LAS VEGAS, Nevada — Maria des Angeles Palomo, 54, hadn’t been to a political rally in more than a decade. But on Sunday, she was at an entirely Spanish-language town hall in Las Vegas for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, reconsidering a candidate she passed over for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
“I liked going to the event and seeing the effort they made to speak in Spanish, to let the Hispanic community feel a part of the conversation,” she said after the event, in Spanish. “I hope to see Bernie doing more of this.”
Palomo was at the town hall with her daughter, Genesis Palomo, 23, and her son Luis, 31, who convinced her to go — they were both excited to see the event headliner, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and are both Sanders supporters eager for their mom to have the chance to connect with their candidate's campaign in her first language.
“My mom, she was for Hillary because that’s all she knew. Of course the media controls what they see on Univision and Telemundo,” Luis said, adding, “When I tell her about Bernie, she’s like, ‘Well, they don’t talk about it on Univision; they don’t talk about it on Telemundo.’”
The entirely Spanish-language town hall, drawing 173 people to a small event space at the Parkdale Recreation and Senior Center in Las Vegas, was the first campaign event of its kind in a crowded Democratic primary with a historically diverse field of candidates vying for voters in Nevada, where the third voting day of the primary season will take place on Feb. 22.
The campaign plans to hold more Spanish-language events going forward as part of their Latino outreach strategy, particularly as part of an effort to connect with mostly Spanish-speaking Latino voters who don’t normally have a chance to directly engage with campaigns in their first language. They also pointed to multilingual Loteria events they’ve held in Iowa, to draw both primarily English- and Spanish-speaking Latinos.
“Bernie knows that he’s not going to be able get all of these things done himself. He’s going to have to empower hundreds of thousands of people, which he already has successfully I would say,” Belén Sisa, Sanders’ Latino Press Secretary, told BuzzFeed News. “But with minority communities, it takes more. You have to be authentic, you have to be consistent, because we can see through efforts to only gain our vote when you need it.”
Sanders is ahead with Latino voters broadly, both in Nevada and nationwide — but, as with his performance with other groups of voters, there’s a clear generational split. Former vice president Joe Biden is ahead with Latino voters over 50, according to recent polls, while Sanders’ lead among Latinos more broadly appears to be driven by younger voters. At the event on Sunday, headlined by Ocasio-Cortez and featuring San Juan Mayor and Sanders campaign cochair Carmen Yulín Cruz, there were signs of the campaign beginning to bridge that gap.
“We know that especially in minority communities culturally, your family means everything. We want to make sure that instead of reinventing the wheel, we have conversations with those closest to us,” said Sisa.
“When you’re engaged once, that’s only the beginning, and I think it takes several touches, so young people are on the front lines of that. All we’re doing is help mobilize people and give them the tools,” she said.
Sisa said the campaign is thinking about the generation gap partly as a result of older Latino voters just not knowing as much about Sanders. Asked about Palomo’s comment that his mother wasn’t hearing about Sanders on Univision or Telemundo, Sisa said the campaign focuses on local media and reaches out to Spanish-language media when it releases plans, but relies more on supporters organizing in their communities, including young people talking to their relatives.
“That way we can make sure that the conversation goes beyond just seeing Bernie on TV, but it goes deeper into the agenda, into the message,” she said.
Genesis Palomo said she saw the Spanish-language event, and the Sanders campaign’s outreach to Latinos more broadly, as “just being honest. Not trying to kiss up too much.”
“I saw other candidates who would try to resonate with Latino voters by doing extra things that weren’t really genuine,” she said. “Like maybe trying too hard to speak Spanish, or saying phrases that they think will resonate, but what Latinos want is just honesty, and anyone can see when something’s not genuine.”
The Sanders campaign has said that one of their primary strategies to make headway with older voters has been for young supporters to talk to their parents and elders when they go home for the holidays. Younger Latino Sanders supporters said the event on Sunday was a chance to get their mostly Spanish-speaking elders directly involved.
“There are people like me who, yes, speak English but not enough to understand everything,” said Gema Mata, 66, in Spanish. She was at the town hall with her grandson Angel Lazcano, 19, the treasurer for the Students for Bernie chapter at his college, the University of Nevada Las Vegas. “So if they offer us these events in Spanish, it’s marvelous, because then we understand more and catch more of what they’re saying to us, and that is very important.”
Mata recently went to the Sanders campaign immigration town hall at the East Las Vegas Community Center, too — but that event was mostly in English. She said she’s supporting Sanders because of his proposals to raise the minimum wage and offer a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, among others.
Of Ocasio-Cortez, she said, “Honestly I don’t know much about her, but what I like is that she speaks Spanish.”
Many older Latino voters in the audience like Palomo and Mata said they want to be well-informed and engaged, and the Sanders event was a rare opportunity to be really active in the primary in their first language, to be able to directly understand the nuances of the issues and policies being talked about more clearly.
“We don’t just want to defeat Donald Trump — we want to dismantle the system of which he is a symptom,” Ocasio-Cortez said in her roughly 10-minute Spanish language address to the room.
“We have an ally in our fight … an ally who has been with us for decades,” she said.
The speech was an abridged version of the address she gave at a rally in Queensbridge, New York City, after endorsing Sanders in October, and a speech she gave in Las Vegas in English on Saturday night, with a few minor changes to speak specifically to her Latino audience.
“It took everything my family had to give the next generation an opportunity. This is a Latina story; it’s a story of our community,” she said. (At the Queensbridge rally, after telling the same story about her family, she said, “I know that that story isn’t just mine. It’s all of our stories.”)
At one point, Ocasio-Cortez had a Spanglish moment as she struggled to find the Spanish word for “fundamentally” — the audience cheered her on as she landed on slotting in the English word in her otherwise completely Spanish-language speech.
“Thank you for your patience because this is my first speech in Spanish. Thank you for your patience, because this is a personal project, I want to develop and improve my Spanish,” she said at the outset.
“[My mom] really appreciated that fact that AOC went out of her way to try and speak Spanish, even though she was struggling with her Spanish and seemed a little nervous while speaking, the effort was still there,” said Genesis Palomo.
Luis Palomo said he thinks the Sanders campaign has evolved since his 2016 run to be more inclusive and conscious of the perspectives of voters of color.
“I do think that his campaign did definitely pay attention, because [people] were criticizing him for having too many white people or whatever, and so they added more diversity. The fact that AOC was able to endorse him and she’s Hispanic, and I don’t think last time around there were signs that were like ‘Unidos for Bernie,’” he said.
Mata, who came with her grandson, also brought along her friend Ana Maria Fonseca, 73, who said she’s considering Sanders because she’s thinking about how his policies could play out for her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“I have grandchildren — for them, all the help for university is important,” Fonseca said in Spanish, adding that one of her granddaughters is about to start college and another is still paying off her college debt. “They still need help.”
She said she thinks the Sanders campaign would gain traction with other older Latinos if they committed to holding more town halls entirely in Spanish.
“It’s definitely very important because all of us who speak mostly Spanish would certainly come,” she said.
Olivia Cheche, 19, a student at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, said the town hall, centering Latino voices rather than having the candidate try to speak token words of Spanish to try to relate, was a good example of what she thinks sets the Sanders campaign’s approach apart.
“Something that I find very important in politics is when somebody doesn’t try to speak for underrepresented groups — like, they go out of their way to listen and hear them and have these town halls,” Cheche said.
“I think if you have these important issues like immigrants’ rights or just Latinx rights in general, it’s important to go out and hear their voices and uplift their voices rather than try to speak for them or claim you know what it’s like to live in their shoes,” she said.