Ep. 66 Cristina Tzintzun Ramirez, JOLT

NICIE PANETTA: Greetings and welcome to another edition of The MidPod: The Midterms Podcast. I'm Nicie Panetta with Heather Atwood. This week and next week it's back to Texas, a state whose politics are central to the future of our country. This may or may not be the year that Texas goes blue. But there is important work being done here to rebuild a Democratic Party that became uncompetitive statewide after the decision of Texan Lyndon Johnson to champion civil rights. As he famously told Bill Moyers, "We'll lose the South for a generation." And so they did, especially in Texas. But now a new generation of progressive Texans has emerged. You've heard from some of them already on The MidPod, and now you're going to hear from some more of them. One in ten school kids in America is Texan and they are majority non-white. The question is, will they get engaged with the democratic process and will they vote? In late September, Heather and I went to Austin. We wanted to report for you on the extraordinary Senate race being run by Democrat Congressman Beto O'Rourke against Republican U.S. Senator Ted Cruz. We're going to bring you that story next week. But this week we want you to hear from Cristina Tzintzun Ramirez. She's a Latina organizer who began her career helping undocumented workers in Texas fight exploitation on the job. Now she's focused on getting young Latinos in Texas to vote.

CRISTINA RAMIREZ: I live here in Texas now but I grew up in Ohio. My mom is the oldest of nine kids from a poor farm working family in southern Mexico and my dad is a white American hippie that went and lived on a commune with a bunch of folks that went to the University of Texas at Austin and Mexico. And so I grew up in Ohio in two very different worlds one that was brown and one that was white and one that was rich and that was poor and my parents taught me and my siblings that our greatest privilege was not necessarily being born in the United States but it was being able to understand two cultures, two languages, and two communities. And with that privilege comes a great responsibility to address the inequality that we see around us.

NICIE: So if we could talk to your parents right now what would they say when when did you start showing signs of becoming a an activist and a change-maker?

RAMIREZ: So my parents would both say that I cried throughout my childhood and that I was always a fighter. I don't know if that necessarily made them think that I was going to be an activist or organizer but my parents are both very progressive but come from it from very different perspectives. I like to say my mom is an organic intellectual. She didn't go to high school but she understands so much of how the world works and her place in it and how systems are unfair and don't treat people in a way that is just. And so she raised me and my siblings to really understand the world around us and our role in it and then my dad gave me my first books to read about social justice. He had me read Malcolm X's biography. When I was very young, he gave me Ain't I a Woman to read by Bell Hooks and those really helped serve as my intellectual understanding of the world and so I was lucky to grow up in such a social justice-oriented household.

NICIE: Tell us about the work earlier in your career before we get to Jolt.

RAMIREZ: So I moved to Texas in my early 20s because I wanted to work with the immigrant Latino community. As a kid growing up in Ohio I felt oftentimes very lonely. I didn't have a community that looked like my family or understood a lot of the issues that my family and community went through. So when I moved here I started organizing with immigrants and quickly got involved organizing undocumented workers that were not paid for their work, would be injured on the job and dumped at hospitals, and I started supporting and helping them and most of them worked in construction, because here in Texas the largest employer of immigrant workers and undocumented workers is the construction industry. It is also one of the largest contributors to the Republican Party here in this state. In my early 20s I cofounded and led an organization called Workers Defense Project that builds power and lifted up the voices of those oftentimes seen as the least powerful in our community and show that together they were tremendously powerful and it was there that I learned to organize and passed half a dozen local and statewide laws that still better protect the rights of hundreds of thousands of workers in this state. Our organization was called one of the most creative organizations for immigrant workers in the country, an organization that was led primarily by folks that were undocumented and by me a 20-something that definitely had no nothing on her resume that said that she should be an executive director of an organization.

NICIE: Could you give us just one example of a win from that work?

RAMIREZ: Yes so here in Texas it surprises people a lot. We're the most-deadly place to work in the country so in Texas every two and a half days a construction worker is killed on the job, that outpaces any other state including California that has nearly three times the number of workers in the construction industry and many of those workers were some of them were dying due to heat exhaustion because we don't have any rest breaks. There is no law there's no federal law or state law that requires you to be able to stop work and take a break and it's very very hot here in Texas and you have summers where it's 110 degrees in Houston. So we passed local ordinances in Dallas and Houston that collectively give close to two hundred and fifty thousand workers the right to paid rest breaks and that was a law that we passed in both cities.

NICIE: One of the things from our reporting in Texas this cycle that we've come to understand is the degree to which the elected official power structure here in Texas looks so different from the actual population, political elected elites are very very white. Could you give an example of how you could bring allies on board who might not naturally understand the concerns that you were trying to raise?

RAMIREZ: Yeah so I think that you know people have an image of who Texas is, when people think of Texas they think of white male cowboy in the rural landscape. But Texas is actually majority brown and black and extremely young. That is the image that people should start to think about when they think about Texas. One of the reasons I love doing work in Texas is because there is no progressive choir to preach to. I just get to talk to nonbelievers every day and convert them and that's really fun to me and some of my most exciting work and the work that I'm most proud of is convincing people that didn't necessarily agree with me in the beginning but getting them to be firm, long-term committed believers in the work of supporting immigration reform, so that includes Republican business owners in this state. And that also includes union leadership in the construction industry that at first saw us as adversaries instead of allies in my previous organization and getting them to come over several years. But getting them to come to a place where they were marching arm in arm with undocumented workers calling for immigration reform because they saw it as not just the right thing to do for those workers but as a necessary step to protect the rights of all workers.

NICIE: So you're feeling positive about the established labor movement at this point or how would you change it if you could?

RAMIREZ: Well I think that, you know, having strong unions is critical to supporting families across this country that all of the basic gains we've had whether it's a minimum wage, when you get injured at work to have worker's compensation insurance, that the few benefits we do have in this country came because of labor unions the fact that the normal workday is 8 hours a day though we're consistently undermining that in this country. That also came from labor unions. So as we look about how we're gonna take back our democracy and make our democracy stronger I think we also have to look at how we make workers' voices stronger and that's through unions.

NICIE: The reason I press on this is only because you said something really about the issue of immigration here in Texas and across the country as not necessarily really about immigration per se. So maybe tell us tell us your thoughts there.

RAMIREZ: I think that the rise of the Trump administration is really about at the end of the day our changing demographics. That people are afraid, some people are afraid that our country will soon become majority people of color and that growth is largely fueled by immigrants and their children the majority of immigrants are black and brown. Now if you turned on and listened to as I have folks like KKK Wizard Duke he talks about immigration that the reason we need to stop is because these are people of color and we need to stop them from voting. That immigration is not about the rule of law. It's not about who has papers. It's not even about jobs, what it's about. It's about race and the power of people to vote and change the future of this country. And it's an old fight we've had for a long time in this country. And that I think as even myself as a child of immigrants I for a long time made the mistake of thinking that immigration was talking solely about people with papers and status and citizenship. And now I realize that that's not what it ever was about. That yes, they don't want people like my mom here. But more importantly they see me her daughter her U.S. citizen born daughter that can vote as a real threat to the future of this country and that's what they're trying to fight against and change.

NICIE: And that's why you know we've just been in Iowa where there's a congressman Steve King who's one of the most upfront of that viewpoint. And yet you know white people in Iowa are in the same boat as working people everywhere around the country that the average working family hasn't really had a raise in 40 years. So it's like this issue is being used to divide working people.

RAMIREZ: The message that they're sending is that white folks are incapable of living in cooperation and partnership with people of color and I refuse to believe that. I refuse to believe that our country is going to go backwards to a time where we openly legalized discrimination against people based on the color of their skin. Right now they're trying to do it based on immigration and it really at the end of the day it's about race. Even in the rise of this moment of the Trump administration when there is so much hatred and bigotry I also feel like my world has gotten so much bigger that I have more Muslim friends than ever, that I have more white progressive friends than ever, and that that is what we need to keep our focus on that the coalition that changes this country is white, black, and brown, it's Muslim it's Christian it's non-believer it's Jewish that that is the progressive future of this country. So even while many young people that I work with should be discouraged they're hopeful because they know that these attacks are because they are so powerful and they have the ability to change the country.

NICIE: So tell us about Jolt.

RAMIREZ: Jolt is focused on getting young Latinos out to vote. We're called Jolt because when young Latinos come out and vote in Texas we're going to be a shock to the political system not just of this state but the entire country. We believe the center of the world is Texas. 'Course there are other parts that are important but we really do believe that you change the country not just from places like my home state Ohio but you're seeing massive changes in the south and southwest and the power is really being fueled by young people of color that have a radically different vision for this country than the one we see, so at Jolt we're reaching 95,000 Latino voters. We launched in November 2016. So a very new organization but we've already built chapters across the state and our chapters are focused on registering and mobilizing young Latinos to vote, organizing around the issues that matter to them including immigration, making college tuition free, and next year we'll start working on healthcare. I'm not finding that young people are apathetic. I'm not finding that young people don't care. I'm finding that young people haven't felt spoken to or listened to. Once they feel spoken to and heard that they are more than willing to get energized and go organize their community.

NICIE: When you're recruiting a chapter president what are you looking for? What makes a great one?

RAMIREZ: So most of our chapter presidents are women not too surprisingly, while people are trying to say it's a new phenomenon of of women taking leadership, I think that most social justice movements have long been led by women and the work carried out by women they just didn't get the credit. But most of our leaders are young women. These are not folks that have ever been political before. They're not activists. They're not Democratic Party activists either. These are folks that simply want to do good in their community. They're motivated first and foremost by defending the sacrifices of their parents and they are motivated by building a community and being able to see themselves in power. So our folks are people that are not necessarily ideologues but they are people that care, they are progressive, and more than anything want to work to change Texas and we find that those usually are young women.

NICIE: So what are some of the numbers like what kind of impact could you have and how would you measure that?

RAMIREZ: So Texas's a state of 36 Congressional seats, 38 electoral votes. We are the least likely to we have one of the lowest voting turnout rates in the country. But again that's because a lot of our population is young and they haven't felt spoken to. And so we're organizing those young folks to make their voices heard.

NICIE: Just like what are the metrics like?

RAMIREZ: So the thing that's important to know about Texas is that we're a state of 28 million people, while people think of us as solidly red we're really just a non-voting state and most of our population growth in voter population is going to grow from young people. So over the next decade two million Latinos are going to turn 18 in this state. Right now the progressive vote gap in this state is people say anywhere from 600 to 800,000. All of that opportunity, all of the ways you can change Texas lie with young people of color. And so we're going out and talking to those young voters that are incredibly progressive that are energized when spoken to. And so at Jolt our goal over the next over 2019 and 2020 with our partners is to register 300,000 young voters of color. And then you start to really make significant gains in Texas. As Progressives too many times were short-sighted on a state like Texas, but if you change Texas, you've changed the political landscape of this country not for an election cycle, for a generation.

NICIE: You said something interesting earlier about your endorsement process. Just tell us how you think about working with candidates who are running for office.

RAMIREZ: So Jolt you know we're progressives but we are not for any party first, we're for our community first. We believe our job is not just to get people elected and go home and hope that they do the right thing but that our job is to get good people elected and then push them to deliver the real change that our community needs. And so first and foremost we make sure that the people that we endorse support our positions and that sometimes that means we may not make the popular choice but we make the choice that is right for our community. So in this election, our members who make the decisions about our our candidates are the presidents of each one of our chapters sits on our endorsement committee. And they are some of the smartest folks I know. So in the gubernatorial Democratic primary we did endorse Lupe Valdez against Greg Abbott who's running for governor. We did endorse Beto O'Rourke but in the Democratic primary we did not endorse Lupe Valdez originally while she was Latina and we would have loved nothing more than to stand behind the first Latina gubernatorial candidate, she had a bad record on immigration and here in Texas one in two young people are children of immigrants.

RAMIREZ: And she had ushered in policies that caused a lot of harm. A lot of pain and suffering for Latino families and immigrant families in Dallas that led to the deportation and separation of many families. And so when we asked her about her record and she couldn't really answer about how she was going to be different as governor, we endorsed her opponent. Now her opponent owned a border security company so it wasn't a great choice for us but we demanded in exchange for our endorsement that he sell his border security company, that border security company he put up for sale immediately and we asked for a stronger platform on the rights of immigrants. And we think that was absolutely the right message it almost changed the entire outcome of the Democratic primary. And it was young people of color that did. And now Lupe Valdez has taken stronger positions in favor of immigrants. And I think that Democratic candidates have learned that you can't take immigrant families for granted. And definitely not in this state that young Latino voters care deeply about this issue and we won't let our families be used as a bargaining chip.

NICIE: What's your strategy for building financial support and strength?

RAMIREZ: So if you're going to get to scale in Texas while I can tell you all of these amazing numbers about how there's so many young voters and people of color in this state, demographics alone are not destiny. People point to California all the time and asked me why don't we vote like Latinos in California? Well what people don't realize is it took massive investment in California. You don't get people out to vote just because their numbers are there they have to believe that the candidates are going to make change for them. Candidates have to go and talk to them and reach out to them. And you have to register hundreds of thousands of people. That is not a project for one candidate or one campaign. That is a constellation of organizations and a massive investment to make that happen. So for us scale means having 100 chapters, for us scale means registering these 300,000 young voters along with our partners in the state. And it means having chapters across Texas of young people that are organized and mobilized, and we're going to build that infrastructure and muscle over the next five, 10 years. To do that we're going to need millions of dollars to come into this state.

NICIE: And what is your donor base like?

RAMIREZ: So if you're going to reach Latinos you have to be grassroots but grassroots doesn't mean that you're also so poor that you can't do the work. Now last year we operated off 230 thousand dollars which is next to nothing. This year we're at one point five million. And next year we'll be closer to 2 million. But we are determined to get up to be an organization that can move Latinos to scale in this state and move young voters and we're going to do that. We've been getting more and more people to invest in our organization, small dollar donors, larger donors. But at the end of the day for us at Jolt, what we want all donors to know is we want you to invest in our community but not just because you want Texas to be blue, but because you want our communities to have the things that all people deserve that we deserve to have health care, that we deserve to go to good schools, that we deserve to see people in power that look like us. And so if you invest in Jolt, we ask that you stand behind that vision.

NICIE: What'd we miss, anything? Any last thoughts?

RAMIREZ: Just that I think you know while we may turn on the TV and be rightfully angered, sad, sometimes feel helpless, that we need to know that right now there are seismic shifts happening and that young people are really going to be the ones that change this country and take back our democracy. And so while we may be discouraged, know that this rupture that we see in our democracy is because we're at a crossroads about which path we choose as a country, do we become a country that's fearful and divided? Or do we become a country that's going to celebrate our diversity as our strength and double down on a vision of equality for all people regardless of race or economic status and at Jolt we're determined that we choose the latter path. We make up 40 percent of the state's population and by 2030 we're going to be the majority as Latinos. But you wouldn't know that by looking at who's in power and here in Texas we've passed the most anti-immigrant, anti-Latino law in the country that's allowed for our community to be racially profiled, to be targeted, for our families to be separated. And so you know our message for elected leaders says that as Latinos nothing matters to us more than our families. [Speaks Spanish] That if you come for our families, we will come for you and vote you out of office.

NICIE: That was Cristina Tzintzun Ramirez. Next week, more from Austin, Texas, where Heather and I hit the Texas Tribune's Trib fest conference, stress ate our way through Austin in the wake of the Ford Kavanaugh hearings, and were able to attend an amazing rally for Beto O'Rourke with Willie Nelson. Thanks so much for listening and see you soon.

Eunice Panetta