Valeria Mena (L) and another volunteer canvas in downtown Fresno, trying to get young people to register to vote. (Alexandra Hall/KQED)
All summer, 19-year-old Valeria Mena has been working to register young people to vote in her hometown of Fresno. She just finished her first year as an undergraduate student at UC Santa Cruz. For her, leaving the Central Valley to go to college was like a political awakening.
Before that, no one had ever talked to her about politics.
"Personally, my parents are undocumented, and because of that they’re unable to vote. We didn’t really have those kinds of conversations," Mena says.
At an art installation and get-out-the-vote event organized by the civic engagement group Power California and global art project InsideOut/Vote in downtown Fresno, the 19-year-old with curly dark hair and round, bookish glasses explains to two students from nearby UC Merced how to carefully fill out voter registration forms.
She warns them that if they make any mistakes, the elections office won’t accept the form. One of the students, Miguel, writes in the wrong address, and suddenly changes his mind. He says he’d prefer to fill out the form online.
"The one that got away," Mena jokes, slightly disappointed. "Which sucks, but hopefully he ends up doing it,” she says.
If Mena wants to get Latino voters engaged, she has her work cut out for her.
"If you gave me a magic wand and said, 'Make one change in the Latino voting population in order to get them to [have] higher turnout,' I would just make them all 10 years older,” says Paul Mitchell, vice president of the bipartisan voter data company Political Data, Inc.
That’s because the Latino population is relatively young, and that makes them less likely to vote. Likely voters tend to be U.S.-born, older and affluent. Home ownership also often correlates with civic participation.
Young people — including Latinos — are also mobile, often moving for school or work. And they’re less financially stable.
Age is not the only factor at play when it comes to low participation. UCLA political science and Chicana/o studies professor Matt A. Barreto says it's the product of 50 years of neglect.
"The Latino and farmworker community has been neglected, ignored, harassed and scapegoated in [the] Central Valley," Barreto says.
“No one single voter mobilization program will be able to counter decades of neglect and hostility. Latinos in this region have low rates of voting, not because they don't care about politics, but because they have been systematically excluded and never welcomed with open arms into the political system," Barreto says.
That hasn’t stopped political campaigns and parties from targeting Latinos in the Central Valley.
This year, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent millions on Spanish-language television ads to boost Latino turnout in key California districts such as District 10 (which includes Modesto), where Democrat Josh Harder is running to unseat Republican Congressman Jeff Denham.
“There's very much a correlation between race and income in California, and as a result there's also a correlation between race and voting behavior,” says Republican political consultant Mike Madrid, who is working to boost Latino turnout in the Midterms.
Madrid says to motivate Latinos to vote, you have to be more than just anti-Trump.
“It's not enough to be against something. You have to be for something in order to get people to show up and be involved in government,” says Madrid.
It’s against these odds that Valeria Mena is working to get young people like herself involved.
She says she wishes someone would have talked to her about politics and voting when she was in high school.
“A good amount of people that I know that are Latinos... people don’t talk about these problems with them. So they just kind of look up to their parents or work in the farm fields like they do, or [work as a] empacadoras, which is packing the fruits.”
Now Mena is working to break that cycle, helping students register and talking to them about the importance of voting.
“I feel like they just need motivation to want to learn about their community and want to change it so they could vote for policies that will really affect them.”