Charlotte has never had a Latino council member. Three candidates hope to change that.

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Residents will vote for candidates for mayor, city council at-large and district races in the Sept. 10 primary.

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On paper, the three candidates have little in common.

One is a nonprofit leader and former businessman, a fixture in recent years on city committees. Another is a neuro-psychologist from SouthPark who turned to activism following the 2016 election. And there’s the college student and bartender, who had to buy his first suit to get into some election events.

Each of them, however, could be the first to break a barrier on Charlotte City Council: becoming its first-ever Latino member.

It’s a prospect all three of the candidates — Jorge Millares, Gina Navarrete and Gabe Cartagena — have emphasized as they try to mobilize a growing sector of the electorate that is eager for a voice.

“We want representation in this city, so we can really be included in the city,” said Wendy Mateo-Pascual, of Latin American Leadership’s civic engagement committee, calling this year’s election “historic.”

In interviews with the Observer, all three candidates said their heritage would help them speak for and connect with other Hispanics, at a time when issues affecting the community may be more salient than ever before.

Jorge Millares
Jorge Millares is a Democratic candidate for at-large member of the Charlotte City Council. The primary is on September 10, 2019. The general election is November 5, 2019. Jorge Millares

Millares, an at-large candidate and the son of Cuban immigrants, said he wants to unite the city and appeal to both Latinos and African Americans.

Gina Navarrete

Navarrete, who was born in Chile and grew up in Venezuela and Spain, said she’s looking to highlight the growing demographic diversity of District 6. She faces Republican council member Tariq Bokhari in November.

Gabe Cartagena
Gabe Cartagena

And Cartagena, who traces his heritage to the Taíno indigenous people of Puerto Rico, said he hopes to give voice to a number of communities that have so far lacked it on the council: If elected to the District 4 seat, he would also be the first Gen Z and second openly LGBTQ member of the council.

A seat at the table

Cartagena said that having a Latino on the council would show Hispanics that their role in the community matters, that they participate in politics — and they can win.

“On a philosophical level, people deserve to be represented because they exist,” he said, but it’s especially important to put historically marginalized groups in positions of leadership.

“Who better to represent women than a woman? Who better to represent Latinas than a Latina?” said Navarrete, though she cautioned that, as a white Latina, she also benefits from privilege within the community: “Ethnicity, age, skin color — they all affect how you view the world, and will determine how you advocate.”

Latinos make up almost one in seven of the city’s residents, but this election is believed to be one of the first there’s been any Latino candidates at all: Most recently, Vanessa Faura lost the at-large race as a Republican in 2013.

The population is only growing. Hispanics likely have the largest presence of all in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, where they make up about one quarter of all students.

Given this demographic reality, Millares said, “it’s so important that we have a seat at the table, as we’re designing the Charlotte of the future.”

A fourth Latino candidate, Jordan Pineda, is running for an at-large spot on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg board of education. And Jennifer Rogers De La Jara, whose husband is Peruvian, also said she wants to rely upon her experiences working with Latinos at International House and as an ESL teacher.

Increased turnout?

Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College, said Hispanic voters have typically had the lowest voter participation rates among major racial and ethnic groups.

In the most recent election cycle, about 12,000 of 32,000 Latino registered voters actually went out to the polls — a record high.

Leaders attributed that historical lack of engagement to a lack of outreach, in part because the community is so spread out — geographically but also culturally, in terms of countries of origin — as well as a lack of candidates from the community to feel separated.

This year, that appears to be changing.

As dozens of Latinos crowded outside the Hal Marshall building in uptown to cast their ballots on the first day of early voting, Mateo-Pascual said she was excited about her community exercising its political power to vote in one of its own.

“We will have people who really know the culture, who really know the issues,“ she said. “Right now, it’s people who don’t know us who are talking about us.”

‘Deep roots’

In particular, all three candidates mentioned their desire to improve how the city serves immigrants.

Navarrete, who campaigned against the controversial 287(g) program through her role on Charlotte Women’s March, said the city needs to work more closely with nonprofits in order to connect the dots on services like citizenship applications.

Both she and Millares called for greater leadership on the issue too: In February, when over 200 immigrants living in North Carolina illegally were arrested in a mass sweep of ICE arrests, the council was criticized for its slow response.

That eventually led Mayor Vi Lyles to pull together a temporary ad hoc committee on the topic. But for Millares, it’s not quite enough.

“When there’s a break in communication,” he said, “having somebody that can speak the language and that has deep roots in the Latin American community, that understands what it feels like to be a Latino in America today is critical.”

That understanding, some said, also extends beyond the politics of immigration alone — particularly in the wake of an El Paso shooting that targeted Mexican-Americans, and President Donald Trump’s rally in Greenville, N.C. that’s now remembered for one chant: “Send her back!”

Millares has posted on social media about receiving racist and xenophobic messages. Cartagena, who was born in Florida, said he’s been told to “go back where you came from” in every city he’s lived.

A Latino on council would bring an understanding of those challenges, Cartagena said.

“People are excited to see someone who looks, talks, dresses like them running,” he said.

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Teo Armus writes about race, immigration and social issues for The Charlotte Observer. He previously worked for The Washington Post, NBC News Digital, and The Texas Tribune, including a stint reporting from the U.S.-Mexico border. He is a graduate of Columbia University, a native Spanish speaker and the son of South American immigrants.
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