrant rhetoric. That is why most agree on which candidate they’ll be voting for when they fill out their ballot.

“Yeah, you know, the lady,” Peña said. “Clinton.”

Photo at top: Members of the Society of Toribio Romo receive a blessing at St. Agnes of Bohemia in Little Village. (Alex Ortiz/MEDILL)