Bernie Sanders’ campaign says the venue chosen for his Saturday rally in Doña Ana County — a school in Vado, a rural, largely Latino and Spanish-speaking community south of Las Cruces — was the best spot it found to give voters in Southern New Mexico a chance to see the candidate.
“Vado actually ended up just working best for us logistically,” said Hannah Elhard, Sanders’ New Mexico state coordinator.
Others saw the visit as an opportunity. Local supporters of the Democratic presidential candidate said his visit presented a chance to reach Latino voters. And some residents of Vado saw an opportunity to shine light on the community’s needs.
Max Mastellone, one of the organizers of the local nonprofit Las Cruces for BERNIE, said he believes the Sanders campaign picked Vado “to go right to solid Latino country.”
“It is great that he is coming, demonstrates again that he truly wants to reach out to regular folks and show respect and appreciation for their support,” Mastellone said. “I believe it gives credence to his assertions that he stands with us.”
Claudia Piper, another organizer of Las Cruces for BERNIE, agreed.
“The choice of Vado is brilliant!” she wrote in an email. “When was the last time a presidential candidate ever visited a small Latino-populated town? I expect the rally will be huge, with people from all over Southern New Mexico and El Paso coming.”
Meanwhile, the organizing group NM Comunidades en Acción y de Fé (CAFé) was working with local residents to use Sanders’ visit to shine light on the needs of the community.
“We have been working hard to get the attention of our local and state officials, and have invited them to visit and see the conditions of our roads,” Vado community leader Ruben Lugo said in a news release from CAFé. “It’s good to have a presidential candidate taking time to see our community.”
(Disclosure: This journalist is dating CAFé’s executive director.)
Teresa Zamora, a longtime Vado resident who teaches at the elementary school where Sanders will hold his rally, said the community has “beautiful families who are really struggling to make it.”
“We need elected leaders to see us, and we don’t expect systemic change from candidates who only show up for a few hours,” Zamora said. “We need real change.”
Vado had an estimated population of 3,194 in 2010, according to the Census. An estimated 95 percent were Hispanic or Latino in 2000 and 34 percent lived below the poverty level, according to the Census. Roads are a significant problem in the area, which is a federally designated colonia — a community near the U.S.-Mexico border that lacks basic infrastructure.
Former Gov. Bill Richardson was one of the most high-profile politicians to ever visit Vado when he swooped into the community about a decade and pledged to improve its roads. Despite county and state efforts, residents say there are still lots of problems, particularly after heavy rains and floods. Lots of roads belong to a patchwork of private owners — a situation many say was created by developers and lax government oversight, not current residents. The county can’t legally maintain the roads without ownership of the land.
Communities around Vado also struggle with significant poverty. There are 17 federally designated colonias south of Las Cruces in Doña Ana County.
Presidential candidates have often visited the metro area that includes Las Cruces and Mesilla in the last two decades, starting when Democrat Bill Clinton held a rally at New Mexico State University in 1996. But Sanders’ Saturday visit to Vado may be the first rally a presidential candidate has held in the rural region south of Las Cruces and Mesilla.
In 2004, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry had lunch with Richardson and then-Lt. Gov. Diane Denish in Anthony, Texas — just across the state line from Anthony, N.M, and within sight of the state line. Kerry also attended a private mass at a church on the New Mexico side of Anthony during that trip.
Hillary Clinton, Sanders’ remaining opponent in this year’s Democratic presidential primary, held a rally in Sunland Park in 2008, but it was after she lost the presidential primary to Barack Obama that year. She visited Sunland Park to campaign for Obama.
Elhard said the Sanders campaign is excited about the candidate’s visits to Santa Fe and Albuquerque on Friday and Vado on Saturday. She said the campaign added the Vado rally to Sanders’ swing through New Mexico because it wanted to give Southern New Mexicans a chance to hear him speak.
“What we’re looking for is just a really wonderful bringing together of community,” Elhard said, “and coming all together to get the chance to see him in person.”