A Journey into Red America
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Editor's Note: After the 2004 election, Rose Aguilar, like many other progressives, was haunted by the same question: what went wrong and why? She realized that the answer lay not in the liberal bubble of San Francisco but in the vast expanses of George Bush's America, among the many people who voted for him despite the best efforts of progressives everywhere. Over the next four months, Aguilar plans to visit a number of red states, including Mississippi, Oklahoma, Nebraska, South Dakota, Montana and Utah. Her first stop was Zavala County, Texas.
The drive from San Francisco to Texas took almost three full days. The road to El Paso, Texas looks like chain store America, with loud fluorescent signs and advertisements lining the highway. John Kerry got 56 percent of the vote in El Paso County, but I am headed for Zavala County, where Kerry got 75 percent of the vote. It's as blue as you get in Bush country.
I drive into Crystal City, a small town with two main roads that reveal its slow decline. The shops on the main drag near the movie theater ( House of Wax is showing for $4) are empty and dilapidated. I drive by a pinata party at Pizza Hut and spot a Dairy Queen sign touting the virtues of its rancheros plate. No other restaurant chain could be bothered to set up shop in Crystal City.
The town's staunchly Democratic tradition dates back to 1969, when more than 1,700 high school students staged a walk-out to protest a high school rule that allowed only one Hispanic on the cheerleading squad. "Cheerleading may not sound significant now, but thanks to that walkout, everything changed," says Diana Palacio, Crystal City's city manager who led the walkout. The issues at stake were much larger: bilingual education, Hispanic teachers, college preparation and representation in the curriculum.
"Today, every member of the school board is Hispanic. Back then, they were all white," she says. "We couldn't even speak Spanish and had no one to look up to."
It was a proud moment in Crystal City's history when this small town became a catalyst for similar protests across the country. The walkout did not, however, change the town's fortunes, and it has since languished as a neglected outpost of progressive America.
The Religious Left
I attend Mass at the Church of the Almighty, a Pentecostal church with parish of around 200 people, and am immediately greeted with a dozen handshakes and hugs. After the service, which focused on Mother's Day and the importance of family, I ask the pastor, Brother Dino Espinoza, whether he discusses political issues in church.
"If I want people to vote for a certain issue, I will do it outside of the building," he says. "I never bring politics into my church. It's not appropriate." Brother Espinoza is a registered Democrat and is staunchly opposed to abortion and homosexuality, but he never preaches against them from the pulpit. "I believe God loves everyone. Therefore, everyone is welcome in my church," he says.
The vast majority of the people I meet at service say they're very religious and vote Democratic for its economic policies and anti-discrimination stance. They never mention abortion or gay marriage.
It's no surprise that the economy is the number one issue for women like Sofia Munoz, who works 64 hours a week at three jobs. She averages $5.60 an hour as a cook for Head Start and at a taco stand and as a labor contractor in the fields.
"I've always voted Democrat and always will," she says. "I feel the Democrats fight harder for us poor people than the Republicans." Munoz says she barely makes ends meet, but rarely complains about her 1 percent annual raise -- not when the unemployment rate in Crystal City is 14 percent, one of the highest in the state. "If you have a job you keep it, because you won't get a better one," she says.
Crystal City is one of the poorest towns in Texas, and 98 percent of the city's 8,263 inhabitants are Hispanic. Most residents have no idea that they live in the most Democratic constituency in Texas, but are not surprised. "Democrats give more opportunities to low-income and minority people," says Maria Alvarez, a teacher in a local Head Start program.
"Our efforts for equality have always been more supported by the Democrats than the Republicans," Palacio says. â€œThatâ€™s why they get our votes.â€
Yet the Democratic Party shows little appreciation for this kind of loyalty. Crystal City, receives little attention from party officials even during election time. "The Republicans are coming out and talking to everyone, but the Democrats rarely come around," says Crystal City Mayor Raul Gomez. He received at least a dozen phone calls from Republicans before the November election and none from Democrats.
"If the Democrats want to keep winning down here, they have to come out and talk to the people," Gomez says.
Hispanics for Bush
When I knock on the front door and tell the Guerreros about my project, they welcome me with open arms and Mexican pastries. It doesnâ€™t take long to spot the huge "Viva La Bush" sign in the backyard. Jesus Guerrero, the newly appointed municipal judge and Crystal Cityâ€™s first Hispanic to run as a Republican for city council, sports a Support Our Troops T-shirt.
"I voted for Bush the first time he ran for governor. I just like his charisma and values," he tells me proudly. "Plus, you can't change presidents during war."
Guerrero and his wife support the invasion of Iraq and say they feel safer because of it. Whenever I raise questions about the reasons for going to war, Jesus brings the conversation back to 9/11: "We're just lucky it never happened in our neck of the woods because we're not populated."
His wife is equally insistent when it comes to the war, "I don't know too much about the details of the war, but I do support any military person that signs up and wants to keep us free," says Diana, who voted for President Clinton twice, but feels he was too busy with Monica Lewinsky to pay attention to Osama bin Laden. Unlike her husband, who seems to enjoy being one the few Republicans in town, Diana calls herself a "poor Republican." In other words, she's voted for both Democrats and Republicans since she turned 18 and is open to going either way in 2008.
Since visiting Crystal City, I've been to Kerrville, a predominantly wealthy, retired Republican community; yet another 24-hour Wal-Mart Supercenter (I've already lost count); and the Shoreline Christian Center, a mega-church in Austin. Like the Guerreros, they too focus on Bush's personality, not the facts.
Even the Democrats in Crystal City are not up on their facts -- working three jobs leaves little time to stay informed. These aren't the kind of San Francisco progressives who read The Nation or Mother Jones -- in fact, no one here has even heard of these publications. The little news they get is from television. As a result most folks know more about the Runaway Bride than the Republican vote against raising the federal minimum wage in the Senate. When I tell both low-income Democrats and Republicans here about the minimum wage bill, their eyes open wide and mouths drop. They had no idea Bush is opposed to raising their wages. They're clearly angry, and for good reason.
Still, it's clear from my conversations in Crystal City that it's the Democrats and not the Republicans who need to worry about the future. Due to the indifferent and high-handed attitude of the Democratic establishment, it is in danger of alienating its most ardent supporters. The future of the party lies with women like Sofia Munoz, and Democrats would be wise to start listening to what she has to say: "Please continue to fight for our rights. We live in a small town, but those of us who stay informed, spread the word and have a lot to say. All we ask is that you be real and listen."