Antonio Arellano was three years old when his parents left Mexico and migrated to the U.S. in pursuit of a better life for their five children.
“That was one of the most difficult decisions they ever had to make,” says Arellano, now 29. “You never want to leave the country and the family you love behind, unless it is absolutely crucial. For my parents, it was. Poverty was extreme, and most people in our town didn’t have access to secondary education.”
Arellano, a gay undocumented man, grew up in a middle-class Georgia neighborhood. When he graduated high school and told his father about his aspirations to become a journalist, the family moved again—this time to Houston, where Arellano’s dream became a reality.
While attending college in Space City, Arellano garnered over 95,000 followers on Twitter by using his social-media platforms to advocate for civil-rights and immigration issues. Impressed by his status as one of the nation’s leading Latino influencers, KTRK-TV (ABC13 News) hired Arellano as a social-media correspondent in September 2016.
One month later, after President Trump was elected and journalists faced a new president spewing hateful rhetoric about Latinos and other marginalized communities, Arellano admits he found it “hard to stay objective.” Outside of work, he continued to advocate for social-justice issues online, and in September 2018 he left his reporting job to work as the director of communications for Jolt, a non-profit organization that increases civic participation among Texas Latinos ages 18 to 32.
On August 1, Arellano became the interim executive director of Jolt. His predecessor, Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez—who in 2016 launched Jolt in her living room as a response to Trump’s election—stepped down from the organization to run for U.S. Senate. Today, Jolt is the largest civic-engagement organization in Texas, and reaches thousands of young Latinos across the state through their offices in Austin, Houston, and Dallas.
“[My new position] is a massive responsibility, and I don’t take it lightly,” Arellano says. “The work we’re doing is necessary. Racism has always existed in America, but recently it has been emboldened and discrimination has been empowered. Because of this, we’re mobilizing Latinos like never before.”
Latinos currently make up nearly 40 percent of Texas’ population, and are on track to become the largest group in the state by 2022, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s latest report. “The reason Latinos are under attack is because we are so powerful,” Arellano says. “People who are in power realize that Latinos have the potential to vote them out of office and to replace them at every level of government—all the way to the White House.”
In three years, an estimated one in three Texans eligible to vote will be under the age of 30. However, currently only 43 percent of Latinos under 30 are registered to vote, according to the Jolt report We Are Texas: An Analysis of Young Latino Voters in the Lone Star State.
Fortunately, the Jolt report also found that young Latina women are voting at higher rates than their non-Latina female counterparts. “If you want to win an election in the state of Texas, you have to convince young Latinas that you’re deserving,” Arellano says. “This is why Jolt invests heavily in women. We like to believe that the future is female, and she’s a Latina.”
In addition to block walking and phone banking, Jolt uses innovative ideas to reach young Latino voters. The organization recently launched Poder Quince, a campaign that brings voter-registration opportunities to some of the 50,000 quinceañeras held in Texas each year.
Every weekend in Austin, Houston, and Dallas, Jolt volunteers go to register voters at quinceañeras (traditional Latino celebrations of a girl’s 15th birthday, marking her passage from childhood to womanhood). Jolt provides a free photo booth for the party, along with a voter registration booth, and prepares the 15-year-old girl to deliver a powerful speech in which she asks her guests to register and vote.
“It’s been proven that voter registration is more effective when a family member suggests it,” Arellano says. “So when the princess of the night tells you that this is what she wants from you for her quinceañera, people listen. It’s so beautiful to see Latinos get political in spaces where politics were never discussed.”
Instead of focusing on hate rhetoric targeted at Latinos and undocumented individuals, Jolt empowers Latinos and celebrates their cultures in order to inspire them to vote. Because Jolt’s target audience is typically active internet users, the organization maintains a strong digital presence across its social-media platforms.
“You hardly ever see red, white, or blue on any of Jolt’s pages,” Arellano notes. “Instead, you see a mixture of traditional Latino colors, shapes, sizes, and materials that reflect us. This powerful imagery speaks to a new generation of people who have never been inclined to be politically engaged, because they have never before seen themselves reflected in politics.”
Arellano says being the openly gay, undocumented executive director of Jolt adds another dimension to the work that the organization does. Over the summer, Jolt attended several LGBTQ Pride parades across Texas to register voters and ask them what issues mattered
“Many of our team members identify as queer, and we are predominately female-led,” Arellano says. “We try to stay true to the voices that we reflect. Being a gay man at the helm of Jolt only emphasizes the commitment we have to our diverse community members.”
Arellano says it is because of his parents’ sacrifices that he was given the opportunity to be successful.
“Everything I do is to make my parents proud,” Arellano says. “I understand the amount of racism they’ve had to tolerate, the odd jobs they’ve had to take, and the oppression they had to endure, just so I could have a chance.”
Jolt has volunteer opportunities every Tuesday from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. at its Houston headquarters, 3507 Navigation Boulevard. For more information about Jolt, visit jolttx.org. Follow Antonio Arellano on Twitter at @AntonioArellano and Instagram at @antonioarellano_.
This article appears in the September 2019 edition of OutSmart magazine.