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Are unions still a political force for Latino voters?

By Gustavo Valdés, CNN
updated 5:22 PM EDT, Mon October 17, 2011
Mirna Castaneda, left, trains for her new job at a Las Vegas hotel as a member of the Culinary Workers Union.
Mirna Castaneda, left, trains for her new job at a Las Vegas hotel as a member of the Culinary Workers Union.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Unions in the West play dual role for many Latinos: professional training and political activism
  • They have helped members navigate the path to U.S. citizenship
  • Republicans, Democrats are battling over who gets to represent the fastest growing U.S. group

Republican presidential candidates face off in the Western Republican Debate, moderated by Anderson Cooper, at 8 p.m. ET Tuesday on CNN, the CNN mobile apps and CNN.com/Live. Tweet your questions to #CNNDebate on Twitter.

Las Vegas (CNN) -- Mirna Castaneda pays close attention to the instructor showing her the best way to make a bed.

"This crest is very important" said the instructor in Spanish as Castaneda makes a double fold on the upper edge of the white bedsheets, then carefully tops it with a few pillows.

It's not as if Castaneda doesn't know how to make a bed that a Las Vegas visitor can gleefully climb into after a day --- or night -- out on the town. She has already spent five years working at different hotels, but this training is required for her new job this time as a member of the Culinary Workers Union.

"They offer really good benefits I didn't have before and the pay is also better," she said.

Her training takes place at the union's Culinary Training Academy, where job seekers learn everything needed to work on the Strip, from loading a dishwasher to vacuuming floors and waiting tables to the finer details of gourmet cooking.

It also provides the experience required by the hotels and casinos. Completion of the course at the academy is the equivalent of one year of experience on the job.

Why Nevada's Latino vote could make the difference in the 2012 election

That makes all the difference in the world for people like Jazmin Rivera, 21, who is hoping to land a job as a busboy. She says she has had a hard time finding a job since her employment as a census worker ended last year.

But for Castaneda and Rivera, their union membership could provide more than a steady job with benefits. They could be getting a political education, too.

We spend almost a full year before the election making sure all of our members are registered to vote.
Yvanna Cancela, the political director for the Culinary Workers Union, Local 226.

"We spend almost a full year before the election making sure all of our members are registered to vote," said Yvanna Cancela, the political director for the Culinary Workers Union Local 226.

Cancela said the union also encourages and assists in navigating the citizenship process for members who qualify.

That is a big deal for the Latino members of the union, who according to Cancela make up more than 35% of the Las Vegas membership.

As it did in most states, the Hispanic population exploded in Nevada over the past decade. According to the census, 26% of the more than 2.7 million state residents have Latino heritage.

Both parties rolling the dice in Nevada

With the strength in numbers comes political muscle.

Preparing for the CNN debate in Las Vegas
CNN Espanol: Republicans square off in Las Vegas debate

State politicians are locked in a battle to draw new congressional districts that best reflect Latino representation. Democrats favor spreading Hispanics into three districts, arguing that would give them more clout in more places. Republicans, led by Gov. Brian Sandoval, want a Hispanic majority district, saying the time has come for Latinos to have a better chance of sending one of their own to represent them in Washington.

The process is now in the hands of a three-person panel appointed by a federal judge and charged with solving the stalemate.

Latinos are already making their mark in politics.

They are credited with saving the seat of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, in the midterm elections. They helped then-Sen. Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Nevada presidential primary.

Cuban-born Griselda Marino is one of those who caucused for President Obama.

"It was very interesting to participate, especially for someone like me who came from another country and had different views of the political process," she said.

Marino joined the union 13 years ago, two years after she arrived in the United States. She said the union helped her register to vote as soon as she became a U.S. citizen.

"It is a great responsibility we all have, especially those who came from other countries, because we have to make sure our voice is also heard," she said.

Marino said she hopes her example inspires people like Castaneda, who is more focused on getting health insurance for her family than thinking about who is running for office.

"I keep politics on the side," Castaneda said.

Marino and the members of Local 226 will have a chance to flex their political muscle in January when Nevada holds one of the earlier caucuses in the presidential selection process. It could also be a preview of the role the Latino vote will have in November 2012.

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