The afternoon sun cast shadows on the sidewalk as students and volunteers streamed into the community center for an Oct.19 voter canvassing event in Forest Park, Ga.
Clayton County’s Old Dixie Highway and nearby Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport border this railroad town of 20,000, where steeples and power lines dot tree-lined streets and 31% of the population identifies as Hispanic or Latino.
Early voting in Georgia started Oct. 17 and overall turnout across the state is about 75% higher than it was during the same time period in 2018. That’s why local nonprofit organization Galeo arranged for Broadway star Lin-Manuel Miranda to encourage Latino voters to keep the momentum going.
Miranda, the New York-based writer of the plays In the Heights, Hamilton and the song “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” just finished up a Lawrenceville campaign stop with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams before heading to Forest Park to pump up a group of about 40 canvassers and allow Mayor Angelyne Butler to present him with a framed proclamation in front of a giant banner bearing the Forest Park city seal.
Miranda and his father, Luis, a longtime political strategist and 1980s alumnus of then New York City Mayor Ed Koch’s administration, were on a list of bold names including Oprah and former President Barack Obama who are rallying for Georgia candidates ahead of the Nov. 8 election.
In an interview, Lin-Manuel Miranda said his desire to support Latino voters in Georgia is rooted in the legacy of his family’s Puerto Rican heritage and commonalities with the Latino community at large rather than simply wielding his star power.
“No matter what country you are from, no matter what your homeland is, you have a shared language and a shared culture as Latinos here in the United States,” he said.
Regarding pushback about celebrities coming to Georgia, he added, “I think that the other thing that Atlantans are going to have to accept is that the eyes of the world are on them,” referencing his song “History Has Its Eyes on You” from the Hamilton musical. “And the fact that this became a global story of voter suppression in previous elections means that the eyes of the world are on you.”
Miranda previously spent time in Atlanta premiering Bring It On: The Musical at the Alliance Theatre in 2011 (“I lived here for several months and ate all of the barbecue and did all of the things. I love it,” he said).
Though this visit is for political rather than performance purposes, he believes art and activism originate from the same place.
“The impulse, the artistic impulse, I think is the same as the altruistic impulse,” he said. “And it’s that thing that won’t leave you alone until you do something about it and turn into action.”
Miranda also said finding that impulse was an expectation of his upbringing in a political household.
Understanding the needs of Latino voters in Georgia
Luminaries may shine a light on political issues in the state, but the day-to-day work in places like Forest Park will continue no matter the outcome of the election.
City Councilman Hector Gutierrez said he won his seat in 2019 by just seven votes and believes every vote counts. He is a U.S. Army veteran with a master’s degree in teaching, and despite his credentials he often finds himself in the role of translator around town, but feels “blessed” to be in a vital position and able to connect citizens to resources.
“I’m thankful to advocate for them,” he said, touting progress working with his city manager to plan for bilingual customer service and police assistance. “Also bringing [Latinos] forward to serve on boards, councils and committees.”
Hispanic and Latino people are underrepresented in the state legislature, accounting for less than 1% of elected officials across 159 counties.
Latino voters often feel wedged between other voting groups, misunderstood or ignored.
Clarissa Martinez De Castro, a vice president of UnidosUS Latino Vote Initiative, told Georgia Recorder in September that a large majority of Hispanic voters polled in a survey conducted by BSP Research reported seeing little to no outreach from either political party.
And the Latino voting bloc’s loyalty to Democrats may not be as strong as other minority groups who put Joe Biden in the White House and tipped other down-ballot races in the 2020 election.
A University of Georgia poll released Wednesday shows that among registered Georgia voters who identify as Hispanic or Latino, 49.3% support Abrams and 48.1% support incumbent Republican Gov. Brian Kemp. For the U.S. Senate race, that number flips to 47.4% for Republican challenger Herschel Walker and 41.1% for Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock.
But that poll has a 5.6% margin of error and was conducted entirely in English.
Joe, a Latino small business owner in Savannah who participated in the UGA poll and considers his views aligned with the Republican Party, said outreach to Latino voters is difficult because the party itself is divided, with moderates being “too far to the left.”
He feels most celebrity involvement is not needed, since many voters with strong convictions don’t require outside confirmation. Yet he sees the appeal of celebrity interaction for those undecided voters who want to be swayed, saying that when famous faces such as the Mirandas come to Georgia, “they will do their thing and that’s OK.”
Building bridges between communities
Courtney Flowers, a recent Georgia State University grad and Clayton County resident who attended the Galeo event in Forest Park said her generation is attuned to the importance of voter participation but sometimes needs reminders. She is a fan of Miranda and doesn’t mind seeing musicians or actors campaign as long if it’s for “issues that affect everyday people like us — and at the end of the day, they are people, too.”
Although Flowers does not identify as Latina, she understands barriers to voting and came to show her support.
“They’re very similar to what [we] Black voters face, in terms of transportation and being able to vote in your jurisdiction and having the requirements that are needed to vote,” she said.
A similar sentiment was echoed on stage by state Senate candidate Jason Esteves in downtown Atlanta a few hours later when he spoke at the Georgia Beer Garden during a campaign event for Sen. Raphael Warnock that also featured an appearance by Miranda.
Esteves identifies as Afro-Latino and told the crowd he has experienced the role that Georgia Latinos often play in bridging the traditional racial and sometimes political divide between Black and white communities, and it’s something he’d keep in mind if elected.
After event-hopping in several Georgia counties, Miranda followed Esteves to introduce Warnock, whose speech centered around Georgia’s multiracial and multicultural makeup. He expressed his appreciation for the Latino voters seated in the garden and repeated his favorite Martin Luther King Jr. line about being “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
Under rows of string lights in the chilly autumn air, the diverse gathering exhibited precisely the demographics — and messaging — some political groups in the state have worked decades to cultivate. Or, as the famous line in Hamilton‘s “Cabinet Battle #1” goes: “We fought for these ideals, we shouldn’t settle for less.”
At the end of a long day of campaigning, it was another moment for Georgians to be reminded that strides have been made but the destination still lies ahead.
This story comes to Reporter Newspapers / Atlanta Intown through a reporting partnership with GPB News, a non-profit newsroom covering the state of Georgia.