Female Trump supporters
photo: Getty

Latino affiliation with the Grand Old Party was recently on the upswing. Latino registered voters who identified as Republican jumped 35 percent in three years, climbing from 20 percent in 2011 to 27 percent in 2014, according to Pew Research. That upward trend came to a screeching halt with Donald Trump’s primary victory and his current position as the GOP’s presumptive presidential nominee. With his seemingly endless, offensive xenophobia, Latino Republican leaders face the increasingly difficult challenge of convincing Latinos that the Republican Party could ever really represent them.

While there are certainly Latino Trump supporters, the candidate’s latest claim that Judge Gonzalo Curiel was unfit to adjudicate because of his Mexican heritage may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back for some. Ruth Guerra, a 28-year-old Latina from Texas, left her post as the Republican National Committee’s director of Hispanic communications just days after Trump invoked Curiel’s ethnicity while in San Diego. Even before Guerra bid her adieus, a Washington Post poll found that 72 percent of the Hispanic electorate had a very unfavorable view of Trump. For some Latino Republicans, the presidential election in November will be — as it is for their Democratic counterparts — a choice between the lesser of two evils. If the GOP wants a fighting chance, it will have to figure out how to appeal to the U.S.’s over 27 million Hispanic voters, of which nearly half are millennials.         

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“He’s not the best representation of a Republican,” Sharon Alvarez, 34, says about Donald Trump. “He’s probably the worst that’s ever been.”
Alvarez was born in Guatemala City and raised in Plantation, Florida, just outside of Fort Lauderdale. She is a substitute and after-school teacher at Calvary Christian Academy, a pre-K–12 school that seeks to instill “the power and love of Christ into students,” according to its website. Alvarez, a devout Christian, attends worship services at Calvary Chapel, the parent organization of her workplace. She became a Republican because of the party’s value system. For Alvarez, who calls herself a “values voter,” the most important issue is abortion. “The leader of our country should know that life in the womb is important and vulnerable,” she says. “If you value the sanctity of life, I think I can probably trust you to make other wise decisions.”

The fact that Trump was pro-choice before he was pro-life does not inspire confidence for Alvarez. “He lies sometimes. I don’t feel like I can trust him,” she says. “As far as his morality, it is a question to me. I think morality should play a big role in a leader.” With an impending Trump vs. Clinton matchup in November, Alvarez says, “I don’t know who I’m going to vote for. It’s like the worst election for me.” She adds, “I don’t want to think about it.”

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Ruben Estrada, president of the Latino National Republican Coalition of New York State and the Northeast Region, is facing the same dilemma. “Trump is a problem for me,” he says. “Siempre soy Latino. I live it, that’s my priority, my community.” Estrada, 63, was first drawn to the Republican Party when he was a teenager in Spanish Harlem and saw then-governor Nelson Rockefeller speak near La Marqueta. Estrada’s parents moved to New York from Puerto Rico in 1937, and the message of inclusion and empowerment in the face of discrimination brought Estrada to become a die-hard Republican, a title he has carried for almost half a century. Although he has been a delegate and served various administrations from local to national levels, he is most proud of his outreach efforts “trying to get the message out to Latinos that this is the party of inclusion.” Trump, now at the helm of the GOP, is undoing a lot of Estrada’s work. “He’s pushing us back. We went five steps forward and now five steps backwards in terms of my efforts.”

Hugo Chavez-Rey, born in Peru and raised in Miami, is chairman of the Colorado Hispanic Republicans. Originally a registered Democrat, Chavez-Rey, 67, switched parties after hearing former president Ronald Reagan speak. “I signed up for his presidential campaign in 1980, and the rest is history,” he says. Today, the former telecommunications businessman dedicates his time to speaking with Latinos about the GOP and Donald Trump. His organization’s motto is Fe, Familia, Libertad. “I can’t think of another party that aligns with that more than the Republican Party.”

Chavez-Rey will be voting for Donald Trump in November. “I always said I would support the eventual party nominee,” he says. “Has he made racist comments? Yes. Is he a racist personally? No.”
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Chavez-Rey says he has written letters to Trump’s campaign to say that the candidate should “tone down the off-the-cuff comments.” Ultimately, Chavez-Rey says he places a lot of value in voting against Hillary Clinton. “You can take the very worst of Donald Trump you think is bad for America and bad for the Party and multiply it by 1,000, and you might have Hillary Clinton,” he says. “I couldn’t help Hillary Clinton get into the White House.” He says most Hispanics with whom he speaks support Trump. “Since the Trump phenomenon evolved, we’ve gotten more calls in the last six months than in the last three years from Hispanic voters. The majority ask how to get involved in Trump’s campaign to help [him] get elected.”     

With much less enthusiasm, Ruben Estrada is considering a vote for Trump as well.

“I might vote for him as an anti-Hillary vote, not because I’m feeling it,” he says. “This is one election I’m not feeling.”
Trump will come and go, and the question of Latinos’ relationship with the GOP will remain. “My dilemma here is not just with Trump. My dilemma is with the party.” Estrada says that the Republican Party needs to invest in grassroots work again. He recalls helping Rudy Giuliani get elected in 1993 by hitting the streets and rallying Latinos to vote for the Republican candidate. “That one I take with pride,” he says. Estrada is currently working on setting up a majority-Latino GOP committee in Middletown, New York, where he resides and works at the Orange County Department of Health. “Empower the folks,” he says. “That’s the important part.”

Voting along party lines in November is much more likely for Hispanic Democrats than Republicans. Over half of Democrats will vote Democrat no matter who the nominee is, while that number drops to 14 percent for Republicans, according to the Washington Post survey published even before the major party nominees were decided. Making inroads with millennial Latinas won’t be easy. Many who are registered Republicans, like Sharon Alvarez, are not opposed to jumping ship if candidates or the party cease to align with their values.

“I would vote for the person who supports the values that I believe in — could be a Democrat or from another party,” she says. “If they really do support the issues I believe are important, that’s the leader I want.”