For Latino immigrants in Queens, election night confirms worst fears

Elana Levin

The fever dream that was the 2016 presidential campaign transitioned into a nightmare at the Queens headquarters for Make the Road New York on election night.

Nestled on a busy corridor in Jackson Heights with the elevated 7 train rattling above, the nonprofit low-income and immigrant advocacy organization hosted a group of over 20 mostly Latino immigrants to watch the results of the presidential election.

When I arrived around 8:30 p.m., the nervous excitement in the room was palpable, a taut string of hope binding this diverse group of men and women from the Latino diaspora – with roots as far flung as Ecuador and as close as Puerto Rico. As they sat in plastic chairs in a front room with a big storefront window watching Univision’s election night coverage, Make the Road employees colored in a homemade electoral map while refreshing the New York Times’ web page for updated results. Every so often, chants of “Si, se puede!” erupted. A woman named Leticia Pazmino gripped and waved two miniature American flags tightly the entire evening, as if merely setting them down would somehow swing the election.

As the night unfolded, I spoke with a number of party attendees, listening to their personal stories, their hopes, and mostly their anxieties as, state-by-state, the electoral map turned an increasingly crimson hue.

For many United States citizens, Donald Trump’s victory on Tuesday was not a life-changing event, but for those in attendance, the Republican nominee’s rhetoric throughout the campaign cut deeper. It would be reductive to say that every citizen or non-citizen in the room was a one-issue voter, but when nearly every facet of their lives on American soil is defined by immigration status, Trump’s campaign talking points (“Build the wall”) and quotes (“They're bringing drugs, they're bringing crime, they're rapists.”) portend an uncertain future in this country.

These are the stories and concerns of some of those men and women, chronicled alongside the election night results.

8:45 p.m. – Trump 96, Clinton 42 

It’s early enough in the ballot tallying that Luz Campoverde isn’t worried yet. A 45-year old Ecuadoran immigrant who only recently became a fully-fledged United States citizen, Campoverde cast her first-ever ballot for Hillary Clinton on Tuesday. Standing in the privacy booth at her polling site was the culmination of a grueling path to citizenship, which included leaving Ecuador at 19 for New York City and working 10 years in various factory jobs earning a paltry $3.25 per hour before finally landing a more economically stable job as a housekeeper.

“I felt really excited and really emotional because I felt like I mattered,” Campoverde told me through an interpreter.

As important as that moment was for her, Campoverde has also experienced the dark side of what it means to be a citizen in this country – the difficult reckoning that bigotry and racism is a sickness that not only permeates its history, but also girds the current political discourse.

As a member of her union, LIUNA Local 78, Campoverde made several long trips to Pennsylvania as part of a door-knocking campaign to register voters, where some residents slammed doors in her face and hurled racial slurs. When she was able to make a genuine face-to-face connection, Campoverde made a personal appeal for why voters should be engaged on immigration reform – she left behind her mother and several aunts and uncles in Ecuador when she immigrated to the U.S.

“The [pitch] that I’ve been focusing on is tearing apart families and the impact of immigration policies and tearing children away from their parents,” she said.

Yet with so many red states on the map, Campoverde realizes that her dream of comprehensive immigration reform may be put on hold.

“The truth is, yes, I’m very nervous.”

9:30 p.m. – Trump 168, Clinton 98

Natalia Aristizabal is stressed. A Make the Road organizer and Colombia native who immigrated to the U.S. when she was 12, she’s seen enough elections to know that the Electoral College is a fickle mistress for both candidates, but her anguish is visible as she colors in the Dakotas, Kansas, Nebraska, Arkansas and Texas with a red magic marker, with Florida votes still being counted but leaning Trump.

Perhaps owing to her involvement in organizing efforts or overall engagement in the political process, Aristizabal sees a Trump victory from the broader perspective than its affect on her fellow immigrants – it would be a validation of hateful, divisive behavior and language.

“Regardless of the result, who ever wins, this country is in a really bad place,” she said. “Whether Trump wins or not, I think that a lot of the damage has been done already because people think it’s okay to be sexist, racist, xenophobic – all of the things he promotes.”

In a separate room, removed from Make the Road members and colleagues, Aristizabal lets her guard down a bit, genuinely conflicted between conveying unease with the election results so far in private, but staying positive for those in attendance still clinging to hope that Clinton pulls it out.

“It doesn’t feel like what I thought the night would look like. They’re giving us hope, they were chanting ‘Yes We Can.’ The resiliency of these community members who have to overcome many obstacles to see this, they’re like, ‘we died over worse.’ I’m trying to feed off of that positivity.”

11:35 p.m. – Trump 247, Clinton 203

The main room at Make the Road headquarters has largely dissipated as major news outlets have now officially put two of the biggest swing states in the country – Ohio and Florida – in Trump’s column. Clinton’s path to victory is now muddied, reliant on Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania to swing in her favor in order to win. The news about Florida, in particular, a state that always seems to be the fulcrum of the Electoral College, reminds Antonio Alarcon, a 21-year old undocumented Mexican organizer for Make the Road, of a previous race in American political lore.

“I feel like I’m going to have a heart attack,” Alarcon said. “I heard about the [Bush vs. Gore] election in 2000 but now living in 2016 I’m guessing this is the same tension. I don’t know what to think.”

Alarcon has spent the last 12 years in the U.S., leaving his mother and father behind in Mexico to pursue a better life. An aspiring documentary filmmaker and student at Queens College, Alarcon cannot help but feel helpless as the results tilt in Trump’s favor. Not only does a Trump administration put his future in this country in jeopardy, without citizenship Alarcon cannot even make his voice heard in this race. He recounts a particular moment in class on Tuesday, in which his exclusionary status was painfully apparent.

“My professor asked, ‘Who in the class is it their first election voting?’ I was the only one that didn’t raise my hand because I was the only one undocumented in that room. Small things like this make you feel inferior to other peers or Latinos in this country.”

As the clock approaches midnight, Natalia Aristizabal announces to the few remaining people in the room that even though neither candidate has crossed the 270 electoral vote threshold, they will have to close up the office soon. She makes a final plea to those in the room to continue their mission regardless of who is in the White House.

Sitting in the front row, Leticia Pazmino, the flag-waving, impossibly upbeat cheerleader can no longer hide her fear. She wonders aloud in Spanish if Trump will get the United States involved in another war and her voice cracks when she mentions that he will now have his finger over the “botón” – the button codes for nuclear warheads.

After everyone in the room helps clean up and stack chairs, Pazmino walks towards the door, still gripping the American flags in her hand, only this time with the glint of tears in her eyes.