ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – President Barack Obama's shift to support gay marriage is energizing young Hispanic voters who have been working side-by-side with gay activists in their push for immigration reform. The alliance has been growing nationwide and helping dispel what many say is an outdated notion that Hispanics are less tolerant of gays than the general public.
"My members are telling me that we need to learn from the gay community," said Dee Dee Garcia Blase, founder of the Phoenix-based Somos Republicans. She is now head of the Tequila Party, which she formed last year with the goal of registering young Hispanics to vote for immigration-friendly candidates like Obama.
"We need to take a lesson from the (lesbian and gay) community with regard to being that loud, squeaky wheel that gets fixed," Blase said. "We need to be more aggressive, and we realize it."
Both the Democratic and Republican parties are focused heavily on winning the Hispanic vote, not just because it holds the key to battleground states but because Latinos make up the fastest-growing minority group. The government projects Hispanics will account for roughly 30 percent of the population by 2050, doubling in size and boosting their political power. Some 600,000 young Hispanics who were born in the U.S. turn 18 each year, entering a widening pool of more than 21 million Hispanic eligible voters.
Conservative Hispanics see the president's endorsement of same-sex marriage as an opportunity to draw Latinos to the Republican Party. According to a 2007 religion survey of U.S. Latinos by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life, two-thirds of Hispanics said their religious beliefs are an important influence on their political thinking. While more than two-thirds of Hispanics identified themselves as Roman Catholic, 15 percent said they were born-again Protestants. Evangelical Latinos, who cite Biblical teaching for their stance against homosexuality, are twice as likely as those who are Catholic to vote Republican.
But a poll released in April 2011 by the National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Hispanic civil rights advocacy organization, and Social Science Research Solutions, a public opinion research firm, indicated that while 66 percent of those surveyed identified as Roman Catholic, 49 percent favored allowing same-sex marriage and that number climbed to 59 percent in favor of giving gay and lesbian couples the same legal rights as married couples.
A surprising 69 percent in the La Raza poll favored allowing gay or lesbian couples to marry in their church or religious institution and 52 percent did not view homosexuality as a sin, compared to 38 percent who did. Some 69 percent said good Christians should accept all people as God's creation and not cast judgment, while 60 percent viewed discrimination against gays and lesbians as a sin. Most of those surveyed, 71 percent, were under the age of 50.
While Republican George W. Bush won 44 percent of the Hispanic vote when he was re-elected in 2004, by 2008, 67 percent of the Hispanic vote had swung toward Obama. And that vote was pivotal to his success in states like Colorado, where exit polls show Republican Sen. John McCain would have won if only Caucasians had voted.
For many young Hispanics, both immigrant and U.S.-born, the DREAM Act — which would offer students who entered the country illegally as children a pathway to citizenship — is a key issue. Obama supports the proposal, while Romney's hard line against the measure, which he has called a handout, has alienated many Hispanic voters. The Pew Hispanic Center found in a December 2011 survey that 91 percent support the legislation.
Juan Rodriguez, who is active in the Florida Immigrant Coalition and an immigrant himself, said the gay rights and immigrant rights movements are "very aligned and becoming moreso every year.
The co-president of Blase's Tequila Party, Shara Mora James is gay. And two leaders in the movement to pass the DREAM Act, have recently taken over two emerging gay rights groups, Freedom to Work and Get Equal.
"The immigrant rights movement is grounded on advocating with the most oppressed out of our community, and in many cases, that has been queer undocumented youth," said Rodriguez. "We are figuring out more and more ways of supporting each other because we all grew up being told we needed to live in fear because of the communities we love."
Hispanic leaders and political watchers say they don't expect Obama's announcement to have much impact on the Latino vote, which could be key to victory in battleground states like New Mexico, Florida, Nevada and Colorado.
"No, no, no, no, no. It's not going to affect my vote," said Sister "Molly" Maria Luisa Munoz, a Roman Catholic nun in Denver who works with immigrants and the gay and lesbian community. "My mother straightened us out right away," she said. "God made everybody. How we came out? That's God's creation. Nobody should judge."
At Barela's Coffee House in Albuquerque's predominantly Hispanic South Valley, manager Geri Lucero said when the talk turns to politics there, it's almost always about the economy.
"Economics is more important right now because people are struggling with their money," the 57-year-old said, noting that conversation last Thursday, the day after Obama's announcement, revolved around two recent pit bull maulings, not gay marriage.
Will Obama's stance impact her vote? No, she replied.
Despite the increased acceptance of homosexuality and same-sex marriage among Hispanics, one of the most recent polls of registered voters on the issue, from Quinnipiac University in July 2011, shows only 37 percent of Hispanics said they would support a law in their state that would allow same-sex couples to get married, compared with 46 percent overall. But a Pew Research Center survey of Latinos in March 2011 showed 59 percent of Hispanics said homosexuality should be accepted by society, compared to 58 percent of the general population.
Gary Segura, director of Chicano studies at Stanford University, said that even though Hispanics hold more conservative views on family and social issues than the general population, "it's not how Latinos vote. It's about jobs, the economy, education."
The morning after Obama's announcement discussion on a Spanish-language radio station popular with Cuban-Americans in Miami focused on the president's embrace of same-sex marriage, but callers seemed more interested in the likely political calculations that went into the decision than in slamming the president for violating their religious principles.
Delsa Bernardo, who co-owns Yiya's Gourmet Cuban Bakery and Café in Miami with her life partner, said Obama's shift has actually re-energized her support for the president. Bernardo said she backed Obama in 2008 but has since become disillusioned with him, mostly over the difficulty she's had in getting business loans from banks that received the bailouts backed by the president.
"It might swing my vote more to him because he's more open on this," she said.
Still, some conservative Hispanics said they will use Obama's endorsement of gay marriage to try to woo more Latinos to the Republican Party.
About 25 conservatives representing 10 southern Nevada churches met last Thursday at the Casa Don Juan restaurant in downtown Las Vegas. The group of pastors, Hispanic activists and social conservatives blasted Obama's stance, fretting about the future of the family in the United States.
"He's destroying the fabric of the family," said Juan Sclafani, a Republican pastor at the First Spanish Baptist Church in Las Vegas. "His motivation is to get votes, but he doesn't realize that he is destroying our nation."
Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles in Washington, D.C., said his group expects to use the gay marriage debate to recruit new Hispanic supporters for Romney. They plan to focus on voter registration in Nevada and then branch out to Florida, North Carolina, Colorado and New Mexico.
Colorado's Democratic Party Chairman Rick Palacio, who is both gay and Hispanic, said it was difficult to say how Obama's statements would affect the presidential race in Colorado.
"While it may not be the most politically advantageous decision to make, he made the right decision," Palacio said. "I think that's more important than anything else. He's putting the right thing to do ahead of politics."
Associated Press writers Laura Wides-Munoz in Miami, Cristina Silva in Las Vegas and Peter Banda and Catherine Tsai in Denver contributed to this report.