Fort Worth residents Aracely Chavez and Carlos Turcios are far apart politically.
In the race for mayor, Chavez, a Democrat, supports Deborah Peoples and Turcios, a Republican, backs Mattie Parker. Despite their political differences, they agree that while they would prefer more candidates look like them, what they want most to see is a concern for the Latino community.
“I would love to see more Hispanics in government, but at the same time, I think it’s important that whoever runs has good policies,” Turcios said.
Latinos are the second largest demographic group in Fort Worth, but those numbers are not reflected in elected officials in local government here. This growing community is pushing for the next mayor to bring them more into the fold.
The Latino population in Fort Worth grew by 22% in the past decade — more than in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio. Today, they make up 35% of Fort Worth’s population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Those numbers are expected to climb with the release of new Census figures later this year and will soon surpass the Anglo population of Fort Worth.
Despite this, only one Latino, Carlos Flores, a Democrat, sits on the City Council.
Flores said there’s no single issue or ideology Latinos rally around. They are liberal, conservative and everything in between, which is why it’s important that the next mayor reach out to as many as possible.
“Mayor (Betsy) Price, in past years, has been involved in doing that,” Flores said, pointing to her work with various faith leaders to foster a relationship between Latinos and police. “The new mayor needs to continue on those successful efforts and build upon them.”
But Sindy Mata, who works for immigrant rights group Raices, said there is a disconnect between Price and Fort Worth Latinos, in part because lawmakers have criminalized them during her time in office.
How they are left out
One way to reach out is to break down the language barrier, Turcios said.
Turcios learned when he was 15 years old that switching from English to Spanish was an effective way to convince Latino parents to go to a Fort Worth ISD school board meeting and protest with him a plan to split his high school in two.
Not only was he able to catch them up on the controversy in his native tongue, but he eased their fears that they’d be retaliated against for expressing their opinion.
“Once you talk in Spanish, you become a family member,” said Turcios, whose mother is from Mexico and father is from El Salvador.
Sometimes having the information disseminated in both languages is a matter of life and death, said Sandy Martinez Russell, a 43-year-old bilingual teacher.
When many lost power and electricity during the polar vortex in February, Martinez Russell said Latinos didn’t know the city had opened a warming center because the announcement was not posted in Spanish, at least not initially. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 28% of Fort Worthians 5 years or older speak Spanish at home.
“When they put out flyers, they are slow to do that,” she said, “so we’re often the last to know.”
Martinez Russell said the city also could include more Latinos in its decision-making by more frequently changing who serves on city boards and commissions. She never received a call back after applying multiple times to serve on both the housing and neighborhood services committee and parks and recreation advisory board.
“Even though there are term limits, people can be asked to stay on, and the same people stay on,” she said.
The mayor and City Council members each appoint one member to most city boards and commissions. They may serve three consecutive two-year terms, said City Secretary Mary Kayser.
She said there aren’t many vacancies, but people can watch for them to be posted online as there are occasions when council members appoint someone before their term expires either because the person moved away or for poor attendance.
Since January, the city has received 137 applications to serve on city boards and commissions.
“The best thing to do is if there’s multiple things you’re interested in, check multiple boxes. The other thing I can suggest is for people to get to know their council member and their district director and advocate for yourself. A lot of times people will appoint people they are familiar with,” Kayser said.
Flores said the next mayor should bring more Latinos into city issues by appointing them to boards and commissions. He said that is what he does.
“Certain boards and commissions require a certain background or certain ability, but there’s always the opportunity to have diverse representation on boards and commissions,” he said.
What Latinos want
Latinos in Fort Worth aren’t coalescing around one particular issue. Some want equity while others want the city to provide basic services like public safety and infrastructure.
Ricardo Avitia wants a mixture of both. He ran unsuccessfully for City Council District 9 after co-founding Hemphill No Se Vende, a group protesting rezoning a 3½ -mile stretch of Hemphill Street. Now, Avitia is supporting his one-time opponent, Fernando Peralta, in part because Peralta lives off of Hemphill Street and was a member of the Hemphill Task Force that voted against rezoning.
Avitia said he’ll push whoever is elected to represent District 9 to be more inclusive, starting with opening the task force’s meetings to the public again.
“We feel like our communities have been intentionally disregarded so they can depreciate and basically deteriorate on purpose,” Avitia said. “We are in a neighborhood empowerment zone, which is a program that allows residents and business owners to take advantage of city programs and monies to improve their properties. We believe that, if the city was so, I guess, intrigued with developing or bettering South Fort Worth, that they would have made a more intentional effort to ensure that everybody within the neighborhood empowerment zone knew of its existence.”
Other Latinos want to see Fort Worth take a different stance on immigration. In 2017, the City Council voted against joining other major Texas cities in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Senate Bill 4, which outlawed sanctuary cities.
That vote upset many in the Fort Worth Latino community, said Valerie Martinez-Ebers, a professor in the University of North Texas political science department, but “rather than taking their cards and going home,” people got organized and increased turnout in subsequent elections.
Tarrant County’s collaboration with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in its jail makes some Latinos in the community feel unsafe, Mata of Raices said. She hopes the next mayor will speak out against it.
Both Peoples and Parker said they would support immigration reform if elected. As Tarrant County Democratic Party Chair, Peoples spoke out against SB 4. In an interview with the Fort Worth Report, Parker said she understood the city’s decision not to fight the bill but also recognized how Latinos were hurt by that decision. She said the city’s legal team advised the bill was constitutional and fighting it would be a waste of taxpayer money. She was Price’s chief of staff at the time.
“With SB 4, the things I learned was the need to listen longer before you take action, and the importance of having multiple town halls in the community about what a state law does or doesn’t do. It created this sense of fear and disconnect I think we have to mend,” Parker said.
“When we talk about immigration, that’s my issue,” Peoples said in a separate interview with the Report. “People don’t understand. They try to make the narrative about people coming over from Mexico and taking our jobs. That’s not true, and we need to set that right, and we need to have a path to legal immigration.”
On the campaign trail
Turcios, now 19, is a precinct chair in the Tarrant County Republican Party, going door to door for Parker. He understands the call for reforming police, but thinks law enforcement needs more funding to do that, not less.
“I determined that Mrs. Parker will do a better job when it comes to working with the police department,” he said.
Chavez is a new precinct chair in the Tarrant County Democratic Party who says Peoples clearly understands Latino issues better than Parker. But that doesn’t mean Chavez always supports a candidate of color over a white opponent, she said.
The 57-year-old Fort Worth ISD employee said she’s gotten into arguments online with other Latinos about her supporting Elizabeth Beck for District 9 over Fernando Peralta.
“Her experience and expertise is a lot better than Peralta’s, plus she’s supported Latinas running for office and was Peoples’ campaign treasurer,” Chavez said, “ They don’t necessarily have to look like us, but be an ally.”
How they are getting involved
Martinez Russell, the bilingual teacher, said she didn’t get discouraged when her application for city boards and commissions went nowhere. If anything, setbacks encourage her and other Latinos. They know it’s only a matter of time until more Latinos are in office and so are preparing for that to happen.
For example, she is the chair of the Fort Worth chapter of the Hispanic Women’s Network of Texas. Every year, it holds a program called “Latinas in Progress,” which provides high school seniors with the tools needed to survive the rigors of college and obtain a degree. Part of that program includes spending one morning at the University of North Texas in Denton with Martinez-Ebers. Martinez-Ebers tells them about Latinas in office and how at least three studies have found that they are more successful than men in getting legislation passed.
“They are typically socialized to be consensus builders, and they work very well with white men. They are much more likely to make a coalition with a white man than a Latino man is to make with a white man. There’s data that reflects this,” she said.
Martinez-Ebers is also one of the founding members of Texas Latina List, a political action committee. It most recently donated $300 to Tara Wilson’s campaign for Fort Worth City Council District 4. Although Wilson lost, Martinez-Ebers is hopeful she’ll run again and points to the gains Latinos have made on the Fort Worth ISD school board. Most recently, the Texas Latina List endorsed Roxanne Martinez for the District 9 seat. She’s in the June 5 runoff with Cade Lovelace.
“We’ve done really well on the school board and we’ve done well on other City Council races and state Legislature races, but, yeah, the Fort Worth City Council is a hard nut to crack,” she said.
To win, Latinos need to run more often, overcome their own implicit biases and support one another despite gender and get the support of more white voters.
“It’s going to happen, but we want it to happen hopefully in our lifetime,” she said.