Raul Lopez quickly discovered when he began helping Republicans with Hispanic outreach that he wasn’t working on a level playing field.
He was far outnumbered and outspent by Democrats trying to reach the same audience.
Lopez tried to make inroads in the Hispanic community for former President George W. Bush and for Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell when she chaired the Tennessee Republican Party. The frustrations he experienced prompted him to start Latinos For Tennessee, a conservative political advocacy group. The group champions limited government and free markets, fiscal responsibility, immigration enforcement and traditional values.
“We’re a counter voice,” Lopez told The Tennessee Star.
Started four years ago, the group was organized as a political action committee with an outreach and educational wing. The group is based in Nashville and plans to expand its presence in other parts of the state. Lopez, a native of Cuba who came to the U.S. when he was five years old, is the executive director. In addition, there is an eight-member board of directors.
The board chairman is Tommy Vallejos, a Clarksville pastor and Montgomery County commissioner who has announced his intention to run for state Sen. Mark Green’s vacated seat pending Green’s confirmation as President Trump’s army secretary. A native of New Mexico, Vallejos calls Latinos For Tennessee “a voice of reason.”
Like Lopez, Vallejos has been frustrated by the dominance of left-leaning Hispanic and immigrant rights organizations. Within the past decade, those groups made a hard left turn and expanded their platforms to include advocacy for LGBT causes and Islam, Vallejos says.
In the Nashville area, those groups include the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC) and Conexión Américas. In Memphis, there’s Latino Memphis. Even the Hispanic chambers of commerce – the Nashville Area Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Tennessee Latin American Chamber of Commerce – are tilting left these days.
While all of them still do some good things for the Hispanic community, they make it hard for conservatives to get a foothold and get their message out, Lopez says. Their dominance has also created an impression that all Hispanics think the same way, alarming conservatives and making them skeptical of any Hispanic group, he says.
Lopez says he recognizes it’s going to time to create awareness of the goals set by Latinos For Tennessee and build trust. But he hopes his fellow conservatives will open their minds – and their pocketbooks.
“Conservatives need to fund organizations like ours,” he said, noting that groups like TIRRC receive an enormous amount of money from foundations, corporations and the Democratic Party.
Lopez is particularly concerned about the influence groups like TIRRC have through partnerships with public schools, where he says Hispanic children are being taught to fear conservatives and believe that only government can save them from prejudice that would otherwise hold them back.
Lopez says his group wants young people to be the best they can be, but he favors the outlook reflected in the saying, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” It’s a sentiment echoed by Vallejos. “Government cannot be all things to all people,” he said.
In recent months, Latinos For Tennessee has endorsed President Trump’s immigration enforcement plans, including his efforts to crack down on sanctuary cities. However, Lopez says he’d like to see fewer bureaucratic hurdles to legal immigration and wants to see more avenues open up for guest workers, as long as they don’t take jobs from Americans.
The group is pro-life and endorses the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman. Their leaders have stated their belief that gender is an objective biological reality. The group also supports charter schools and vouchers to give parents choices for their children’s education.
Lopez says his conservative views have infuriated progressive Hispanics in the Nashville area, including those with leadership roles. He’s been the target of angry messages and phone calls. He’s been cussed out and even had people question his ethnicity.
“Who are you to say you’re Hispanic?” fumed one critic.
Lopez, Vallejos and other leaders of Latinos For Tennessee are unapologetically Christian and say their faith is a big influence in their lives and on their views. They believe the church, not the government, should be more involved in helping people with their daily struggles.
In addition to serving as executive director for Latinos For Tennessee, Lopez is executive director of Men of Valor, a Tennessee prison ministry program. Vallejos has also done prison ministry work and has led efforts to raise awareness of gangs and prevent young people from joining them.
While they are proud of their Hispanic heritage, leaders of Latinos For Tennessee say they want to focus on what unites Americans.
“Those of us who came here legally want to contribute to the community, not take from it,” said Lopez, pointing out that Americans can help with that process by being patient as immigrants learn English and assimilate.
Michelle Garcia, a coordinator for the group, said “there is something special about America” and the group wants to promote that. A Middle Tennessee native, Garcia is not Hispanic but is married to an immigrant from Venezuela who is distraught by the socialism now destroying his homeland.
For his part, Vallejos says he’s never ashamed of his culture and upbringing and loves the Spanish language. But there’s something that compels a deeper sense of loyalty.
“I love my America first.”