Latinos in New Jersey: A changing electorate

Could Latinos Choose the Next President?
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  • New Jersey's Hispanic population grew from 720,000 in 1990 to 1.8 million in 2014
  • Puerto Ricans have been an important political constituency in the state for decades

(CNN)In one part of northeastern New Jersey,you can't escape the influence of Puerto Rican culture.

The streets are lined with restaurants offering up Puerto Rican fare, salsa music plays, Puerto Rican flags wave and businesses invite in strangers to enjoy it all.
    "Boricuas," as Puerto Ricans call themselves, have been an important political constituency in the state for decades.
    And according to a new study by CNN en Español and the Center for Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York that highlights the growing role of Hispanic voters in American politics, there are more than half a million of them in the state.
    In New Jersey, the Hispanic population grew from 720,000 in 1990 to 1.8 million in 2014. Besides Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Dominicans, Peruvians, Colombians and Ecuadorians all call the Garden State home in sizable numbers.
    "When I came to this country in 1979, there were not very many Hispanics working in public or political offices or anything like that," Lionel Navarro said while supervising his workers at Texas Canvas, a small business in Totowa.
    Navarro, like many in the Puerto Rican and Hispanic community, has voted for Democrats for decades in the state. Now that he's a businessman, he finds his political affiliation changing.
    "I used to see things as an employee," he said. "But I like the Republican thinking because they want to help us relieve some of the pressure. They understand it. Small business is what, 80% of the country? This is what keeps the machine running."
    Jose Arango, chair of New Jersey Republican County Chairs, has been trying to deliver this very message to Latinos in New Jersey -- 14% of the electorate in the state -- with little success, he said.
    The party did make gains with Hispanics in the state thanks to the policies of Gov. Chris Christie.
    "Latinos trusted Gov. Christie, and the fact that he is Republican is irrelevant," Arango said. "It's the message, not the candidate."
    But Arango said the rhetoric in the presidential campaign is hurting Hispanic outreach efforts in New Jersey.
    As a growing demographic bloc, Hispanics are a sought-after constituency for candidates. To increase their electoral power though, Hispanics need to increase their voter registration rates.
    According to the study, 59% of eligible Latino voters will be registered for the 2016 presidential election, in line with the national average.
    Sen. Bob Menendez, one of the most recognizable Hispanic faces in New Jersey, says the registration could be higher except for the day-to-day economics of Hispanic families.
    "Some do not understand that taking the time to register to vote and decide who should be representing them at local, state and federal levels could change their lives," he said.
    But throughout his career, Menendez, of Cuban descent, says he has witnessed a community that's grown more engaged in the political process.
    The numbers bear out this observation. By November, Latinos will comprise close to 13% of all voters in New Jersey.
    Gustavo Ramirez, head of the Immigration and American Citizenship Organization, sees that growing trend almost every day in Passaic, a city where Hispanics are the majority of the population.
    Ramirez says there has been an increase of interest in citizenship processes by Mexicans, the second-largest group in New Jersey, which has increased from 33,000 in 1990 to 260,000 in 2014, representing 15% of Latinos in the state.
    Still, Mexicans are only 6.5% of eligible New Jersey Latino voters, mainly because most of them are very young or not citizens according to the study.
    Danny Fuentes, 18, is helping his father, Alfonso, gain legal status. Alfonso has been living in the U.S. for 20 years as an undocumented migrant and sees a change among his peers.
    "A lot of my friends and a lot of people of my generation are actually opening their eyes and see that what's happening right now, that we are facing a big change right now, that we do need to vote, and we do need to exercise our right," he said.
    His mother, Ana, an American citizen, adds that he son has also been telling them why it's important to vote.
    "He is right! If we don't vote, we are going to be crushed," she said.