It’s been a tough year for Alfredo Calderon. In March, he lost his job as a housekeeper at an MGM property, as the pandemic forced the Las Vegas Strip to go dark.
By the start of April, the 22-year-old was one of more than 200,000 Nevadans filing for unemployment. It took him nearly four months to receive any kind of benefit payment, because of the sheer volume of applications from people in Las Vegas who had lost their jobs.
And then the year got worse — in August, his favorite uncle, Mario Garcia, landed in the hospital with lung problems. Calderon had to say goodbye to Garcia via FaceTime as he died, because of COVID restrictions on hospital visitors in the ICU.
“Of course, it was going to be even more harder in person, but it's just horrible because we couldn't be there his last few moments,” he said through tears on the phone on Monday. “Yeah, that's the most painful thing.”
Latino voters in Nevada like Calderon have been hit hard by the pandemic. The state’s major industries were wrecked by the economic fallout of COVID-19, and Latinos account for nearly half of all of the state’s coronavirus cases, though they only make up a third of the state’s population.
Rather than keeping them from the polls, advocates say, the losses people are facing as a result of the Trump administration’s bungled response to the crisis could bring these voters out for Joe Biden — despite the obstacles and uncertainties they’re facing in their day-to-day lives.
“It’s been, I would say, a wake-up call for our community. We are in a crisis. We have seen the inaction coming from Donald Trump,” said Cecia Alvarado, Nevada state director for Mi Familia Vota, a Latino advocacy group. “Now they see the value of voting, not just only to face what's coming to the economy but also how are we dealing with a new wave of this pandemic, especially here in Nevada?”
She said COVID is the number one issue getting Latino voters out to the polls this year.
“I see the Latinos really concerned about what's coming, and they're not just worried about what's coming in the upcoming years, but we're talking about the near future. We're talking about the next six months,” Alvarado said, adding that kids have been home from school since March, with no clear return date in sight. And if they were to return, she said, Latino families would be in an especially precarious position because many have older family members living with them who are vulnerable to COVID-19.
Calderon, “pollo” to his family, isn’t sure if he’ll get his job back. The Culinary Workers Union is negotiating with the city’s major employers to try to bring back as many jobs as possible when the casinos eventually reopen to full capacity. But despite the grief and sorrow this year has brought him, Calderon was generally full of energy and optimism over the phone the day before the presidential election.
“Like my mom says, you can stay home and be sad or you can actually try to go and make a change in your community,” he said.
Calderon also has other reasons to vote this year: He wants his father, who was deported in 2010, back from Mexico. His brother is gay, and he worries about protecting his rights. His three nieces are Black, and he’s concerned about their safety as they grow up.
He is one of hundreds of thousands of hospitality workers who either temporarily or permanently lost their jobs as the COVID-19 crisis caused the usually bustling Vegas Strip to grind to a halt. As a member of Nevada’s largest and most influential union, the Culinary Workers Local 226, Calderon — who was connected to BuzzFeed News via Mi Familia Vota Nevada, and not via the union — said the union has been fighting for things like extending his healthcare, so he feels very in the loop and engaged with them even though he’s not working right now.
“Especially when the union’s fighting for us, we should also be fighting for them,” Calderon said, adding that he was speaking just for himself and not for Mi Familia Vota. “I thought my insurance was going to end in April, but they expanded it to August and then expanded it to October.”
As of Tuesday morning, Latinos in Nevada had cast more than 137,000 votes between early and absentee ballots — that’s up from 90,596 early and absentee votes by Election Day in 2016. Overall, between early and absentee voting leading up to Nov. 3, voters in Nevada had cast 102.2% of the total number of ballots cast including Election Day in 2016.
According to early vote numbers compiled by the Latino voter advocacy group Voto Latino, this year 72% voted Democrat and 20% voted Republican. The group of Latinos who took a slightly higher share of turnout compared to 2016 includes Calderon — people aged 18 to 29.
“Well, I think people realize the situation we are in right now, because they're suffering. You know, they see how many jobs went away in a few months. We have more than half our union right now not working, and people know the situation they are going through with the COVID-19. Everybody is scared to get sick … We have to realize this is not a time where we can stay home and not vote. We have to vote,” Geoconda Argüello-Kline, secretary-treasurer for the Culinary Workers Union, told BuzzFeed News on Friday, taking a break from door-knocking. She said more than 400 canvassers were out encouraging people to vote while observing social distancing and wearing masks.
The union, which is 54% Latino, has historically been an important source of voter engagement in Nevada. Argüello-Kline said more than half its members are still unemployed after the pandemic shutdowns and that at least 53 union members or members of their immediate families have died from COVID-19 since March 1.
“[Trump] doesn't believe in doctors and science, and that's a very difficult situation for our country and for our union members, you know,” said Argüello-Kline. “The families, right now they are suffering because the president really doesn't take care of the crisis the way they're supposed to take care, with leadership. To tell the people the truth.”
During Nevada’s Democratic caucuses in February, union members overwhelmingly supported Bernie Sanders, despite union leaders openly criticizing the senator’s universal healthcare plan while speaking warmly of Biden. That was in large part driven by Latino voters, who the Sanders campaign appealed to with a campaign designed to have multigenerational and multilingual appeal. Sanders decisively won the Nevada caucuses.
Biden, after defeating Sanders to win the Democratic nomination, has faced questions over how he would get those who came out in force for Sanders in the caucuses to turn out for him in the general election, while also building support among other groups.
The union’s work pushing for protections for workers in Nevada, as well as mobilizing to hold food drives and help with other basic needs, has kept Latino members in the fold even as they’ve dealt with challenges this year, said Alvarado. That’s helped the union maintain its political heft, which is built on members’ loyalty.
“They're a political force. They are the workforce. They're really the backbone of our economy in Nevada. As a Latina, they bring me hope. I see them out, knocking on doors, getting the community out to vote, I see them fighting for each other. For the right to return to work. I see them fighting for the members to be able to have some reassurance that if they get sick at work, they will be protected,” she said. “So that is not just for them — they're fighting for all of us.”
The Biden campaign pointed to several prominent Sanders supporters like Rep. Chuy García, in addition to the senator himself, who have been actively campaigning for Biden after he won the party’s nomination. The campaign also hired some key Sanders staff to try to carry on the momentum Sanders built among Latino voters during the caucuses: Biden’s field director in Nevada is Susana Cervantes, who served as Sanders’ field director during the caucuses.
“We have prioritized outreach to Latino voters as a top strategic imperative through programming across every arm and department of our state operation,” Cervantes said in a statement to BuzzFeed News. “Our field operation is in contact with a universe of tens of thousands of Latino voters and we have invested in Spanish-language television and radio ads and Latino-targeted digital ads and persuasion mail.”
Calderon was among the minority of Culinary Workers who caucused for Biden in February because, he said, he met Biden when the former vice president first came through Las Vegas at the beginning of his campaign last year. Calderon told Biden about his father.
“I remember the words clearly. He was like, ‘Alfredo, we’re going to fight to bring your father back.’ At the end of the day, he listens to people. He has heart and compassion and all that, and I think that is what is important to this country,” Calderon said, adding that he then met Biden several more times over the course of the campaign.
Biden’s role in the Obama administration has come under fire from immigrant rights groups, who also backed Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren during the primaries because they didn’t think Biden presented a clear progressive vision for immigration reform.
But Calderon said he doesn’t blame Biden for his father being deported under the Obama administration. He instead blames the mass deportations at that time on ICE agents retaliating against the administration for putting in place protections like the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, for young people brought to the country illegally when they were children.
“It’s because ICE was just pissed. They were racking up deportations and all that, and unfortunately, my father was one of them. And they also wanted to deploy my mom within like the month,” he said. But the family reached out to then-senator Harry Reid’s office, who helped provide them with lawyers and documentation to keep his mother in the country. She’s now a green card holder, studying for her citizenship test.
Calderon took a break from college, where he was studying criminal justice, to work for a while, but he wants to go back as soon as he can to get his political career started. Meanwhile, he’s thinking of looking for a new job after the election, given the uncertainty about whether he’ll ever get his old one back.
And he stays in touch with his dad in Mexico — “It’s just amazing to have two supportive parents. I always say I can count on him. No wall can separate us,” he said — exchanging TikTok videos and talking about politics. “He always says, ‘I can’t wait until my son Alfredo Calderon is the first Hispanic American president.’ He says, ‘Don’t quit. You’re the one who keeps me going.’”