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Vote for Pedro

Meet the Latino youth movement’s Leslie Knope.

Nona Willis Aronowitz casts her ballot in New York.
Logan Bellew is a photographer working in Phoenix and Cyprus.


A tall, husky young canvasser readies his clipboard in the driveway of a pale yellow ranch-style house. His younger brother lingers behind him holding a handful of campaign literature. A middle-aged woman peers through her white wrought-iron door, and the taller guy introduces himself:

“Hi, Isabel? I’m Pedro Lopez, and I want to tell you about my friends who are running for office in the area.” She cracks open the door as he hands her a postcard.

“And I’m also a candidate for the Cartwright School Board.”

Isabel’s eyes light up, and the two break into an animated dialogue in Spanish. After a few minutes, she notices me and a photographer hovering nearby, and the conversation switches to English. Isabel assures Pedro he’s getting her vote. “You’re young, you’re Hispanic, and I think you could really do something for us,” she says. Pedro thanks her politely and offers his hand.  She clutches it and pulls him forward.

“Yes but no les olvides,” she adds. “Don’t forget about the ones still in Mexico. Mijo, when we’re here, we sometimes forget about our people down there. And that’s very dangerous.”

Pedro smiles and mumbles something about his mom. When Isabel shuts the door, he lingers at her doorstep, furiously scribbling on the papers nestled in his worn manila folder.

It’s mid-August in Phoenix, at the tail end of a week so hot that the city’s temperatures made national news. The primary is ten days away. Pedro, who’s 20, and his 15-year-old brother Martín are going door-to-door, reminding residents to vote and handing out fact sheets on progressive Latino candidates. By now, Pedro is used to the routine—plan out the route, knock on the doors, cheerfully engage, drop off the lit. The back-and-forth with Isabel was a treat for the brothers; the day’s visits had been a mixed bag. Some residents waved them off or shouted through the door, “No, thank you.” Others indulged them. One elderly woman with a Southern twang handed them gigantic neon bottles of Gatorade.

Today, they’re drumming up interest in a candidate for state senate, Martín Quezada, and Martín Samaniego, who’s running in a state house race. Tomorrow, Pedro will canvass on behalf of state senatorial candidate Raquel Terán, who pays him to call constituents and brainstorm campaign strategy six days a week. This Saturday, he’ll wake up at 7 a.m. to prep a group of young campaign volunteers. On Wednesdays, he takes a political science class at Glendale Community College. He lives with his father and two cousins (his mom still lives in Mexico), and to help pay the rent he also has a full-time job as a pharmaceutical driver, delivering IVs and packages of pain pills to hospitals and nursing homes. To make room for his political work, Pedro works in spurts—three weeks straight, 20 hours a day, then a few weeks off. He’s taken August to focus on the primaries, but come September, it’s back to working the graveyard shift and, after a quick nap in his van, usually a shift after that.

Pedro is closely connected to a number of political organizations that sprouted up in the wake of SB 1070, the controversial bill passed by the Arizona legislature in 2010 that made the failure to carry immigration documents a crime and gave state cops the power to detain anyone suspected of being here illegally. Senate Bill 1070 struck many Arizonans—and U.S. Supreme Court justices—as xenophobic and racist. And in response, a wave of youth activism has swept the state. There are the high school kids from Team Awesome, who were instrumental in electing one district's first Latino city councilman. There’s Adios Arpaio, which is dedicated to ousting the bombastic sheriff with a national reputation for racial profiling. There’s the Arizona DREAM Act Coalition, which steers undocumented youth on a path to becoming legal citizens. There’s Promise Arizona, the group that turned Pedro on to politics two years ago, which focuses on voter registration and electing candidates that will look out for the Latino community.

Two months before I went door-to-door with Pedro, President Obama issued an executive order granting legal status to young, undocumented immigrants for two years. It was a temporary, watered-down version of the DREAM Act, which had died in the Senate back in 2010. The day it took effect—hours before I boarded my plane to Phoenix—Jan Brewer countered Obama’s order with a decree of her own, denying these kids driver’s licenses or access to social services. While I was still in the air, hundreds of young Latinos converged on the state capitol in protest.

Pedro wasn’t among them. He was in his makeshift office, a sparsely furnished alcove off his kitchen in the ranch-style house he shares with his family, calling voters in Northern Phoenix to remind them about the primary. Of course, he was also calling to say, “Hi, I’m Pedro Lopez, and I’m running for Cartwright School Board.”

While most kids his age are working entry-level jobs, studying, and partying, Pedro spends his days entering data and knocking on doors. He survives on pizza, coffee, chips, and Red Vines. He’s a one-man show: the candidate, the PR team, and the get-out-the-vote operation rolled into one. He spreads the word through T-shirts and yard signs, Facebook and Twitter (#vote4pedro). His life is a series of canned answers and talking points; when I ask him why he spends so much time canvassing, he has a heartwarming story ready about the time he registered an illiterate 97-year-old Latina. Why is he running for school board? It’s “for the younger folks—for my brother, for my cousin, for my neighbors who are interested in politics,” he says.

Unlike his undocumented peers, Pedro can put his name on the ballot. His American citizenship gives him an official channel for his outrage. And he’s unfailingly optimistic about the future of progressive Latino politics, dead sure that “in 10 years, we should have majority of the House, the Senate, we should have governors, we should have secretary of states, we should have board supervisors. We should have majority.” 

But that’s the 10-year plan. Right now, all he’s thinking about is November 6.

When I first met Pedro two years ago on a different reporting trip, he was living in a tiny room in the basement of a church in Yuma, Ariz. While I was there, two neighbors stopped by with some pea soup and bread. Pedro needed some semblance of normalcy, after all. A couple months earlier, he had uprooted his entire life—leaving his family and abandoning his scholarship to Arizona State—to work on voter registrations with Promise Arizona in the tiny border city ahead of the 2010 midterms. 

“My dad was pissed,” Pedro tells me. “He said, ‘That’s loco, you’re crazy, you’re not going anywhere.’ [I said] I can do what I want, I’m 18 now.”

Eight months earlier, in January 2010, Pedro and his neighbors had started hearing rumors about an anti-illegal immigration law. Immigrant families in Maricopa County were used to Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s spontaneous raids, but word on the street was that if this law—SB 1070—got signed, it was going to be nasty. Pedro had never been involved in politics before. He was born in California, but was raised in the small Mexican state of Colima until he was 16. He’d only been in the United States for two years and didn’t even know English fluently yet.

Still, he was a little freaked out. He went with some schoolmates to a conference in Nevada, where Promise Arizona and other nonprofits were training young organizers to mobilize opposition to SB 1070. On the drive back to Arizona, the kids were getting texts from their friends and neighbors: “They’re raiding the shops, the markets, the houses, the apartments.” People were fleeing to churches and hotels to hide from the authorities. 

A few weeks later, Pedro got a call from his uncle, who had been pulled over and subsequently detained because he didn’t have insurance. “I go downtown and I try to bail him out, but I can’t because he’s undocumented,” Pedro tells me. He suddenly realized: He was safe, but his family was not. And neither were a lot of his friends.

As SB 1070 made its way through the Senate, the local high schools were in an uproar. “We started to send text messages, ‘We’re walking out, we’re marching, we’re leaving the schools, we’re going to the capitol, we’re gonna protest,’ ” Pedro recalls. Pedro’s school, Trevor Brown High School, was 93 percent Latino, including Principal Gabriel Trujillo, who got on the loudspeaker to address the students. He couldn’t explicitly give his blessing, but Pedro says he may as well have. “He said, ‘If you’re gonna walk out, there’s consequences, but please do it nicely … good luck.’ ” And the gates opened. “All the other schools they locked down,” Pedro says. “They closed the door. Some of the students jumped the fence to leave.”

Marching is great, but at the end of the day, what do we get? On the media we’re just a bunch of Mexicans protesting.

Pedro and his friends marched 13 miles to the capitol under the blazing sun. Despite the heat, he encountered a joyful energy. “We’re marching, telling stories … we’re just getting ready to do something,” Pedro says. When the bill was signed, there was silence in the crowd. People around him began to cry. Community organizers comforted the kids and told them to keep fighting. “They just uplifted us that day,” Pedro says.

After that, he started working closely with Promise Arizona, where he met its executive director, Petra Falcon, and Raquel Terán, a community organizer who would become a state senatorial candidate and Pedro’s mentor. When they asked him if he wanted to go to Yuma to collect voter registrations for the day, he accepted without hesitation. The roads leading in and out of the border towns were heavy with checkpoints, and unlike some of the DREAM Act kids, Pedro had the advantage of knowing he could make it through safely.

In Yuma that day, Pedro and his two mentors visited 12 Catholic masses to register voters. It was Pedro's job to stand up during the last two minutes of the service and encourage churchgoers to vote. “My legs were shaking,” he says. “I didn’t have any breakfast ’cause I was so nervous, even though it was in Spanish.” But when he stepped up to the microphone, he realized he had a knack for it. Four masses in, he was “already a pro.” By the end of the day, Pedro had the fruits of his labor right in his hand—the names of 100 Latinos newly registered to vote.

That night, Terán and Falcon took Pedro out for a celebratory dinner and asked him if he wanted to work in Yuma until election day. “That moment I decided that I needed to be involved,” he says. “I used to watch the Chicano movement movies and I’d seen people protesting and everything, and I wanted to do something like that.”

But once he declined his ASU scholarship and moved to that basement in Yuma, his days were less inspiring. They were 20-hour marathons of cold-calling and knocking on doors. Even if people answered, that didn’t mean they would register to vote; sometimes they weren’t citizens, and sometimes they were annoyed to find a Hispanic kid on their lawn. He was earning a stipend of about $1,000 a month, most of which went right into his father’s bank account; his dad had gotten laid off, so Pedro was paying the rent. 

Yuma was a thankless grind, but Pedro plunged himself into the work. He stopped answering his personal phone. He broke up with his girlfriend and stopped messaging his friends on Facebook. His only social life was the occasional after-hours chill session with his fellow workers.

Even though his efforts in Yuma didn’t sway the midterms, which were rife with Republican wins, in August 2011 Pedro joined Citizens for a Better Arizona’s effort to recall Russell Pearce, a formidable state senator and the architect of SB 1070. It was a risky crusade. People warned him that if they lost, Pearce would target immigrants even more. But the organizers “had faith” they could kick him out of office. Pedro was sent to Mesa, 20 miles from Phoenix, where he was tasked with recruiting young people from the three local high schools and shuttling them around in a 15-person van. The group combed the streets of the heavily Mormon community, trying to convince residents to depose Pearce and replace him with a more moderate Republican, Jerry Lewis. They succeeded.

After the high of victory wore off, Pedro realized that Lewis was just the lesser of two evils. Lewis was the president of the state’s charter schools, Pedro worried that Lewis wouldn’t advocate for public education. The limitations of canvassing for candidates became clear: “What happens after we elect them is that we can’t control them,” Pedro says. Politicians have a whole range of opinions, an entire army of people pulling them every which way. Nobody was a perfect advocate.

When Pedro told Falcon what was gnawing at him, she suggested he run for school board. He immediately went home, started researching, and found out there was an open seat right in his district. He filed to run for Cartwright’s school board a few days later.

“Marching is great; I love marching,” Pedro says. “But at the end of the day, what do we get? On the media we’re just portrayed as a bunch of Mexicans protesting, a bunch of illegal aliens marching.” Protests only sway lawmakers up to a point. Eventually, insiders have to hear from other insiders.

Which is why, these days, Pedro is more Leslie Knope than César Chávez. He spends his days filling out voter registration forms and transferring the details into a database, making his way through lists of local landlines, taking lonely walks around deserted cul-de-sacs. “I hate walking,” Pedro admits. “I hate being a logistical person. Or data? Doing data entry in the computer? I hate doing this. I’d rather go and walk when it’s 110 degrees than do data entry.” But it’s worth it to him.

Gotta be the bigger person. That's how we are trained, to be the bigger person.

“One of the advantages of having somebody from the community grow up as a leader [is] you get to choose an elected official who you can count on, who will make good decisions for us,” says Michael Nazario, who is undocumented and one of Pedro’s best friends. But Nazario understands that Pedro needs the DREAM Act movement as much as it needs him. “If we’re not involved, regardless of our status, we don’t create that power. We can’t put people in office who will speak up on our behalf.”

In other words, even if kids like Nazario aren’t legally able to cast a ballot, they can always convince someone with that privilege to use it. In this Phoenix pocket of Latino youth activism, there’s an obsessive fixation on The Vote. It all comes down to numbers—how many members of the community follow the news? How many know their rights? And how many care enough to show up on Election Day?

It’s Saturday morning, the day after I walked door-to-door with Pedro, and he and a 17-year-old undocumented student named Allan Lira are running a pre-canvassing workshop. They’re here in a garage-like space behind a strip mall to brief about 10 volunteers from various groups—Team Awesome, Adios Arpaio, the Arizona DREAM Act Coalition—on the best ways to register new voters. District maps and handwritten notes from brainstorming sessions have been carelessly pinned on the walls; a few boxes of Munchkins and a carafe of coffee sit on the folding table amid piles of campaign literature. Exposed heating ducts and pink puffs of insulation material hang from the unfinished ceiling.

“You have to figure out who you connect with,” Lira explains to the group. “I know I connect with old Mexican mothers, because I was brought up by my grandma.”

Neither Lira nor Nazario speaks with an accent—they both came to this country as babies. In some ways, they’re more American than Pedro, who’s only been here since 2008 and who learned English as a teenager. He went to a movie theater for the first time in 2010; he went bowling for the first time four months ago. Pedro knows firsthand that birthplace doesn’t determine cultural affinity.

Not that all Arizona residents can see that. Pedro has encountered some serious rage on strangers’ doorsteps. In Yuma, Pedro heard things like “Go back to Mexico!” or questions like, “Where were you born? You illegal?” It rattled him. “I’d start losing my cool,” he recalls. But now, Pedro knows better. He’ll gently correct them, or he’ll back off—give them a “Thank you for your time,” and step off their porch. 

“Gotta be the bigger person,” he says. “That’s how we are trained, to be the bigger person.”

Indeed, “be the bigger person” has been the strategy of many successful social-justice movements. Early black civil rights activists took the moral high ground and embraced nonviolent protest, “a religious and very peaceful method that developed enormous sympathy with the rest of the country,” says John Garcia, professor and civil rights researcher at the University of Michigan. Like the civil rights and gay rights movements before it, young Latinos’ fight is “about inclusion, and being part of the mainstream of American life, having the same rights and access that everyone else has.” It’s about wanting a piece of the pie, not changing the recipe.

The expectation to be well-dressed and well-spoken has always hung over the heads of minorities who want in on arenas of public life that have been systematically closed to them. In advance of the 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, organizers told participants to dress in their Sunday best. Young Latino activists channel that media savvy. DREAM Act poster children like valedictorian Benita Velez could never dread their hair and set up camp at Occupy Wall Street. They know they have to work twice as hard to get to the top, and they know they have twice as much to lose if they stray from the straight-and-narrow.

Pedro is what happens when you apply this “model minority” mentality to the relentlessly diplomatic, workaholic world of electoral politics. American politicians who have signed racially offensive laws or defensive, anti-immigrant executive orders have unleashed the power of young people with boundless energy who were taught to work twice as hard and be twice as polite. Young people with a huge amount to lose, but even more to gain.

After he sends his recruits out to canvass, Pedro tells me I should check out an information session at Neighborhood Ministries, a Christian-run community center in inner-city Phoenix. Four hundred people, all Latino, are packed into a room. Their pens are poised to take notes on Deferred Action, Obama’s executive order that took effect three days before. Water bottles and hastily folded paper fans litter the room. Two immigration attorneys, both young women in jeans and T-shirts, are up on the stage explaining the rather complicated presidential directive in plain English—and then in Spanish. It’s their third workshop of the day, and it’s only 11 a.m.

There are more than a handful of concerned parents at the meeting, some struggling to corral their young children. But the audience is mostly teenagers. A girl in a sparkly purple tube top, a young guy in a backward L.A. Dodgers hat, clusters of friends passing around papers or straining to hear the two presenters at the front.

I notice a huge vinyl sign on the wall that reads, in red and blue letters: “No Dream Deferred.” For the past few months, Pedro has been concentrating on middle-aged Democrats and reliable elderly voters—the citizens he needs to tick boxes on their ballots. But ultimately it’s the kids of his own generation who keep him going: the teenagers stuffed like sardines into this room, the volunteers who woke up at 8 a.m. to canvass, his best friend Michael, his protégé Allan. Theirs is the future he’s fighting for.