Both sides of marriage amendment debate court Latino voters
By Sasha Aslanian, MPR News 91.3 FM
MINNEAPOLIS — Every Sunday, hundreds of people gather for the 9 a.m. Mass at St. Stephen’s Catholic Church in south Minneapolis, one of two the church holds in Spanish.
A new part of the service is a marriage prayer distributed in December by Archbishop John Nienstedt and added to the liturgy at St. Stephen’s this summer.
It reads in part:
“Grant to us all the gift of courage to proclaim and defend your plan for marriage, which is the union of one man and one woman in a lifelong, exclusive relationship of loving trust, compassion, and generosity, open to the conception of children.”
The parishioners are part of an important audience for both sides of the marriage amendment debate. Latinos are overwhelmingly Catholic, and the Catholic Church has made passage of the amendment a top political priority.
But Minnesota voters are deeply divided over the proposed amendment on the November ballot that would define marriage as only between a man and a woman, a restriction already in state law. In a tight race, every demographic group counts and the state’s roughly 100,000 Latino voters are being courted by both sides.
Luis Rubi, a deacon at St. Stephen’s, said the prayer and homilies on marriage have found a receptive audience at the parish.
“I think there’s broad support for the amendment,” said Rubi, a native of Cuba who came to the United States in 1962 as an infant. “The question is, ‘how many people are even going to be able to participate in that?’ That’s the unique nature of our parish.”
Although 60 percent of Minnesota’s Hispanics were born in the United States, St. Stephen’s has many new arrivals who aren’t citizens and won’t be eligible to vote.
But prayer, Rubi said, is a powerful thing anyone can offer.
Pro-amendment groups are chiefly organizing support through evangelical and Catholic churches. St. Stephen’s has trained parish captains Maria and Jon Doty to lead the effort.
“We’re just kind of heading the front, trying to promote education and prayer around the marriage amendment,” Maria Doty said.
The Dotys,recently married at St. Stephen’s, get teary talking about their own wedding day. They’re staunch supporters of the amendment because they believe children should be raised by a mother and father. They’re not Spanish speakers, so when they gave a talk to Hispanic parishioners about the amendment earlier this year, they needed an interpreter.
Other than the language, Jon Doty said, the strategy for reaching Latinos is the same. “At first I didn’t know what to expect being a parish captain,” he said. “I know a lot of people have very strong emotions about this issue. And I’ve been surprised. People have received our message very well.”
While Latinos are predominantly Catholic and family-oriented, amendment opponents say the community’s acceptance of same-sex marriage is increasing. They’ve also been working to get their message out to the Latino community.
On a Wednesday night in late July, Minnesotans United for All Families held its first weekly phone bank targeting Latino voters. Bilingual young professionals made calls for Minnesota United, the coalition working to defeat the amendment.
Some people hung up. One man told a volunteer that the Bible is against homosexuality. Others listened. But volunteer Marlene Rojas found a woman who was sympathetic.
“She was saying ‘I support all gays and lesbians so I will vote yes!’ “ said Rojas. “And I said, ‘no, no no, make sure you vote no.’ “
Rojas told the woman that a yes vote will prevent gays and lesbians from being able to marry, while a no vote keeps open the possibility.
The pro-amendment side also is using phone banks to get out its message but isn’t making a targeted effort to reach Latinos.
Winnie Okafor, community relations coordinator for Minnesota for Marriage, said mobilizing people through churches is far more effective in turning out “Yes” votes.
“Leadership in the Latino community has opened the doors to us and I would say that we reach more Latinos in a 10-minute announcement at church than the other side can reach in an hour or more of phone banking,” she said. “We know that the Latino people are a church-going people and so that’s where we find them. And not only do we find them there but we get not just our message, but support from pastors. So after we give the announcement, we have pastors kind of hammer it home.”
Amendment supporters are mindful of a 2008 effort in California, where 53 percent Latinos voted for Proposition 8, which repealed same-sex marriage in that state.
Minnesotans United for All Families also draws lessons from California and doesn’t want to risk losing the Latino vote here. Christian Ucles, the group’s Latino outreach coordinator, said the Catholic Church’s firm support of the marriage amendment is a hurdle, but not an insurmountable one.
“Folks have their own independence,” said Ucles, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Honduras. “I feel that they feel that they have this independence in this country, perhaps not so much in our countries, but in the United States they have the freedom and independence to make up their own mind.”
Ucles, who came to the U.S. at 7, has been a Democratic Party organizer on statewide and presidential campaigns. He joined the campaign in May. At 30, he sees a powerful connection between the immigrant experience of Latinos and the inclusion gay and lesbian people are seeking.
“What we’re finding is slowly but surely, we will have a large contingency of the Latino community who are going to vote no on this amendment,” he said.
The Minnesotans United campaign is tapping Latino leaders in the Legislature, immigrant rights groups and the business community who oppose the amendment, and also reaching out to voters through Spanish-language media.
Before the Twin Cities Pride Festival in June, Ucles was a guest on Alberto Monserrate’s show on La Invasora, a Spanish-language a.m. radio station in Minneapolis. Monserrate is president CEO of the Latino Communications Network, the largest Latino publishing company in Minnesota. He’s also chairman of the Minneapolis School Board.
Monserrate said his company strongly supports equality for gay and lesbian people.
“We’ve been active on GLBT causes ... almost since the beginning of the business,” he said “We do have a number of staff, one of my business partners is openly gay and so it’s been a cause that’s been very near and dear to us.”
That support is good business, he said. When a special gay pride edition of one of their newspapers sparked threats of a boycott from evangelical Christians a few years ago, advertisers increased their ad buys to support the company.
These days, when La Invasora does live call-in shows about the amendment, the programs don’t spark negative reactions from callers, Monserrate said. Instead, the station receives calls from appreciative mothers of gay sons.
Monserrate, who is from Puerto Rico, thinks attitudes in the Latino community are evolving rapidly. First, he said, Latin American and Spanish-language media are changing how they portray gays and lesbians. He gives the example of a popular Mexican soap opera that now includes a gay grandpa.
“I think the second issue is that Latinos are coming out of the closet,” Monserrate said. “And I think that’s probably in the end been the biggest factor. Latinos being very family oriented, when their son, their daughter, their cousin, their brother, their sister comes out of the closet, I’m seeing a lot more changes.”