In 2017, Belén Sisa was arrestedwith seven other undocumented activists for staging sit-ins inside the halls of Congress, demanding a Dream Act without additional border militarization — a “Clean Dream Act.”
Two years later, Sisa was named the Latino Press Secretary for Bernie Sanders’s latest presidential campaign. Ugly headlines appeared in the right-wing press. “Bernie Sanders hires illegal immigrant to be press secretary,” read one. Undaunted, the campaign set about opening up offices in Latino neighborhoods, canvassing Latino homes and supermarkets, printing materials in Spanish, and getting Bernie’s message on Latino televisions, radio stations, and newspapers.
After an intensive year-long effort to earn Latino support, Sanders walked away with 53 percent of Latino voters in Nevada — three times as much as his closest competitor, Joe Biden, who secured 17 percent. On Super Tuesday, Sanders won 49 percent in California, compared to runner-up Biden’s 19 percent. And he won 39 percent of the Latino vote in Texas, compared to 26 percent for runner-up Biden.
Jacobin’s Meagan Day spoke to Belén Sisa about how the campaign earned those votes, and the necessity of both good grassroots organizing and an ambitious political vision that speaks to the realities of Latino life in the United States.
Were you surprised that Bernie hit it out of the park with Latino voters, or did you see this coming?
Belen Sisa: I worked for Bernie in 2016. We noticed then that Latinos liked Bernie because he was speaking on the issues that so many politicians refused to talk about that they worried about every single day. But even though we knew that from experience, I never like to make assumptions or guesses. Because ultimately when it comes to organizing, you get what you work for.
2020 was about scaling up, building on the foundation that we had built with Latinos in 2016. We were guided by this goal of not only having people come out to vote, but also empowering them to organize their own communities far beyond 2020. And we knew that was necessary because whether Bernie won or he lost, we were going to have to organize ourselves to win legislation like Medicare for All, free college, immigration reform.
The Bernie Sanders campaign invested a lot in Latino organizing across the board. Latinos have been ignored for so long by the political establishment. We decided to go directly to them. As Latino press secretary it was my job to ensure that our message, our vision, and our agenda were going to Latino outlets that had that broad reach among Latinos, the places that they were already getting their news, which included buying ads in TV, radio, and newspapers, paying a lot of attention to what Chuck Rocha calls “cultural competency.” We also had lots of materials in Spanish and a volunteer team texting in Spanish.
But I think that where we went above and beyond was that we established a physical presence in Latino communities. We left no stone unturned. We opened our first offices in very heavily Latino neighborhoods in California, Nevada, and Iowa. We established our California office in East LA. What other presidential candidate is going to open an office in East LA?