For the last several months, Julio Perez has been driving a bus across the country, emblazoned with a decal on the side that read "Stop the separation of families."
He started in California, part of a caravan of immigration activists that toured the country to help turn out Latino voters. When Joe Biden was declared the winner, Perez said they celebrated.
"It was a huge relief, like a heavy load lifted from our shoulders, because the current administration has humiliated all immigrants, and trampled our dignity as human beings," he said in Spanish, speaking by phone from New Jersey.
Perez is originally from El Salvador and has been living in Boston since 1994. He's one of nearly 850,000 Latinos in Massachusetts — only a little more than half of whom are eligible to vote. Perez couldn't vote because he’s not a citizen, but that didn't stop him from helping to turn out Latinos who are citizens to try to get Trump out of office.
For decades, Democrats have pinned their electoral hopes on the growing Latino population, but the 2020 election showed that the Latino vote is deeply divided on factors like nationality, geopolitics and religion. While Trump lost overwhelmingly in Massachusetts, this election showed a shift toward him in Gateway Cities across the state — places like Lawrence, Holyoke and Springfield. These are all cities with high concentrations of Latinos.
This shift surprised Rich Parr, research director at MassINC Polling Group, who compared the performance of Hillary Clinton against Trump in 2016 to that of Biden this year. Even though Biden won these cities by landslides, Parr found Biden performed worse against Trump there than Clinton did.
And Parr says the trend is especially noticeable in Lawrence, where eight in 10 residents are Latino.
"I feel pretty confident that there's something going on with Latino voters here," Parr said. "After seeing it in Texas, after seeing it in Arizona, after seeing it in Florida, it seems like it's a national thing."
"My own personal thinking was that if you were Puerto Rican, that you might actually be less inclined towards President Trump given what had happened with Hurricane Maria," Parr said. "But it seems as if that wasn't so much the case here in Holyoke, being the example that's closest in mind out here in western Massachusetts."
Parr's analysis shows that in 2016, Hillary Clinton won Holyoke by 54 points. In 2020, Biden’s margin was 41 points.
In Lawrence, Biden got nearly three times as many votes as Trump — but Trump’s share increased from 14% in 2016 to 25% in 2020.
Lawrence resident Mariano Torres, a native of Puerto Rico and a veteran of the Vietnam War, explains why he and his fellow Latino Trump supporters have a special name for the president.
"Because Papa Trump gives more benefits than Obama," he said. "Papa Trump is more favored for Spanish people than Biden."
Torres says he supports Trump’s efforts to build a wall on the southern border. He also says Democrats present a form of socialism "and I believe the Republican Party encourages patriotism."
Torres lives on the south side of the Merrimack River, which in Lawrence is represented by the only two city councilors who are Republicans. On the other side, which is more densely populated and leans more Democratic, Lawrence City Councillor Jeovanny Rodriguez, a staunch Democrat, said he's trying to understand why Trump got more votes in this election than he did in 2016 — in every last one of Lawrence's 24 precincts.
"The per capita income in the city of Lawrence is the lowest in the state," Rodriguez said. "The economic stimulus of the coronavirus benefited many people who were undecided on who to vote for."
Rodriguez believes many people were influenced by the coronavirus stimulus package — which was passed by Congress — and featured personal checks signed by Trump.
Rodriguez also cites social media, where he believes many Latinos were influenced by a wave of anti-communist propaganda targeting Democrats.
That propaganda had particular resonance among Cubans and Venezuelans, exiles from socialist countries, largely based in Florida. But the memes and canards — depicting Biden as a lapdog of China and as an apologist for rioting — weren’t contained to the South.
And for evangelical Latino voters, there’s also a religion factor that draws them to Trump.
"Yes, I am pro-life, so I base myself out in my voting Biblically and not off what the media tells me," said 21-year-old Yari Morales. She's a second generation Latina who just voted for the first time — and she chose Trump.
Morales lives in Somerville, and works at the evangelical church Vida Real, where her uncle is the pastor and almost all of the 1,000 members are from Latin America. Like others in her congregation, Morales sees abortion as the predominant political issue -- and it drove her to Trump.
She also sees Democrats as endorsing a kind of identity politics she doesn’t agree with, taking issue especially with what children learn about gender in schools.
"They're actually getting taught about all these different genders, 'What's your pronoun?' " she said. "These kids are too young to be learning these things — instead they should be learning how to even get a job.”
Like other Trump supporters interviewed for this story, Morales says she’s prepared to accept Biden as the next president, but only when Trump’s challenges against the validity of the election have been resolved. So far, Trump's various legal challenges to the election have been defeated or dismissed.
This segment aired on November 16, 2020.