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In Face Of Immigration Rhetoric, Latinos Grapple With Having A Voice


In the presidential campaign, few issues have been as fiercely debated as immigration and border security. But in New Hampshire, famously host to the first-in-the-nation primary, the small-but-growing Latino community there is largely invisible. New Hampshire Public Radio's Natasha Haverty reports.

NATASHA HAVERTY, BYLINE: Olmer Villavicencio talks to his 14-year-old daughter, Jocelyn. He tells her stories, like the one about leaving Ecuador and risking his life to cross the border or the one about the day he got to New Hampshire and walked into his first U.S. supermarket.

OLMER VILLAVICENCIO: So I come to New Hampshire first. I remember I go to Market Basket. And I say, wow, that is America. That is America. (Laughter).

HAVERTY: He also talks to his daughter about what he's struggling with. These days, it's how to get his neighbors to see their voice matters this election. Olmer's not an organizer or a politician. He's a guy who knows everybody and, living in New Hampshire, has a front-row seat to the presidential race. He says it's just about getting fellow Latinos to see it that way.

VILLAVICENCIO: And I don't care what side the person - you know, Democrat, Republican - but both sides need to find a way how can...

JOSE INAYA: Reach out.


HAVERTY: Olmer's buddy Jose Inaya's over, sitting on the couch. He says he's so disappointed with President Obama's failure to pass immigration reform, he may not even vote this time.

INAYA: I voted twice for him because of the same thing. He let me down.

HAVERTY: As Jose goes on, Olmer just kind of shakes his head. But across the apartment, Jocelyn skinny with braces, steps in.

JOCELYN: So you're saying you're going to give up.

INAYA: Nothing gets accomplished.

JOCELYN: No, no, no, are you saying you're going to give up?

INAYA: No, we don't got to give up. But it's not going to get accomplished.

JOCELYN: No, you have to, like... Just that one vote, you might say it' a little...

HAVERTY: Jose tries to remind his friend's daughter of the 2 million people deported under Obama, all the protests he says led nowhere.

INAYA: What did he accomplish? What did we accomplish?

HAVERTY: But she doesn't back down.

JOCELYN: But I want to tell you something. If you want to prove that we're all equal, then why stop? If you're saying you're going to give up, then maybe I one day am going to say, oh, I'm going to give up too. If you're going to keep on doing that, everybody's going to start giving up.

HAVERTY: Jocelyn knows her community faces kind of a double challenge. There's the isolation of being a minority in a mainly white, rural state. Then there's the instinct to be invisible. Olmer and Jocelyn drive me to a salon across town. We run into their friend, Luz Betancur. Sitting in her chair, hair still in curlers, Luz admits that seven years after becoming a citizen, she'd like to be more involved in politics here.

LUZ BETANCUR: (Speaking Spanish).

HAVERTY: "I don't want to be defined by those candidates who say Latinos come to damage the country," she says. But most of the time, when a candidate is in town, she doesn't know about it. And if she does, she stays away because her English isn't good enough.

BETANCUR: (Speaking Spanish).

HAVERTY: Jocelyn says she sees that fear of embarrassment all the time, in adults and even her friends at school. She always says to them, who cares if people laugh?

JOCELYN: (Speaking Spanish).

HAVERTY: On the way home, Jocelyn says they've been learning about the pilgrims in school. She thinks it's a lot like what Latinos are going through here in New Hampshire.

JOCELYN: They came here for freedom. They sacrificed. Why can't we have that opportunity too?

HAVERTY: I ask Olmer how he feels about his daughter's future in the U.S.

VILLAVICENCIO: You see how she is. She has her own opinion when talking about rights, you know? So always I talk to her, what do you do for a fight with our rights?

HAVERTY: In the weeks ahead, Olmer says he'll be standing out on Main Street whenever he can, handing out flyers in Spanish telling people to go vote. In big words across the bottom, the flyers read, don't be invisible; get counted. Jocelyn says she'll be out there too. For NPR News, I'm Natasha Haverty in New Hampshire. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Natasha Haverty