He set out to mobilize Latino voters. Then the virus hit.

Ricky Hurtado

EDITOR’S NOTE — Americans are preparing to choose a leader and a path through a time of extraordinary division and turmoil. Associated Press journalists tell their stories in the series “America Disrupted.”

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Like many Americans, Ricky Hurtado had different plans for his summer.

He formally announced his first bid for public office in March and expected to spend sweltering days knocking on doors, clenching glossy campaign literature and making his case directly to voters. This was the summer he was going prove that a 31-year-old son of Salvadoran immigrants could give Latinos a say — even in North Carolina, even in part of Donald Trump’s America.

But this is a story about waiting — and the detours on the path to power.

The novel coronavirus upended the Democrat’s campaign for statehouse in an exurban district. Hurtado stopped door-knocking. The closest he came to potential voters was standing 6 feet (1.8 meters) or more away while volunteering at food banks or a virus testing site. And, still, he contracted the virus himself.

Across the U.S., the coronavirus outbreak is disrupting Latinos’ long and difficult climb up the political ladder. The disease has disproportionately sickened Latinos, destabilized communities and impeded voter registration ahead of the November presidential election. In North Carolina, only 5,000 Latinos have been added to the voter rolls since mid-March, less than half the number added during the same period four years ago.

The virus and the economic fallout it triggered is crashing down on Latinos just as they hit an electoral milestone. For the first time, there will be more Latinos eligible to vote than any other minority group — 32 million, the Pew Research Center projects.

Latinos have long seemed on the cusp of realizing their potential at the ballot box, only to see their impact undermined by disappointing turnout and an Electoral College that favors heavily white states. In 2016, fewer than half of eligible Latinos cast ballots, as the country elected a president who promised to a build a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border and repeatedly used Latin American immigrants as a foil in the debate over it.

But if states such as California, Florida and Nevada were the proving grounds in elections past, North Carolina represents the future. The state has 1 million Latino residents, many immigrants being drawn to work in manufacturing and agriculture. Yet two-thirds are not eligible to vote because they are either under age 18 or not citizens — the second-highest rate in the nation, just behind neighboring Tennessee.

In Alamance County, among the housing tracts and thick forests reaching between Raleigh and Greensboro, there are three Latinos who cannot vote for every one who can.

For decades, those numbers meant one thing: Latinos’ growing population in the state didn’t translate into political power. Rather, it had the opposite effect of animating resentment and grievance, as politicians seized on immigration as a potent issue.

Now the children of immigrants are coming of age, finding their voice and their leaders. Hurtado and his generation are acutely aware of the weight demography and politics have placed on their shoulders.

“It really all depends on me,” said John Paul Garcia, a 20-year-old Hurtado campaign volunteer and the only member of his family of six who can vote. “I’m my sister’s voice, my brother’s voice, my parents’ voice.”

Trump won North Carolina by less than 4 percentage points. Hurtado’s Democratic predecessor lost the statehouse seat by 298 votes in 2018.

Hurtado knows it would be easier for him to focus on white voters, still the overwhelming majority in the district. But he wants his campaign to be about more than just winning the seat, flipping the legislature or even putting a Democrat in the White House.

“It’s actually engaging people,” he said this spring, as he drove his Volkswagen Jetta to knock on doors in one of the many trailer parks tucked behind auto body shops and in forested river bottoms across the county.

“I want the 21,000 Latinos in Alamance County to know they’re very much part of the conversation here.”

It would be the last time Hurtado door-knocked before the pandemic hit.

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Hurtado’s parents arrived in the United States in the trunk of a car.

The two were fleeing the civil war in El Salvador in 1980 when they were driven across the Mexican border and into California. Hurtado was born in Los Angeles, but when he was 7 his family moved to rural North Carolina, hoping the cleaner air would be better for his asthma.

Hurtado’s mother worked at a chicken plant, and when he was in high school Hurtado would rub her sore hands after picking her up from the plant at the end of her shift, close to midnight.

The poultry-processing, agricultural and textile industries that were the traditional foundations of the state’s economy all recruited as far south as Mexico, trying to draw cheap labor to the state.

“1996-1998, those were the years that changed everything,” said Paul Cuadros, a professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, who wrote a book on Latino immigrants in a rural area near Alamance County. “Once the children started showing up, that’s when you had the backlash.”

Hurtado grew up in a mostly Black neighborhood and he was conscious he was viewed as different. He tried not to speak Spanish in public. He’ll never forget when a fellow seventh grader, a girl he considered a friend, called him “just another Mexican by the side of the road.”

“No somos ni de aquí, ni de alla,” is how he describes his feeling of alienation, using a common phrase that translates to: “We’re from neither here nor there.”

Hurtado was accepted at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. A high school calculus teacher lent him $2,000 to help him pay for a laptop. But it wasn’t until his senior year that he began to feel comfortable with his identity as a Southerner and a Latino.

Out of school, Hurtado went to work at a consulting firm focusing on racial equity. He won a scholarship and earned a master’s degree in public affairs from Princeton. He was ready to take a job in Oakland in 2014 when he abruptly decided California could wait.

North Carolina’s governor at the time, Republican Pat McCrory, was pressing the federal government to deport the thousands of unaccompanied children who were crossing the border to flee violence in Central America.

“I just felt like, ‘That’s not the North Carolina I know,”’ Hurtado said.

He moved back to the state and began running a program for first-generation students at his alma mater and plunged into the local activist scene, where he met Yazmin Garcia. They spent one of their first dates picketing a Trump rally.

After they married, Hurtado and Garcia settled in Alamance County in one of the commuter suburbs outside of Chapel Hill. But their neighborhood wasn’t far from the old industrial strips that are punctuated with Salvadoran food trucks and Mexican groceries. Hurtado moved his parents there, too.

“Help your parents buy a house — that’s the American dream, isn’t it?” Hurtado said. He now has a different way of describing his roots: “Soy de aquí y de alla.”

“I’m from both here and there.”

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The work of finding Latino voters — the 1 in 4 — was always going to be difficult. Fear of immigration authorities is ever-present. Families members hold a patchwork of legal status. Doors don’t just open for anyone.

That’s partly due to the enduring power of Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson, a Republican who first came to office in 2002 when he ran TV ads that warned of “aliens” in the county and played music from the old TV series “The Twilight Zone.”

Johnson was the only sheriff in the country other than Arizona’s notorious Joe Arpaio to be sued by the Obama administration’s Justice Department for civil rights violations against immigrants.

A federal judge dismissed the case accusing Johnson’s agency of targeting Latinos in searches and seizures. But the sheriff’s department reached an out-of-court settlement with the federal government to avoid a government appeal.

Johnson believes the government merely “wanted a Southern sheriff to make an example out of,” he said in an interview in his office, lined with photos of his family and official travels, including one of a recent trip to the White House.

Johnson says he has no animus against immigrants. “I have several friends that own restaurants here that are here illegally,” he said. “I could care less as long as they follow laws of our land.”

Still, Johnson remains a menacing figure to many Latinos. His agency has an agreement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to house detained immigrants, which has drawn continued protests over the years. Just a reference to Johnson’s name can feel like a deportation threat to many Latinos. When a Latina clerk at cell phone store recently asked a white customer to put on a mask, the man said he was going to “call Terry Johnson” on her, said Tyra Duque, another clerk who witnessed the incident.

To be sure, Latinos in Alamance County and across the U.S. are politically diverse. About 3 out every 10 Latino voters supported Republicans in the 2018 congressional races, according to AP VoteCast, a survey of the electorate.

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