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California Counts: Can a small-town Latina mayor push Central Valley millennials to the polls?

Every April, the townspeople of Lindsay pack the pews of a local church, as fathers in cowboy boots proudly escort their daughters down the aisle. They’re the college-bound young women elected as the Orange Blossom Festival Queen and her court. This year, they’re all young women of color.

Queen Angela Bolaños says that’s a sea change from a time when the royal court was almost always made up of white farmers’ daughters.

“It says a lot. The Latina presence is growing stronger. We just all want to make ourselves heard,” Bolaños says.

The mayor of Lindsay, Ramona Padilla, is also, for the first time, a Latina. She reads a decree officially proclaiming this year’s 84th annual Orange Blossom Festival, to celebrate the role of the citrus industry in this farm town.

Meanwhile, across town, 19-year-old Amy Huerta leads a troupe of more than a dozen kids twirling brightly colored skirts and stamping their feet. They’re practicing a Ballet Folklorico routine for the Orange Blossom Parade on April 16.

Amid all the festivities, Amy and the mayor have an important date during Orange Blossom week: They’re going to meet up to talk about voting. Padilla called a meeting after hearing in my previous radio stories about young people who aren’t interested in voting.

Four young women I’ve been interviewing over the last few months join Padilla in Lindsay’s downtown plaza, modeled after a zocalo, or town square in Mexico. They’re all dressed up to meet the mayor, and are a little nervous.

Pressure From the Mayor

Padilla starts by grilling Amy. She’s the only one who’s eligible to vote in her family. Everyone else is in the country illegally or too young to cast a ballot.

“When I was listening to your story, I heard that you weren’t sure if you were going to vote,” she tells Amy. “Do you feel pressured that you’re the only one that can vote at this time?”

“It does feel like a little pressure,” Amy says.

Sometimes, after an election, if her parents don’t like the way prices are going up, or certain laws that have been passed, they get after her about voting.

“This election, you got to make a change,” Amy says her parents tell her.

“(Because) whoever got elected last year is messing up. Now you got to vote for what we need.”

But Amy’s never felt like voting really has anything to do with her.

But now she’s had me interview her multiple times about voting, and the mayor requested a private meeting.

“In a town of 12,000, every vote is needed,” Padilla tells her. “When you don’t vote, you take your voice away. So does that make sense?”

The mayor then turns to Cassandra Baca, a single mom who has brought along her 1-year old daughter, Amoriee. We met her in an earlier radio story, too.

Mayor Ramona Padilla, Cassandra Baca, and her 1-year-old daughter, Amoriee.
Sasha Khokha/KQED
Mayor Ramona Padilla, Cassandra Baca, and her 1-year-old daughter, Amoriee.

“When you got your driver’s license, did you not register to vote?” asks the mayor. “No,” says Cassandra.

“How can I help you get registered to vote?”

“I don’t know,” says Cassandra, bouncing her baby on her knee.

The mayor explains that she can go to a post office and pick up a registration form. She’ll even do it for her. The mayor says she can tell by Cassandra’s body language that she might be interested in registering.

It’s a surprise to me, because all the times I’ve talked to Cassandra over the last few months, she didn’t seem like voting was even on her radar.

But she tells me that after our interview, she started paying closer attention to the presidential race. She says Donald Trump’s incendiary comments about immigrants have pushed her over the edge.

“That’s pretty much enough to get me to vote,” says Cassandra.

The Makings of a New Voter

In Amy’s case, she’s had a lot of pressure from her brother, a community activist who is in the country illegally. He really wants his sister to vote on behalf of their family.

And Amy says she’s coming around to his point of view.

“I looked at each of the (presidential) candidates, and I was like, ‘This year, it’s different.’ Now you have a Hillary, you have a woman. You have Ted Cruz, a Latino,” Amy says. “Then you have Donald Trump and Bernie. So now you have a different combination. Now it caught my attention.

“What if I voted for Hillary, what would she do for me, as a woman? What if I elect Ted Cruz? What would he do for Latinos? It’s just more the presidential election having all this different variety now. It’s not just white men.”

Padilla is watching Amy’s expression carefully.

“She’s recognizing a lot of reasons why if she didn’t vote, what could happen,” Padilla says. “I think, just looking at her, it appears to me that she wants to make a difference, too, and she probably now really feels that her vote is going to matter, it’s going to count.”

No pressure, or anything, having the mayor of your town tell you she knows you’re going to do it. And a statewide public radio audience waiting to find out if you’ll cast a ballot.

But Amy says she’s made up her mind on her own.

“I think I will vote this time. Not only for me, not only for my family, but you know, for the community of Lindsay, for those who don’t vote,” says Amy.

“You can count on me.”

“I’m so happy to hear that, and you just make my heart swell,” says Padilla, who gives Amy a high-five and then takes a round of selfies with all the girls.

Ramona Padilla says she hopes that she can work herself out of a job and open up a space for young Latinas like Amy and Cassandra on the City Council.

“I hope you could become Latina mayors someday, too.”

But the first step is to make sure these young voters make it to Lindsay’s one polling place in June, or remember to send their ballot in by mail, on time.

Copyright 2016 KQED. To see more election coverage, visit

Series: California Counts

California Counts is a collaboration of KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio to report on the 2016 election. The coverage focuses on major issues and solicits diverse voices on what's important to the future of California.

Read more in this series and let us know your thoughts on Twitter using the hashtag #CACounts.