Elections 2020: tension, action, and celebration in Chicago

Opinions and expectations of the Chicago’s Hispanic community before, during, and after the presidential elections of Nov. 3, 2020

Elections 2020: tension, action, and celebration in Chicago
The 2020 presidential election had a record turnout.
Foto: Getty Images

I. Chicago residents highlight the importance of the Latino vote

COVID-19 changed the way we vote as a large number of voters chose to vote early or by mail, more so than in past elections

The pandemic changed the way citizens vote in the United States.

In the 2020 presidential elections, to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and avoid long lines, originated in the rules of social distancing and other preventive measures established by the Illinois Department of Public Health, many Chicago citizens chose to vote by mail or early to exercise their right to vote.

The deadline to request the vote by mail ended on Oct. 29, 2020, and those who by Nov. 2 had not voted in the early voting places in the 50 districts of the city, their final chance to exercise their right to vote was Nov. 3 on Election Day.

Activists and immigrant rights advocates anticipated record early and mail voting participation because they believe voters wanted change and avoid getting infected with COVID-19, and also because the result of these elections was vital for the immigrant community.

The opponents placed on the ballot to reach the White House included Republican President Donald Trump, seeking re-election, and former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic Party candidate.

There were candidates also running for the U.S. Senate and Congress, Illinois Senate and House seats, Cook County prosecutors and court clerks, and state and local judgeships.

The ballot also included a proposed amendment to the Illinois Constitution that would allow the income tax system to be modified from a single-rate to a progressive-tax system with higher rates for higher-income individuals and lower rates for low- and moderate-income individuals.

In Chicago, ballots also included non-binding referendum questions on the expansion of internet service, if the City’s plan for growth and sustainability should place equal focus on resiliency, equity, and diversity, and the regulation of assault weapons.

Marisela González buys face masks to a street vendor in Back of The Yards. (Belhú Sanabria / La Raza)

The voice of the voters

While buying masks from a street vendor in the Back of The Yards neighborhood, Marisela González told La Raza the importance of fulfilling the civic duty of going to the polls in the 2020 general elections, despite the coronavirus pandemic.

González is undocumented but said that her children are U.S. citizens, and they voted early in these elections.

“As Latinos it’s important to raise our voice through voting. Whoever can vote must not miss the opportunity to do so, we must not wait until the last minute,” González said.

While attending to his clientele, we found Adolfo Peñaloza, a worker at the Tortillería Atotonilco. Some days before the election, he said he would vote and, to prevent contagion of the virus, he would wear a mask and keep his distance in his precinct.

Peñaloza said that the first political debate was “disastrous” due to the constant interruptions and personal attacks between the two opponents. He didn’t watch the last debate. “Neither Joe Biden nor Donald Trump are my favorites, but they are the ones there, in the end, you have to pick one.”

When asked if he thinks there will be an immigration reform during the new administration, Peñaloza said: “It’s difficult, but I think we can send them a message on how strong we are in their elections.”

“We Latinos are the largest minority in this country, we have to go out to vote and elect our next president, it’s very important that we go out to vote,” Peñaloza added.

Ignacio Sánchez, 21, commented that the record numbers of voter turnout by mail and early voting happened because he thinks people didn’t want to be standing in long lines on Nov. 3.

“People are desperate after these four years with President Donald Trump, they want to see something different and unfortunately maybe… Joe Biden is not the best option but a change is needed,” said Sánchez, who works at the ice cream shop Paletería Lindo Michoacán.

Sánchez was born and raised in Back of the Yards, a southwest neighborhood of Chicago. This young man of Mexican parents said he would vote for the first time in a presidential election. “People of my generation are on the rise. There are also many who are reaching the voting age and I think that many young people witness their parents’ achievements and sacrifices, who are probably undocumented. They know what voting responsibility means.”

Adolfo Peñaloza is a worker of Tortillería Atotonilco. (Belhú Sanabria / La Raza)

We complain and we dont get out to vote

According to Eddie Bocanegra, director of the Heartland Alliance’s READI Chicago anti-violence program, Latinos often feel that their vote doesn’t count. That’s partly because they come from countries impacted by corruption. “We are the largest minority, we are no longer a small group, our vote matters,” Bocanegra said.

Bocanegra stressed that immigrants have to take a proactive role and that even if they can’t vote, because they are not citizens, they can encourage others to do so.

Some volunteers from Latino organizations are undocumented, and even though they can’t vote, they make calls, send texts, and urge citizens to go to the voting booths in these elections.

At stake in the 2020 election was the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare. “If Donald Trump is elected, the first thing he wants to do is get rid of Obamacare,” said Blanca Vargas, president of the LULAC Cicero Council before Election Day. “There are many people who have benefited from Obamacare and [thanks to that law] they don’t have to worry about having health insurance.”

Esteban Burgoa, a veteran of the U.S. Navy and an activist from Chicago, voted early in the 2020 election. He went to his polling place in the Hermosa neighborhood in northwest Chicago.

Burgoa said he was surprised to be the only Latino among all voters there, in a neighborhood with a large Hispanic population. Given this, he asked himself: “Where are Latinos voting? We complain and we don’t get out to vote. In this election it’s very important that we go out to vote for the [candidate] that does us the least harm,” Burgoa said a few days before Nov. 3.

He considered that neither of the two candidates provided solutions to the Latino community’s problems, where jobs and housing are lacking. And he said a greater focus is needed on health, education, and immigration issues.

Regarding immigration, Burgoa recalled when Democratic President Barack Obama was nicknamed ‘Deporter-in-Chief’ because his administration deported more undocumented persons than any other president in recent U.S. history. “Trump has not deported people en masse, he talk a lot but technically I don’t see that he is deporting many people compared to Barack Obama,” Burgoa said. And he added that, during the Obama Administration, Joe Biden was the vice president.

The community needs more representation, and we should not let others vote for us, Burgoa emphasized, who added that he hasn’t seen much Latino participation at the polls in the neighborhood where he resides. “We Hispanics are the ones who do the most, we are the ones who complain the most and we are the ones who least go out to vote.”

More on elections and COVID-19

Guidance and tips to prevent the spread of COVID-19 during the elections are available at:

II. Citizens in Illinois were motivated to vote despite the COVID-19 pandemic

It was estimated that by Election Day, volunteers made one million calls to encourage citizens of immigrant origin in Illinois to go to the polls

Before the pandemic, volunteers would normally canvass or participate in rallies to encourage voters to get out to vote and generate enthusiasm. But the pandemic made things different, said María de Jesús González, known in the community as ‘Doña Chuy.’ She is 74 years old, and for the first time she voted by mail in the 2020 presidential election.

Doña Chuy has participated in three presidential elections as a volunteer with the community organization Mujeres Latinas en Acción (Latina Women in Action). She has asthma. As a person vulnerable to the coronavirus, she decided to support differently this time. “I am making calls from home encouraging people to go out to vote,” she said before the Nov. 3 elections.

Since becoming a citizen in 1995, she has participated in electoral processes in person and in advance. But because of the coronavirus this time, she voted by mail. She said that her son, Elías González, a 35-year-old millennial, helped her register to vote by mail. “I confess that the COVID-19 pandemic and voting by mail have been challenging for me, because I didn’t know how to use a computer. Luckily, I have my son who has helped me and I have already learned thanks to him.”

Doña Chuy said that some of the numbers she dialed [to call voters] were wrong and some families didn’t want to talk, but most people were motivated to vote. They told her about their concerns about the pandemic, mentioned that they prefer to vote by mail and early, but many say they would vote on Election Day.

Doña Chuy, 74, voted by mail for the firsst time in the 2020 general election. (Courtesy Mujeres Latinas en Acción)

Doña Chuy was content by choosing to vote by mail. She said what’s important is to make up your mind and vote. “We can’t spend our whole life thinking that we can’t make a difference; if we are permanent residents and become citizens, we will have the same rights, for example the right to vote and the right to be recognized as contributors to this community.”

By Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020, volunteers from the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) had made 600,000 calls, according to numbers announced at an event in front of an early-voting site in downtown Chicago.

It was estimated that by the eve of Election Day, these volunteers made one million calls inviting immigrant voters from Illinois to go to the polls.

ICIRR and its allied organizations registered more than 6,000 new voters by the end of October.

“Our goal is to register 10,000 new voters during this period, June through November, and get 275,000 voters out in the state of Illinois,” said Artemio Arreola, ICIRR Director of Community Relations, 10 days before Nov. 3.

Among ICIRR’s campaigns is the Democracy Project, which promotes civic participation in immigrant communities in Chicago and the suburbs. This effort also sought to advance the constitutional amendment on the fair tax. According to members of the Democracy Project, at least 75 percent of immigrant voters supported this initiative.

The fair income tax amendment to the Illinois Constitution proposed that people who earn more than $250,000 a year pay a higher rate on their state income taxes, while people who make less than $250,000 pay a lower rate. The goal of that amendment was to generate billions of dollars in new tax revenue for the state. At the end, it was not approved by the voters.

Esteban Burgoa, a Navy veteran and activist in Chicago. (Courtesy)

Citizens must get out and vote

Several organizations’ campaigns to register new voters began in the summer of 2020 when organizers saw an immediate need to increase awareness so that the virus wouldn’t become an excuse not to vote, said Imelda Salazar, community organizer of the Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP).

Salazar said that they focused their strategies on reaching all potential voters, especially young first-time voters and people who became citizens by naturalization and could vote for their first time. “It’s important that the community is represented and exercises that right to vote and that they do so in an informed manner.”

To get people to vote, volunteers stood outside churches, community clinics, laundries, public schools, stores, organizations, and hospitals to register voters. And phone calls were also made from homes, Salazar told La Raza.

Angel Peralta, a volunteer leader with SWOP, said that many of the people she had provided information and assistance to wanted to vote by mail or early to avoid the spread of coronavirus and long lines at polling places on the general election.

Peralta said her 20 volunteers are between 14 and 65 years old.

Sandra Hernández, who works for the Democracy Project and is a volunteer leader with the organization Mujeres Latinas en Acción, said that she noticed a lot of interest from people in participating by exercising their right to vote in these presidential elections despite the pandemic.

Outside the supermarkets, most of the people who approached Hernández and her volunteers were seniors. They asked how they could request their mailing ballots and were informed and assisted in that process.

When they made calls to boost the vote, people said, for example, “You know what, I’m not very good with technology.” For this reason, volunteers visited their houses outside with a tablet or laptop in hand to help them register, Hernández explained to La Raza.

Hundreds of volunteers were trained to boost civic participation through voting and in computer technologies and applications, ICIRR organizers said.

Before the elections, Arreola said that his organization would monitor the main voting centers where the majority of immigrants go. “[We’ll be in areas] where we have people and organizations to see that the precincts open on time, that there are no setbacks, that everything goes smoothly. We will have a group of lawyers collaborating who will be available to verify any anomaly,” Arreola said before Election Day.

Arreola emphasized that “it’s estimated that we have 32 million potential voters out of the 60 million Latinos who live in the United States. It’s said that we are the largest minority with a latent voting power. The important thing is that this larger minority must be heard. They will not listen to us if we don’t raise our voices and our vote is our voice.”

A voter protection hotline in Spanish –866-296-8686– was established for questions or to report any wrongdoing.

III. Joe Bidens electoral triumph celebrated in Chicago

Hispanic immigrants hope that the new government will give relief to the undocumented and will undertake immigration reform

Days of suspense and uncertainty were lived among the residents of Chicago and the suburbs who eagerly awaited the presidential elections’ results on Tuesday, Nov. 3.

But it was until Saturday, Nov. 7, that the Democratic candidate Joe Biden accumulated the majority of the Electoral College votes, defeating Donald Trump and becoming president-elect of the United States.

After Biden’s triumph was announced, many cities across the U.S., including Chicago, erupted in celebrations. During his victory speech on Saturday, Nov. 7, Biden vowed to be a president “who seeks not to divide but to unify.”

Biden supporters celebrated in front of the Trump Tower in downtown Chicago and different neighborhoods. The celebration included the historical fact that Kamala Harris, Biden’s running mate, is the first woman to be elected vice president of the United States.

Trump did not acknowledge his defeat and had alleged falsely until the very end of his presidency that there was widespread fraud in the election. But the Trump campaign and his lawyers did not present any credible evidence of massive fraud, and the election results were all legally certified.

Joe Biden said he will present to Congress, in the first 100 days of his administration, a bill for comprehensive immigration reform that legalizes undocumented immigrants. Congress must approve this proposal to become law.

Starting Jan. 20, 2021, the first day of Biden’s Administration, his priorities are the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic stimulus, the healthcare system, the environment, education, and social reconciliation. It also includes issuing executive orders to reverse several policies established by the Trump Administration.

Gregorio Estrada, immigrant from México, sells tamales, water, and sodas outside the Swap-O-Rama market in Back of the Yards. (Belhú Sanabria / La Raza)

High expectations in the Biden-Harris Administration

The reactions of politicians and the Chicago community didn’t wait after officially finding out the electoral results. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot tweeted to congratulate Biden: “Chicago is excited to work together to address the many challenges we face to rebuild our communities, recover from the COVID-19 crisis, address climate change and become stronger and more resilient than we’ve ever been. Let’s get to work!”

U.S. Representative Jesús ‘Chuy’ García (IL-04), who won his re-election, said in a statement that both Biden and Harris are prepared to lead the country and address the dual crisis of the pandemic and the economic recession. “I look forward to working with the Biden-Harris administration and a united progressive movement to address the challenges facing working families and advance policies to expand healthcare, provide economic opportunity, and address global climate change,” Garcia said.

One of the busiest places for the Latino community in Chicago on weekends is the Swap-O-Rama flea market in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. A day after it became known that Biden was the winner of the presidential election, merchants reacted to the results.

Selling tamales, bottles of water, and sodas outside of that market, we found Gregorio Estrada, a native of Cuaxilotla, Guerrero, México. Estrada is undocumented, but his children are U.S. citizens. He said his children went to the polls to vote on Election Day and that he’s glad Biden won because he’s hoping for immigration reform.

After living in the United States for 27 years, Estrada has no plans to return to Mxico because of health reasons, and his family is settled in Chicago. He also said that Cuaxilotla has become a more dangerous city due to organized crime.

Before becoming a street vendor, Estrada worked in a company, and on Sundays, he used to collect metals on the streets of Chicago. “I have always liked having money and you have to look for it because there is money there ‘thrown’ in the streets,” he said.

Estrada said that the undocumented come to this country to work and pay their taxes. “We don’t live off the government,” he said.  Thus, sick with a hernia, with diabetes, cholesterol, and high blood pressure, we have to go to work,” said Estrada emphasizing that his illnesses won’t slow him down from working. This man also has decreased vision due to his diabetes.

Ana Rodríguez, from Cuba, sells clothing, hats and perfumes at the Swap-O-Rama market. (Belhú Sanabria / La Raza)

Ana Rodríguez thinks that with the new Biden-Harris Administration, parents of children separated from their families at the border will be reunited.

Rodríguez, a native of Cuba, has been selling clothes, hats, and perfumes at the Swap-O-Rama flea market for three years.

Although she is not voting yet because she is a legal resident (not a U.S. citizen), she says she and her family are Democrats. “Not all Cubans are Republicans,” said Rodríguez adding that she hopes Biden will fulfill his promise to legalize the undocumented.

José Benítez, originally from Puebla, México, recalls that there are 11 million undocumented immigrants like him who haven’t lost their faith in coming out of the shadows. “We want to be able to work in peace and without fear of deportation and the separation of our families.”

Stopping deportations and having a work permit would be a temporary relief that could allow undocumented workers to live with peace of mind and without uncertainty while politicians agree in Congress on immigration reform, said Benítez, who has been residing in the U.S. for 17 years. She has been waiting unsuccessfully for immigration reforms for all these years.

Benítez has four U.S. citizen children. She works in a vegetable company and has been selling cell phone cables, speakers, chargers, and radios at the Swap-O-Rama market on the weekends for 14 years. She said she enjoyed Biden’s speech when he referenced that he seeks to unify and not divide the country. “It sounds very nice, and hopefully he can do it,” Benítez said.

The production and dissemination of this story has been possible thanks to a grant from the Field Foundation of Illinois through its Media and Storytelling program. La Raza appreciates its support.