Knocking on doors and chatting with people comes naturally to Rene Porras, owner of Porras Prontito Inc., a restaurant and bakery that sells pan dulce, burritos and tortas. It’s been a staple of east Houston’s Denver Harbor neighborhood since the 1970s.
The 72-year-old has devoted his afternoons to block-walking since the start of early voting with one goal in mind: to get as many of his neighbors out to vote ahead of next week’s mayoral election, regardless of who they vote for.
“Oh my God! Yes, I know you,” exclaimed Claudia Perez when she spotted Porras outside her home on Palestine Street earlier this week. “My mom, Maria Perez, used to work for you.” Porras also remembered her family, and after exchanging a few memories and family updates, his pitch went straight to the point.
“I’m looking for voters,” Porras said. “Here in Denver Harbor, they don’t pay attention to us. The trash is not getting picked up. There are dogs running around everywhere. There are no services. And all because we don’t go out and vote.”
Porras is one of the founding members of Denver Harbor Cares, a nonpartisan grassroots organization that sprouted up about a year ago to increase voter engagement in the community.
The turnout rate among Latino voters in the Houston area has increased in presidential elections by more than 160,000 voters from 2018 to 2020, according to a study done by Televisa and Univision. But Houston voters do not come out to vote at the same rate for municipal elections. Local experts have tracked a decrease in voter engagement over the last few municipal elections, especially among voters with Spanish surnames.
READ MORE: Learn about the difference between the words Hispanic and Latino here.
Nearly half of Houston’s 2.3 million residents identify as Latino or Hispanic, according to U.S. Census data. But even if 44.5 percent of the city’s population is Latino or Hispanic, this doesn’t mean they are all eligible to vote. Many residents might not have citizenship, excluding them from the process, and others might be underage.
Efforts like those happening in Denver Harbor, however, could help increase Latino turnout and bring attention to overlooked communities in the region.
Latino population vs. turnout
Porras chooses to block-walk every day in the afternoon hours to catch people like Perez who are arriving home from work. For him, this is easy since he is well-known in the community, the septuagenarian says, “but for a stranger this could be difficult.”
He holds a bundle of cards that the organization has made, with the registered voter information – name and address – at the top. At the bottom is a space for him to identify if contact was made with the person, or if a door hanger was left in their absence.
The group’s goal is to reach as many registered voters with a history of having voted in the past, but Porras does not discriminate – he knocks on every door he passes.
The group’s efforts seem to be moving the needle: 151 Denver Harbor voters cast ballots over the first four days of early voting last week, surpassing the number of votes cast over 10 days of the early voting period in 2019.
While Porras block-walks, other members lead volunteers in phone-banking efforts out of his restaurant. The group has gathered support from locals who have answered the call for action, including the local chapter of Mi Familia Vota, a nonprofit organization that shares a mission of increasing civic engagement among the Hispanic and Latino population in Houston.
“People started to realize that the community [Denver Harbor] stopped being a vital part of Houston as far as leadership is concerned,” said Arturo Eureste, a founding member of Denver Harbor Cares.
Eureste, 69, is a retired lawyer and community organizer who has been involved in many efforts to engage the Latino community in Houston through organizations such as AMMA, the Association for the Advancement of Mexican Americans, and LULAC, the League of United Latin American Citizens.
The reason for their involvement is simple, Porras and Eureste said. They want to see leaders, candidates, and political parties pay more attention to this community, and they believe higher voter turnouts could be the answer.
Denver Harbor has approximately 17,000 residents, spread across four electoral precincts, and around 91 percent of them identify as Latino or Hispanic, according to 2019 data reported by Super Neighborhood 56, which encompasses Denver Harbor.
In the last few elections, almost twice as many registered voters showed up to vote in midterm elections compared to municipal ones like Tuesday’s, according to data collected by Hector de León, a longtime activist and data analyst who started as a volunteer in places like Denver Harbor, Magnolia, and other areas with high Hispanic populations.
De León has been tracking voter trends, especially trends within Latino communities, for decades.
About 24 percent of all registered voters – as of September 2023 – in the city of Houston have a Spanish surname, which amounts to about 280,000 voters, De Leon said. But that is a conservative figure that might not include all Latinos and Hispanics in the region, such as those who adopted a non-Latino spouse’s last name.
Of the 280,000 voters living in the city of Houston, about 36 percent live in historic Hispanic or Latino areas in the city such as Denver Harbor, De León said. But the rest are spread across Houston, meaning politicians or political parties might target areas with a higher turnout over those with a lower turnout.
The percentage of voters with a Spanish surname that have turned out for municipal elections went down from 19 percent in 2015, to 13 percent in 2019, according to De León. This number also decreased in midterm elections from 46 percent in 2018, to 32 percent in 2022, a sign of decreased voter engagement for some races.
Increasing the turnout to increase attention
Lack of voter engagement efforts are part of the issue, said Adrian Izaguirre, interim Texas director of civic engagement for the NALEO Educational Fund, a national nonprofit organization that aims to improve and facilitate civic participation in the Latino community.
Candidates or political parties might not spend enough time and resources in areas with low voter turnout, prioritizing instead areas with an already high voter turnout. That has meant that in places like Denver Harbor, the work of educating and engaging potential voters has been left largely to nonprofits or other grassroots organizations.
“One of the first questions they ask is, ‘Who do I vote for?’ And as a nonpartisan organization and within the rights of every voter, we can’t tell voters who to vote for,” Izaguirre said. “But they also don’t know who to vote for or how to vote because of the fact they haven’t been reached out to.”
Language access and literacy is another barrier for many individuals who might not be fully proficient in English, or knowledgeable of the more technical language used on ballots, amendments, and propositions. For those who have never had the ability to vote before coming to the U.S., the process can be very overwhelming.
Short-term goal? Get out the vote
Denver Harbor volunteers know higher turnout rates could result in community members feeling in control of what happens in their neighborhood.
Ryan Martinez, 23, grew up in Denver Harbor and decided to stick around after graduating from Yale University with a major in political science and a certificate in education studies. Seeing the neighborhood stagnate – and in many ways deteriorate – over the years concerned Martinez to the point of wanting to seek solutions.
“This decrease in civic engagement has translated into really just a lower quality of city services,” Martinez said. “Most of the streets in the neighborhood have ditches – they don’t have the regular drainage that other parts of the city have. And it’s really because there has not really been involvement from community members demanding better services.”
Martinez joined Denver Harbor Cares over the summer and has been helping lead data collection and outreach efforts. In the 2019 municipal election, he said, only 900 of the nearly 7,000 registered voters in the neighborhood turned out to vote. This could improve, he says, and he wants to be there to see that happen.
“The shorter-term goal is that those that come out to vote, come out to vote more consistently,” Martinez said. “The next step might be to address those who do register to vote, but don’t get out to vote.”
As of Wednesday, the 10th day of early voting, 440 votes were cast in the sole polling location in Denver Harbor, their community center, according to Harris County voter counts.
Out of those, 329 are Denver Harbor residents, Martinez said, double the number of votes cast by that point in 2019.
These are encouraging statistics, but group leaders also know most people turn out to vote on election day. Even if these early voting numbers offer optimism, it is left to be seen whether this level of engagement will continue on Election Day.
And while canvassing and block-walking the highly ignored, majority-Latino areas like Denver Harbor might not be the only answer, there is enough data to indicate that the Latino vote in Harris County can one day get close to representing the area’s demographics.
“This is the first time we have a community-led civic engagement effort that focuses on this neighborhood,” Martinez said. “Most of the get-out-the-vote efforts have been led by campaigns, or by PACs (political action committees), or political groups… but not by community leaders, for community leaders and community members.”
Hola! My name is Danya Pérez, one of Houston Landing’s Diverse Communities reporters. I cover Latino/Hispanic communities here, including those who are mixed race or mixed status. ¡También soy México-Americana y hablo español! ¿Qué notas te gustaría leer? What topics or stories would you like to see me cover? Email me your ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org