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Former State Sen. Polly Baca speaks on Tuesday, August 10, 2021, at La Alma-Lincoln Park in Denver. Leaders from the Latino community showed legislative maps drawn by CLLARO to be submitted to the Independent Redistricting Commission. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Latino leaders are worried that Colorado’s once-in-a-decade redistricting process will continue to give them the short shrift at the state Capitol and in Congress, even as their community’s share of the population grows to nearly a quarter.

The current class of elected state lawmakers includes the largest number of Latino lawmakers in the General Assembly’s history, 14 of 100 lawmakers, while the state’s Congressional delegation doesn’t include a Latino representative. 

“There should be 22 to 25 of us (in the state legislature) depending on what the percentage of Latinos in the state that will be coming out with this new census,” state Rep. Yadira Caraveo, a Thornton Democrat, said earlier this month. 

Draft maps based on 2019 population estimates and released in June won’t achieve that, according to the Colorado Latino Leadership, Advocacy and Research Organization and other groups. They say the maps break up certain Latino neighborhoods and draw boundaries that gloss over the complexities of a wide-ranging and diverse population.

“We’re really a collection of communities, multiple communities of interest, not just some bunch of brown bodies across the state,” said Mike Cortés, executive director of CLLARO.

Now, with the opportunity to reset the state’s political boundaries and the electoral landscape for the next 10 years, they want the redistricting commissions steering the process to look more deeply at the state’s more than 1.25 million Latino residents. 

Two independent commissions charged with drawing the new congressional and legislative maps ahead of the 2022 elections will have to work quickly. Detailed 2020 Census data expected to arrive Thursday will prompt a new round of map drawing and the boundaries of the draft maps are certain to change.

Groups like CCLARO and the Colorado Hispanic Chamber of Commerce have submitted their own proposals, hoping to improve on the initial drafts. But there’s disagreement about what the final products should be.

Amanda Gonzalez, executive director of the government watchdog group Colorado Common Cause, said even among friends she hears competing views on how to best amplify Latino voices. 

Is it drawing districts with higher percentages of Latino residents, or higher percentages of people of color overall? Should the maps focus on how well a party will perform in the new districts? 

“Black and brown communities have often had to make that hard decision about, am I choosing from a lesser of evils? Do I feel like I need to make a different decision because I’m not sure the person who best represents my community is electable?” said Gonzalez, who is also a lobbyist registered to influence the redistricting commissions. 

“It’s a tough philosophical conversation — none of us have crystal balls about how a community gets what they want,” she said.

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Complex and varied communities 

Colorado’s population has boomed over the last decade, jumping to nearly 5.8 million people, up 14.8% from 2010, according to the latest census figures.

Latino advocates and forecasters expect the new, detailed census data to show Latinos represent nearly 1 in 4 Coloradans, with that growth only expected to continue in the future. One forecast by the State Demography Office projects Latinos will make up nearly 1 in 3 residents by 2050.

While the preliminary congressional and legislative maps are just a first draft, critics say they set a troubling tone. 

The drafts “clump us all together and do not recognize the nuance and the geographical perspectives and dynamics that impact our communities,” said state Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Denver Democrat and leading voice among Latino state lawmakers. 

Cortés, the executive director of CLLARO, pointed to the 4th Congressional District proposed in a preliminary map as an example. The proposed district spans the entire eastern half of the state, taking in everything from the northeast corner of Colorado, including Greeley, across the Eastern Plains, and south to Pueblo and the San Luis Valley. That’s despite key differences between Latinos in northern and southern Colorado, he said. 

COMMERCE CITY, CO – JULY 18: Residents of the Longview Mobile Home Park sit outdoors on a warm July evening. The community is located in the Swansea neighborhood located just south of the Suncor refinery. (Photo By Kathryn Scott)

Latino neighborhoods in the north Denver metro include more recent immigrants who work in industries like meatpacking and construction. Those in Pueblo or the San Luis Valley may be third-, fourth- or fifth-generation Chicanos, and live in more rural areas with different concerns, like access to hospitals and health care, water rights and the future of agriculture. 

“If you are just asking yourselves where are ‘the Latinos’ without considering a lot of diversity, you can make mistakes like taking the 4th Congressional District and putting Commerce City and Pueblo together,” Cortés said. “Each area is experiencing its own kind of growth in response to its own economic conditions and labor markets.”

There’s also a misconception that Latinos in Colorado are newcomers, said Landon Mascareñez, vice president for community partnerships at The Colorado Education Initiative. 

Rapid growth in Latino communities in places like Greeley, Brighton and Commerce City is fueled by recent immigrants, including a growing contingent from Central American countries. But families in the San Luis Valley and Pueblo date back centuries, communities that are older than the state of Colorado, he said. 

“Colorado’s history is one where we’re constantly rediscovering our Latino families,” said Mascareñez, whose organization works to support public education statewide.

Immigration is too often the go-to framing for Latino politics, which may be top-of-mind for communities with more recent or unauthorized immigrants, and less of a priority for more established Latino communities. 

“We make a mistake when talking to Latino communities, that immigration is the defining force of the Latino experience,” said Mascareñez. “It’s incredibly important to our stories…but there are a lot of (other) narratives around a great education, job opportunity, workforce development.” 

And those interests are not necessarily going to be aligned with the Democratic Party. 

Hugo Chavez Rey, chair of Colorado Hispanic Republicans, pointed to support for former President Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential race among Latinos. 

Trump won 38% of the nation’s Hispanic vote in the last election, according to a Pew Research study, a significant gain compared to the 25% of Hispanic voters who supported Republican candidates for the U.S. House in 2018. 

“Republican values align best with Hispanic values — Hispanics are strong on faith, family, business,” Chavez Rey said. 

The group hasn’t weighed in on any of the maps put forth so far. But Chavez Rey said partisanship shouldn’t be a proxy for Latino representation. 

“What I’m hearing more of is complaints from the Democrats because they think their power base is being diluted,” he said. “And in some cases they may be right — they’re saying certain Hispanic districts are going to be split up, and that they may not be as heavily leaning toward the Democratic candidate.” 

Criticism of the preliminary maps

At public hearings in July and August, redistricting commissioners have heard complaints that the preliminary maps would divide and reduce the size of the minority population in certain districts, and disadvantage current incumbents who represent large communities of color. 

Critics have focused on changes in the preliminary state Senate and House maps, for example, which divide Latino communities in neighborhoods south of Denver into multiple districts, reducing the total number of Latino residents in each.

Similar criticism has come from Black small business owners and faith leaders in Denver, as well as lawmakers in the state House. In a column for the Denver Post last month, state Reps. Leslie Herod and Jennifer Bacon, Democrats from Denver, pointed to a new separation of Denver’s Five Points neighborhood from North Park Hill as splitting up historically Black neighborhoods and cutting their political strength in half. 

At least two Latino advocacy groups, CLLARO and the Colorado Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, have proposed their own redistricting maps. 

A proposed House legislative map drawn by CLLARO is seen on Tuesday, August 10, 2021, at La Alma-Lincoln Park in Denver. Leaders from the Latino community showed legislative maps drawn by CLLARO to be submitted to the Independent Redistricting Commission. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

CLLARO offered new state House and Senate maps at a news conference Tuesday. They would create 13 Senate districts and 17 House districts centered on different Latino communities. Former Democratic state Sen. Polly Baca, the first Latina to serve in the state Senate, and Mario Carrera, chair of the 2011 Reapportionment Commission, spoke in support of the maps.

“It’s critically important that the outcomes of our redistricting process reflect the varied and distinctive nature of our Latino communities, considering each of them within their own context and ensuring that our voices are appropriately represented to our state elected officials,” Cortés said at the news conference. 

The maps draw a single House district and two Senate districts to take in a significant Latino population in Eagle, Pitkin and Garfield counties. 

Latinos now make up 30% of residents in Eagle and Garfield counties, according to 2019 population estimates, and more than 10% of Pitkin County. 

The existing House district map divides the region into three districts, and the preliminary House map would divide that three-county region into four districts. Latino residents don’t have high enough populations in any single district to make a meaningful impact, said Alex Sánchez, co-founder and the executive director of Voces Unidas de las Montañas, a nonprofit advocating for Latinos in the region. 

“(Latinos) are projected to be a critical factor in the expected growth of this region,” Sánchez said, pointing to a number of school districts in the area that are now majority-minority. “Our community should be able to vote in a single district so our voice can matter.”

Director of Voces Unidas de las Montañas Alex Sánchez speaks on Tuesday, August 10, 2021, at La Alma-Lincoln Park in Denver. “While people flock to the mountains to work remotely… Latinos disproportionately bore the burden because we’re overrepresented as essential and frontline workers,” Sanchez said. “As the rest of CO bounces back, we continue to lag behind in vaccine access and economic recovery.” (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

The Colorado Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, meanwhile, released a separate proposed congressional map in June.

Unlike the draft map drawn by nonpartisan staff, which groups the San Luis Valley and Pueblo with the Eastern Plains, the Hispanic Chamber map keeps the San Luis Valley with the Western Slope. Other advocates, including CLLARO, have called for keeping the San Luis Valley and Pueblo together because of their significant and long-standing Latino communities.  

Others have proposed drawing an entirely new configuration for the congressional map with a district representing all of southern Colorado, rather than grouping San Luis Valley and Pueblo with the western or eastern portions of the state. 

The stakes of this year’s redistricting are high for many Latino communities, Sanchez said, pointing to communities in the Roaring Fork Valley that have been hit disproportionately hard by coronavirus infections and resort shutdowns. On top of that, many Latino families have been pushed out of communities like Vail and Pitkin County and into Garfield County because of high housing prices. 

Drawing a district that gathers their voices together, Sánchez said, would give Latinos on the Western Slope real influence. 

“The Latino community is not asked what we need, or what we want or what would help us,” he said. “Others have always decided for us.” 

Thy Vo previously was a politics reporter for The Colorado Sun.