Religion is one of the most defining characteristics of Latino culture. But pollsters say it plays virtually no role n how they vote. And for two Mexican–American siblings, faith shapes their lives but not their politics.
I learn a lot about Marielena Hernandez just by where she wants to meet for an interview.
Marielena is 21 years old and she greets me while holding her infant daughter Nicole at her childhood home, in Pasco, in Eastern Washington where her parents still live.
We head to Marielena’s favorite place – the kitchen – where her mom is cooking.
Marielena is “very family oriented,” so much so that when she was newly married and living in Seattle, she hated being a four hour’s drive away. Now she’s back, working just down the street as a teacher’s assistant.
She gives me a tour of her childhood home and points out the crucifixes that hang all over the place.
“The crosses on top of our doors we have them, we feel like we always want the Lord in our hearts and whenever we sleep so we have it over our bedroom doors.”
Marielena grew up in a large traditional Mexican American family. And she was raised Catholic.
“Like Being Latina you know, my faith has a lot to do with who I am.”
She says religion has served like a roadmap for life. But when I ask her whether religion plays a role in how she votes. She says no.
“Sometimes I wish that the church would really help me figure out what I’m supposed to do but I’ve learned that by myself," Marielena says. "And I feel like that’s the way God wants me to do it. He can’t tell me everything you know? So that’s where a lot of my independence comes from”
“Latino voters tell us very regularly that religion is very important in their daily life. They attend religious services quite frequently, much higher rates than the general public,” says Matt Barreto, a political scientist at the University of Washington.
Barreto also runs an independent polling firm that specializes in Latino voters. He says there’s been a widespread assumption “that Latinos are so religious and have these conservative values that it should impact their politics.”
But that assumption is wrong.
It was Ronald Reagan who once said: “Latinos are Republicans. They just don’t know it yet.” And if you think about it, many of the values embraced by Latinos -- like a strong work ethic, entrepreneurship, a connection to family and opposition to abortion rights -- fit in squarely with the Republican platform.
But Barreto says Latinos don’t prioritize those values in the political arena.
“They would still rather have access to universal health care than to see abortions outlawed.”
Barreto says his polling shows Latinos view religion as something personal and private. And when it come to politics, they’re way more interested in bread and butter issues, like the economy or access to government services. He’s found that’s an opinion shared by Latinos who are Catholic, Protestant, born-again Christian, foreign born and U.S. natives.
Let’s take Marielena Hernandez.
On the one hand, “I am totally against abortion," she says. "Never.” On the other, she’s a Democrat because she believes the party is looking out for people who are struggling financially.
Marielena has turned to the Church during moments of crisis. But she almost left it because of its opposition to same sex marriage. Her reason: her older brother is gay.
Pablo Monroy: “Hi I’m Pablo Monroy. Tacoma resident. Army. UW student.”
Pablo Monroy is a Tacoma resident, in the Army and a UW student. He’s 24 and when he’s not out of town training with the Army National Guard, he attends mass at St. Leo’s Catholic Church in Tacoma.
“This is a time to pause," he says. "It’s just kind of … it’s the best kind of relaxation you can get other than just staying at home. It’s something productive and something for you and more than just you. more than just me. It’s a good time to relax and reflect."
Down the street, Pablo takes me to his townhouse where Roxy the dachshund is playing with a squeaky toy and husband Derek Peacock is baking.
Like his sister, Pablo keeps a crucifix above the front door. There’s also a painting of The Last Supper in his dining room. But Pablo is in conflict with the Church on the issue of same-sex marriage. The church opposes Washington’s Referendum 74, which would make his own marriage legal.
He says it doesn't matter that the Church doesn’t recognize his relationship. "I’d say the aspect of the church, marriage is really for making children."
He’s talking about sacramental marriage.
“But when the Church came out and tried to go against my civil marriage, that’s when I actually was really taken. I was surprised and shocked.”
It wasn’t enough to lead him away from his faith. And his views on same sex marriage didn’t lead him away from his party. Pablo is a Republican.