HOUSTON — At Tacos Tierra Caliente — a food truck parked in a section of Houston where Spanish is spoken as often as English — $1.50 can buy such street taco staples as pollo (chicken), barbacoa (shredded beef) and lengua (tongue).
But next to the handwritten chalkboard menu and “cash only” sign is a new red, white and blue placard that commands: “Registrarse y Votar” (Register and Vote). A stack of bilingual voter registration forms and a pen are available nearby for anyone who wants to fill one out while scarfing down their orders.
The taco truck-based voter registration effort in the nation’s fourth-largest city, along with a larger “Guac the Vote” drive by the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, began a few weeks after a backer of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump suggested the country would be subsumed by Mexican culture if it doesn’t tighten its borders.
“You’re going to have taco trucks on every corner,” Marco Gutierrez, the founder of “Latinos for Trump,” told MSNBC on Sept. 1.
Aiming to poke fun at the comments and capitalize on them, Houston designer Thomas Hull created the food truck voter drive in partnership with Mi Familia Vota, a nonpartisan group specializing in Hispanic civil outreach. Eight trucks are now registering voters in Houston.
“It was offensive to some,” Hull said of Gutierrez’s warning. “At the same time, those of us who live here in Texas find it humorous because there are taco trucks on every corner and we love them.”
Gutierrez didn’t return phone messages seeking comment.
While waiting to order pork tacos al pastor at another participating truck, El Ultimo Taco, on Houston’s west side, Ippolito Garbino picked up a registration form. Later, as he drenched his order in salsa verde, he explained in Spanish that though he’s a noncitizen, he planned to pass the necessary paperwork on to his wife, who is eligible.
The trucks began registering customers Tuesday and will continue to do so until Texas’ registration ends Oct. 11.
Houston is not alone. Arizona Democratic Party officials have coordinated with 150 taco trucks statewide. Executive Director Sheila Healy said Friday it’s been an effective method of reaching both Hispanic and non-Hispanic eligible voters because “everybody loves tacos.”
Elsewhere, Mi Familia Vota hopes to use taco trucks in heavily Hispanic parts of Las Vegas once early voting begins in the battleground state of Nevada. And the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce is encouraging taco trucks around the country to register voters — and set up at polling stations on Election Day.
Carlos Duarte, Mi Familia Vota’s Texas director, said the group isn’t taking sides in the race — even though an ironic response to Gutierrez’s comment helped spawn the Houston taco truck initiative.
“We go where people go,” Duarte said. “Our feeling was, ‘It’s a great idea. Let’s do it.’”
The bitterly contested race between Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton has seen voter registration swell in many states. Texas already has set a state record by registering more than 14.8 million voters.
The New York Times reported Friday that Google searches for “register to vote” have surged in the past week, particularly in heavily Latino markets in Arizona, California, Florida, Nevada and Texas.
Still, Texas had the lowest turnout of any state in 2014. Just 30.2 percent of the state’s residents voted in those midterm elections, compared to an average national turnout of 38.5 percent of the total U.S. population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The problem is especially acute among Hispanics, 10.2 million of whom live in Texas, the nation’s second-most behind California. Excluding noncitizens and those under 18, about 5 million Texas Hispanics will be eligible to vote in the 2016 presidential election.
In 2014, though, less than 2.3 million Texas Hispanics reported in U.S. Census surveys that they were registered to vote — about 46 percent of the nearly 4.9 million that were then eligible and about 300,000 fewer than reported being registered in 2012.
Hispanic turnout statewide in 2014, meanwhile, was worse than in 2012, when 22 percent of eligible Texas Hispanics reported voting in Census Bureau surveys compared to 39 percent two years prior. Nationwide, 48 percent of Hispanics reported voting in 2012, which declined to 27 percent in 2014.
Like Healy with the Arizona Democratic Party, Hull noted that taco trucks draw customers from all demographics. But he said Texans of any background can stand to see voter registration numbers improve.
“We have a targeted focus on the Latino community given that they historically haven’t been as active in voting,” Hull said. “But, given how low Texas voter turnout is, we’ve got work to do across everybody.”
JOHN L. MONE