MARSHALLTOWN, Iowa — Three days before the caucuses, Ramona Lopez gathered much of her extended family — she has 7 children, 17 grandchildren, as well as sons- and daughters-in-law — at her warm yellow house in Marshalltown, Iowa, to have a spirited discussion about whom they each plan to support on Monday night.
Lopez, 61, was always determined her children would be “good people with a sense of responsibility to the community.” On Saturday, she watched the lively back-and-forth between her children with pride while devouring homemade guacamole, salsas, rice and beans, and two types of carne asada, making sure no one's plate was empty for long.
“It’s one’s responsibility to be able to talk about these things,” she said with her family gathered around her kitchen table. “We need to be assertive people. We need to be strong, mentally and physically.”
“I want [Sanders] to win,” said Raymond Correa, 31, who attended both Sanders and Biden events in Marshalltown with his mother the previous weekend, adding that he had his doubts about whether Sanders could win and actually get anything done.
“That’s what they said about Trump!” his sister Jacqueline Correa, 27, shot back. “You donated to [Sanders]! You’ve literally put your money where your mouth is!”
The family is deciding between Sanders and Biden, the two candidates who have been neck and neck in recent polls, and who most members of the family believe seem most likely to defeat Donald Trump.
Latino voters in places like Marshalltown are keenly aware of what’s at stake in a presidential election that will almost certainly include vitriol around immigration and racist rhetoric.
Iowa’s Latino population has grown to 6.2%, more than double what it was 20 years ago. Groups like the League of United Latin American Citizens have been working on turnout ahead of the caucuses — the group says it has registered 10,000 new Latino voters this year.
The Lopez family is one of the oldest Latino families in Marshalltown, where Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by seven points in 2016. Ramona moved here in the late ’80s from Jalisco, Mexico, and started working at the meatpacking factory in town. In the late ’80s and ’90s, she protested the factory's working conditions and led protests against police brutality that targeted Latinos. Ramona and her family say they’re thinking this decision through not just for themselves but for the good of their community and all the people who come to Ramona as a community leader for her guidance.
“This is what I know for sure: Bernie is a socialist. Joe Biden is middle-class and represents the richer people. We’re not those people,” Ramona said.
“I love Joe Biden because I have a lot of friends in richer positions, people in power, and I like his presentation. He’s calmer and everything — exactly what represents the middle class, not the lower class,” she said. “I think the candidate for us is Bernie Sanders. He’s more of a dreamer, like me.”
Ultimately, she said, both candidates and all Democratic voters have this in common: They all want to defeat Donald Trump. And while she thinks Biden may have a slight edge in that area, she’s decided on Sanders as a candidate who has detailed, clear plans for climate change, immigration, labor, and education, among other issues.
The family has been visited by canvassers for almost every candidate. They’ve welcomed them all in to sit at the kitchen table and talk, and shared with them whatever’s on the stove. On Saturday, a canvasser for the Biden campaign came by. Soon after, Texas Rep. Filemon Vela stopped in to visit the family on behalf of the Biden campaign. (The family said no other campaign has actually sent a high-profile supporter to visit.) The following day, a Sanders canvasser dropped by. Above the kitchen table, there are two “Bernie” signs — and on a door in the living room, a “Todos con Biden” door hanger.
“We’ve received everyone from the campaigns. I tell them: 'I’m 60 years old. I have 30 years’ involvement in politics. I make my own decisions,'” Ramona said.
She said she spoke to Sanders when he was in Iowa in 2016 and pressed him to do more on immigration.
“Last time he was here, I talked to him and I told him he needs to come up with answers, with plans for immigration. ‘I know it’s hard. You’re not going to win, you or anyone else, if you don’t have an answer for this,’” she said she told Sanders. After seeing him with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez last Saturday, she said, she was more confident that he had a solid plan around immigration.
The following day, Ramona went to see Biden with her son Raymond, who was impressed with the former vice president's plan to invest resources in Central American countries and his emphasis on foreign policy.
“I think Bernie is stronger,” Ramona whispered right after meeting and taking a photo with Biden last Sunday.
Some of her children, as well as her 17-year-old granddaughter, Itzary Mundo, who’s caucusing for the first time on Monday, are convinced that Sanders is their candidate.
Others, like Raymond, like what they hear from Sanders but aren’t sure they believe he’ll actually deliver on his promises. Despite that, Raymond said, he’d donated $50 to the Sanders campaign recently.
“What I did like about Joe Biden, when we saw him, was that he said ‘I’m not actually here to promise you a bunch of stuff,’” he said, adding that the remark made the candidate seem realistic.
And then there’s ICE. For Latino families in Marshalltown, the uptick in ICE raids is more than a distant concern — the town’s meatpacking factory was one of those targeted in a massive operation in 2006, which resulted in at least 100 workers being arrested and separated from their families.
Gladys Mundo, Ramona’s 40-year-old daughter, worked as a child development specialist during those raids. She saw the impact of that up close, and the way politicians talk about immigration is something she watches closely.
Gladys and her sister Jacqueline said neither of them think any of the candidates have really spoken to the fears and uncertainties immigrants in the US deal with, though they’ve heard more than they have in the past on immigration.
“They talk about kids in cages. That’s just one part of the whole thing. You can’t talk about these isolated things,” said Jacqueline.
“Candidates come and visit towns like this on the campaign trail. Where are they after that?” said Gladys. “There’s a loss of faith in the system.”
While everyone who falls between Ramona, 61, and Itzary, 17, in the family were still undecided between Sanders and Biden, they were all certain they would be turning out on caucus night.
“We all need to caucus. We’ve been here in the US a really long time,” said Jacqueline, adding that the conversation around immigration has become more in-depth and more unavoidable for Democrats because “now we can vote. And there’s a lot of us.”