On a scorching afternoon in early October, Miguel Sahid walked over to a freshly painted mural in Wynwood, Miami’s art district. When Sahid reached the wall, tears began flowing from his closed eyes. Looming above him was an image of a Taíno woman wrapped in a Puerto Rican flag, her lips sealed with the word “Reclama,” or “Demand.” Her right arm was raised as high as Lady Liberty’s, but instead of a torch, she held a banner reading “Tu Voto es Mi Voto”—“Your Vote Is My Vote.” Sahid and others had commissioned the mural as a memorial to the victims of Hurricane Maria—but also as a rallying cry for the nearly nine hundred thousand eligible Puerto Rican voters in Florida, urging them to make their voices heard this November.
Sahid became involved in politics only recently—he was groomed in the world of theatre, and now runs an actors society for Latino youth. At forty-six, he comes across as a sturdy man, with carefully combed hair, warm eyes, and a jaunty smile. Like other Puerto Ricans, he has taken Donald Trump’s demeaning of the island personally, and sees Maria as a thorn in the President’s side. To this date, he vividly remembers the call he placed to his parents back on the island when the hurricane made landfall, in September of 2017. “Many of the phone lines were down, because everyone was calling,” he said. When he finally got his father on the phone, he learned that their apartment was flooded ankle-deep in seawater. Shortly after, Puerto Rico slipped into a blackout, and eight days passed before Sahid was able to reach his parents again. Trump’s callousness and ineptitude stunned him. “Everything changed when I saw he wasn’t paying the slightest attention to Puerto Rico, and that all he bothered to do was throw paper towels at us,” he said. “It felt as if he were offering a Band-Aid at a time when we desperately needed surgery.”
In the aftermath of the hurricane, Trump declared that he had done an “A-plus” job in Puerto Rico. During his only visit to the island, which lasted less than four hours, the President blamed local authorities for any problems and downplayed the damage. In reality, the official government death toll was 2,975, a higher number of victims than during Katrina, the hurricane that devastated New Orleans, in 2005. In parts of Puerto Rico, American citizens were left without electricity or clean water for months. The island has yet to fully recover from the disaster, which wrought an estimated hundred billion dollars in damage on a population whose local government was already heavily burdened by debt. Last month, in a transparent, last-minute effort to earn votes, Trump pledged a package of thirteen billion dollars in federal disaster funding to Puerto Rico. But many, including Sahid, saw this as a cynical political ploy by a President who reportedly wanted to hand over the U.S. territory to the highest foreign bidder. “First he wanted to sell us, then he wanted to swap us for Greenland, and now he wants to buy us?” he said ruefully. Feeling increasingly frustrated, Sahid looked for ways to become more engaged in politics and came across the grassroots groups Boricuas con Biden and Cubanos con Biden. “There, I found thousands of people airing similar grievances,” he said. “It made me realize that I’m not alone.”
According to the Pew Research Center, Latinos make up seventeen per cent of the electorate in Florida—the largest share of any battleground state. A staple of Florida politics is that Cuban-Americans reliably vote Republican; this year, they are expected to overwhelmingly support Trump. There are, in fact, more Puerto Rican eligible voters in the state than Cuban-Americans, and, together with myriad other groups, including Mexicans, Dominicans, Nicaraguans, and Ecuadorians, they constitute nearly three-quarters of the community’s voters. The result of the battle for their support could decide whether Trump or Biden wins the state. “Unlike 2016, this has been a much more contested environment,” Carlos Odio, the co-founder of the research group EquisLabs, told me. “If you’re Biden, what you’re trying to do is maximize votes. Trump has an easier job—he just needs to bat a few balls away.” To win Florida, Odio estimates that Joe Biden likely must secure around seventy per cent of the non-Cuban Latino vote—a level of support reached both by Barack Obama, in 2012, and Hillary Clinton, in 2016. The last time that Equis polled for Biden, his support hovered around sixty per cent. But he’s since made modest gains in Miami-Dade, Florida’s most populous county, aided by a heavy investment in advertising thanks to Michael Bloomberg’s half-million-dollar donation there and a wave of volunteers working to turn out the vote.
Addressing a small crowd of organizers in Miami Springs last weekend, Obama, who was in Florida to promote his Vice-President, emphasized just how momentous their work could prove, saying, “If you bring Florida home, this thing’s over.” Initially, the number of registered Democrats who had cast their ballots early in Florida outpaced Republicans by two-to-one. But in the last week, registered Republicans have steadily closed that gap, and now trail Democrats by less than a hundred thousand votes. In Miami-Dade, a Democratic stronghold, Republicans have an advantage in turnout of more than eight per cent. The numbers also reveal that half of Latino registered voters have yet to cast their ballots in the state. Privately, Latino political activists, and even Biden campaign staffers in the state, say that the Florida Democratic Party, which runs Biden’s coördinated campaign, has not invested enough money in direct voter contact among Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Colombians, Venezuelans, and other potential supporters. “I’ve emptied my pockets,” one of the staffers said, of having to make up for the lack of budget with personal money. The staffer has overheard others say they’re “being sent to the front lines just like soldiers without bullets.” But the campaign contends it has spent six figures over the last week in get-out-the-vote efforts and events at early polling locations. “We are leaving no stone unturned,” Christian Ulvert, a senior adviser in Florida, said.
Although research has long shown that there is a racial and ethnic disparity in the use of vote-by-mail, some are frustrated by what they see as the state campaign’s failure to invest more heavily in Latino turnout, despite the Biden campaign having raised a record $1.5 billion nationally, and working with a hundred-million-dollar donation from Bloomberg. But they also recognize an all-too-familiar pattern, which, in their view, explains why Democrats have not won a statewide election in Florida since 2012: the Democratic Party is not making a large enough effort in a state where demographics trends favor them. “Florida doesn’t have to go to the margins,” the staffer said. Now some of them are dreading a Trump victory or a repeat of the 2000 Presidential election, when the contest was settled in George W. Bush’s favor by five hundred and thirty-seven votes. If Republicans continue to turn out their voters in droves, Biden staffers fear that they may not be able to keep up with their lead. “If we don’t get the Hispanic vote out today and tomorrow, it’s game over,” the staffer told me on Saturday. “At this rate, they’re going to catch up to us by Monday.” Another staffer argued that it was impossible to make up in a matter of days for work that should have been done over the last year. “At this point, I’m praying for a miracle,” the staffer said.
What may offset the campaign’s neglect is that many Latino voters believe their livelihoods and integrity are on the ballot this year. For the nearly fifty thousand Puerto Ricans who moved to Florida after Hurricane Maria, November 3rd may well determine the future for their relatives back home. For the nearly two hundred thousand Venezuelans, Hondurans, and Salvadorans living in Florida, it may be a question of undoing Trump’s attacks on the Temporary Protected Status program, which allows immigrants from countries beset by violence, repressive regimes, or natural disasters to remain in the United States. And for the more than three hundred thousand voters of Mexican descent, it may be a matter of standing up for their dignity. Across nationalities, Latino voters are fed up with being treated as second-class citizens. What’s more, some say that they see in Trump the authoritarian instincts displayed by leaders of the nations they fled. “The reason why I’m horrified by Trump is because I see Daniel Ortega in him,” Carolina Chamorro, a Nicaraguan sociologist who moved to Florida in the nineteen-eighties, said, referring to the Sandinista leader. “All he’s doing is manipulating the masses.”
Much of Trump’s bigoted rhetoric has been aimed at Latinos—and, in cases like the mass shooting of twenty-two people last year in El Paso, in which the gunman set out to kill as many Mexicans as possible, it’s proved fatal. For Maria José Wright and Fred Wright, the notion that Trump is viewed as a pro-life leader is painfully ironic. Their son, Jerry, was one of the forty-nine victims of the Pulse night-club shooting, in Orlando, in 2016. Until that year, the Wrights had invariably voted Republican. “A lot of people don’t know this, but the shooter at Pulse, who took my son’s life, got radicalized because Trump started talking about banning [immigrants from] Muslim states,” Fred, an Ecuadorian-American businessman, said. “To us, he is pro-death.” Maria José expressed regret that many conservative Latinos who support the President limit their pro-life defense to the unborn, when more than a hundred Americans are killed by guns every day, and more than two hundred and thirty thousand have died as a result of COVID-19. “It’s shameful,” she told me. Maria José said she was troubled by the G.O.P.’s personality cult, and by Trump’s debasement of the press, scientists, and his opponents. “It scares the living crap out of me,” she said.
In a closely contested election riven by fear and hostility, the work done at the grassroots level could prove decisive in increasing turnout. Weeks before the start of early voting, Sahid joined dozens of volunteers, including Daniela Ferrera, the co-founder of the grassroots group Cubanos con Biden, and began rallying voters by organizing caravanas, rallies on wheels. When early voting began, they started visiting polling places to counter the presence of Trump supporters, whose vehemence they fear will deter Biden voters from turning out. A week ago, in the city of Hialeah, a Republican stronghold north of Miami, Maria Caridad Fernandez, a Cuban-American voter, wept after seeing fellow Biden supporters outside her polling site. Fernandez told me that she had been doubting whether to vote or not—her neighbor’s pro-Biden yard signs had been stolen, and she found the current political climate deeply dispiriting. But the sight of Biden supporters evoked a feeling of belonging—one that was comparable to what Sahid had felt. “I want this country to be proud of us and to never feel ashamed of having welcomed us in,” Fernandez said.
Sahid recently led a Sunday-morning caravan of Biden enthusiasts through downtown Miami. Previous caravans had numbered in the hundreds, but, this time, two thousand cars had registered on the eve of the event. Dressed in jeans and a tight “Latinos con Biden” shirt, Sahid welcomed people with a broad smile as they drove in: “¡Hola, hola, hola! How are you guys doing?!” Within less than an hour, there were more cars than the street could fit. People brought their elderly parents, their children, and pets and carried cardboard signs, some homemade, that said “Abuelas Cubanas con Biden,” “100% Anti-Comunista, 100% con Biden,” and “Republican voters against Trump.” Other signs referenced Trump’s treatment of Puerto Rico and his talk of trading away the U.S. territory, such as, “Prohibido Olvidar” and “Puerto Rico no se vende.” Next to their Biden flags, people brandished Puerto Rican, Mexican, Venezuelan, and Uruguayan flags. Leading the way was a pickup truck, playing at full volume a classic Puerto Rican song, whose lyrics went “¡Pa’ fuera! ¡Pa’ la calle! ” or “Get out, to the street.”
On the caravan’s way to Tropical Park, when Trump supporters drove by, their shouts of “Communists!” were drowned out by the cheering and honking of Biden supporters. “This is how you know the street is on your side,” Sahid said proudly. “Two months ago, you saw none of this.” His husband, Andres Mejia, sat to his right and joked that Sahid has had to replace his car horn three times. “It went mute during the first caravan,” Mejia said, as Sahid kept honking. By the time that Sahid reached the main boulevard in front of the park, more than a thousand people were lined up on the street’s edges, waving signs and dancing. An elderly Dominican man expressed astonishment at the size of the pro-Biden crowd in a park where Trump supporters convene regularly. “Trumpists had been here for a year,” he said in disbelief. “One never gets to see anything like this in Miami.” The turnout had exceeded Sahid’s expectations, but he was cautiously enthusiastic.
The following week, he and a group of volunteers put together another caravan, which drew several hundred cars from different parts of the city. The plan was to meet at the Freedom Tower, on Biscayne Boulevard—an iconic building where Cubans long petitioned for asylum, and which is known as the “Ellis Island of the South.” As Sahid and others got closer to the monument, a growing number of Trump supporters showed up in their cars. When the Biden supporters finally reached their meeting point, the boulevard was blanketed with Trump 2020 flags. Leading the caravan in support of the President were the Proud Boys, a far-right extremist group. They had hired a parade float, which featured a large-sized cutout of a bridge and which read “TRUMP UNITY.” It included a singer, too—a boisterous man who performed the Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.” with the letters “M.A.G.A.” Members of the rival caravans engaged in a screaming match. Some people shouted “¡Comunistas! ”; others “¡Asesino! ” A girl on an electric scooter carried a megaphone and repeatedly yelled, “Biden is a pedophile!” Another kneeled on the backseat of a car and twerked in the direction of a crowd of Biden supporters. There were different ways one could read the effort to sabotage the caravan—as a desperate attempt to regain the streets or a troubling show of force designed to intimidate Democrats. Sahid didn’t rule out either scenario. “It’s going to be darn hard to win this thing,” he said.