Feature photo by Ashlee Rezin

Since it was my first time in Des Moines, Iowa, I googled “Mexican restaurants” a day before the caucuses to find Latinos there, and a couple of hours later there was I, at the center of Hispanic life in the state capital of Iowa – the Capitol East neighborhood.

Half a dozen restaurants, two bakeries, a well-equipped grocery store (great variety of hot sauces), and even an insurance company and a dental office with signs in Spanish.

The Brazilian in me craves rice and beans almost every day, so I was happy to have been assigned to cover the Hispanic vote in the 2012 Iowa Caucuses, hoping to find time to eat some Mexican food along the day.

And I did. As I walked into Los Laureles to grab lunch, I saw an Univision crew setting up an interview with three Iowa Hispanic Republicans.

Mari Torres, the Univision producer, told me it was hard to find those guys.

“Who knew there could be Latino Republicans?” she asked, jokingly.

Enrique Velasco was one of them. A Des Moines business owner who moved there 31 years ago from Colombia, Velasco said Newt Gingrich was the only candidate to reach out to his community and try to introduce his presidential platform to them.

“For the others, it’s like we don’t show up on their radar screen,” he said.

After months of bus tours rolling across Iowa and millions of dollars spent in a nasty advertising operation, it seemed like most GOP candidates failed to reach out to Hispanic voters in the state.

Not a wise move, considering Hispanics are the fastest-growing voting bloc in the U.S., according to the latest census numbers.

In Iowa, while only 5 percent of residents are Latino, that number is growing exponentially.

The only candidate to have stepped foot in the Capitol East neighborhood during months of campaign was U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich. In early December, the candidate and his entourage walked in stores, shook hands with residents and left a stack of brochures, written in Spanish, next to Latino newspapers.

“We want a candidate that will look at the issues that need to be resolved, and honestly that’s being hard to see so far,” said Velasco, who runs a marketing company.

Intrigued, I went on to ask others about politicians catering to the Hispanic base in Iowa. I got in touch with Chad Thomas, mayor of West Liberty, the first Hispanic-majority city in the state. Thomas said the lack of attention comes from the assumption Latino voters aren’t seen as significant enough for a Republican caucuses election in Iowa.

“I would expect that once the Republican candidate is selected and the general election campaign has started, then there will start to be some level of direct and public outreach to Hispanic voters,” said the mayor, who was elected in 2009 in the Muscatine County community, where about 37 percent of residents are Hispanic.

The numbers of Latinos in Iowa increased by 84 percent in the last decade, accounting for 58 percent of Iowa’s overall population growth.

Nationwide, 1 in 6 United States residents are Latino, and their number of eligible voters now totals 21.7 million, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

Lena Robison, the founder and president of Latinos Unidos for Iowa, a non-profit community support group based in Des Moines, shared the feeling her community was virtually invisible to Republican candidates in her state during the past couple of months.

“I personally have been contacted by one of the GOP candidates – Gingrich, but as soon as they found out I was a registered Democrat they didn’t want to even sway me,” she said.

Robison said a few of her Hispanic friends had been contacted by Gingrich’s campaign, but the language barrier was an issue.

“If they can’t speak English or the caller learns the individual can’t vote, they hang up with no further inquiry as ‘do you know anyone I can speak to who can vote?’”

For Robison, that makes a statement that Republican politicians have no vision for a future that include Latinos.

The tide of indifference towards Latinos could change direction as the campaign moves to states with a larger share of Hispanics among its populations.

“As the primary season progresses, we will likely see more attention paid to Hispanic issues,” said Tim Hagle, professor of political science at the University of Iowa.

Let’s hope so.

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