HOUSTON—As he walked out of a polling booth in a southwest Houston elementary school, after voting for the first time in his life, John Alvarado, 18, had a grin on his face.
Alvarado wasn't that politically engaged before last year, he said. But after starting to pay attention to the presidential election, he realized he needed to get involved. It's the same story for many Latinos in Texas—and especially young people—who are registering and voting to fight back against the rhetoric of Donald Trump and his fellow candidates.
“The only good thing Trump did was get a lot of people fired up,” Alvarado said.
Hillary Clinton cruised past Sen. Bernie Sanders to win the Texas Democratic primary on Tuesday, and Sen. Ted Cruz won his second contest on the Republican side. But the bigger story in this state may be that Latinos like Alvarado are more engaged politically than they have been in years.
While Texas’ Latino population has grown steadily over the years, Latinos don’t turn out for elections here at the same percentages of other groups. If they did, Texas could become as competitive in statewide elections as Florida, according to an analysis by the polling firm Latino Decisions.
Now an archipelago of Latino and pro-immigrant advocacy groups are working to make that a reality. Alvarado joined a leadership training program run by Mi Familia Vota, a voting rights group, and signed up to be a volunteer deputy registrar, which means he can register other voters. In fact, he registered dozens of voters before he even cast his own first vote.
Last week, Alvarado helped organize a massive protest of the Republican debate here in Houston, which attracted 800 demonstrators. He still had a hand-drawn "Dump Trump" sign in the backseat of his car as he drove to the polling place.
“Latinos are going to be influential in deciding who the nominee is in both parties,” said Carlos Duarte, the group's Texas state director.
There’s also been anecdotal evidence of a rise in the number of Latinos who are becoming naturalized U.S. citizens here, in part out of a desire to vote against Trump’s anti-immigrant bigotry. Claudia Ortega-Hogue, a vice president at the Houston area League of Women Voters, said that in past years, the monthly naturalization ceremonies in the area typically attracted about 1,200 to 1,500 new Americans. In the last half a year, however—roughly since Trump announced his campaign by demonizing Mexican immigrants—there have been more like 2,200 or 2,500. Usually about three-fourths of those who naturalize are Latino, she said.
“We saw a tremendous number of legal permanent residents apply for naturalization for the first time because of what they’re seeing happen on the Republican side,” Ortega-Hogue told me. “One of the things that has moved them to naturalize—it’s a little sad to say, but it’s the anti-immigrant atmosphere and the fear of not having that stability.”
That sense of fear is palpable among the community here. Carlos Mendoza, an immigrant from Venezuela who has taught elementary school in Texas for 18 years, said his eight-year-old students were worried about Trump winning. “Before this year, my kids never talked to me about the election,” he said. “This morning, they came in and asked about what racism is… the kids are scared.”
Several other Latino voters at the polling place where Alvarado cast his first vote, where lines of voters snaked out the doors, agreed that their main goal was to elect someone who could beat Trump.
“Honestly, the only reason I’m voting is because I don’t want him to win,” said Cherissa Mimms, 30, who supported Clinton, as she munched on an ice cream bar. “He’s racist. It’d be scary for him to be up there.”
Many Latino Republicans agreed that their main objective was electing someone who could take down Trump. Mayra Flores, 25, said she voted for Marco Rubio “because he’s the best chance we have of beating Trump.”
On the Democratic side, many young voters—including Alvarado—told me they preferred Sanders, citing his progressive record. Older voters weren’t feeling the Bern, however, and those who didn’t speak fluent English seemed to be even more likely to back Clinton over Sanders. “I don’t know who Bernie is,” Mara Vasquez said in Spanish. “Hillary supports Latinos, she’s family-oriented, she’s experienced.”
Part of that might be due to Clinton’s Texas campaign. For the last few weeks, ads hailing Clinton as “nuestra campeona” played repeatedly between mariachi hits on Spanish-language radio stations here. She won the Latino vote by more than 60%, according to preliminary exit polls reported by ABC News. Sanders, meanwhile, campaigned relatively little in Texas, instead investing more of his resources in Vermont, Massachusetts, and other whiter states.
While Clinton won in part by mobilizing Latinos, Cruz focused on a very different Texas demographic: the ultraconservatives. His target voter could perhaps be best seen in the name of the venue where he held his victory party: the Redneck Country Club, a folksy concert hall in a Houston suburb. (The club’s motto, according to its website, is “Honorin' Veterans, Respectin' Wives, Lovin' Country Music.”)
On Monday, the day before the primary, Cruz traveled the state with two of the most stringently anti-immigrant politicians in the country: the current and former Texas governors, Greg Abbott and Rick Perry, who both endorsed him. The trio attracted big crowds in San Antonio, Houston, and the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
At the same time, Bill Clinton held his own rallies in the state’s big three cities. At the Buffalo Soldiers Museum in Houston, he portrayed his wife as the anti-Trump. “She doesn’t build walls, she tears down barriers,” Clinton said in a slightly hoarse voice, as a diverse group of about 250 voters cheered him on.
Clinton pulled off a win in Texas. But Alvarado said that even though Sanders didn’t win the primary, “what matters to me is that we can show that somebody like Bernie Sanders can get that much support. That will resonate with people.” And it will mean more progressives run for president in the future.
He’s already thinking four years ahead, he said: “This is the first election I’m voting in… but it isn’t the last.”
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.