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The influx of Latinos into Arkansas has reshaped the cultural and business landscape in ways that were unimaginable 25 years ago. Now a young Latino political activist running for the Arkansas statehouse out of Northwest Arkansas hopes to be at the vanguard of an effort to reshape the political landscape as well.
Irvin Camacho, 24, of Springdale is running in House District 89 against Republican Jeff Williams. Incumbent Micah Neal, a Republican, did not seek re-election. Though Springdale has historically gone Republican, Camacho has worked to build grassroots support among the district's minority populations, including African Americans and the Marshallese, and helped hundreds get registered to vote. If elected, Camacho would be the sole Latino representative in the legislature.
With District 89 around 46 percent Latino — though a much smaller percentage of Latinos are both eligible and registered to vote — Camacho looks like the shape of things to come in Northwest Arkansas, and maybe other areas of the state with large Latino populations, even if he doesn't pull out a win in November. According to a survey released by the Pew Research Center in January, 205,000 Latinos live in Arkansas, but only around 60,000 of them are eligible to vote. As the native-born children of Latino immigrants come of age, however, it could signal an electoral shift in places like Springdale.
That's Camacho's hope, anyway. He's been active politically in Northwest Arkansas since he was a teenager, leading marches and peaceful demonstrations for causes such as immigration reform and suicide prevention. He also serves as the coordinator for the Arkansas Natural DREAMers, an organization that supports giving in-state college tuition to undocumented children raised in Arkansas, and the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which would open a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. before they were 16.
"I'm more of a social justice advocate," Camacho said. "That's what I've been doing since I graduated high school. I've been fighting for the DREAM Act and for immigration reform. ... I've been in the face of a lot of the politicians here in Arkansas, trying to bring more awareness to the issues that affect our community. I've protested outside [U.S. Rep.] Steve Womack's office. I've been trying to get hold of [former U.S. Sen.] Mark Pryor and talk to him. I've had contact with a lot of the politicians in Arkansas for a few years now, trying to get what we feel are the things our community needs."
Camacho was born in California, but moved to Springdale with his parents in 2002 when he was 11.
"There's a lot of gang activity where I was from, especially in my neighborhood," Camacho said. "There were quite a few gangs there, so my dad didn't want me to get involved with gangs. At the same time, he wanted me to have a better chance at pursuing my education, and job opportunities were a bigger thing over here in Arkansas than they were in California for people that don't speak English."
Camacho said many of his friends are undocumented. Though the Obama administration's 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which halted the deportation of undocumented immigrants brought to the country as minors, allowed some of them to come out of the shadows, Camacho says he sees the struggles they endure because they can't fully contribute to society. He says he entered the race because he believes cities in Northwest Arkansas could do more to help people of all classes and races, including undocumented immigrants.
"I believe that in order for us to help out more people, sometimes we have to step up from where we are and help out on a bigger scale," Camacho said. "I saw the bigger picture. I know where we can progress in our city and make it a more welcoming place in all. ... That's one of my biggest motivators for being involved in this campaign: I really want the best for Springdale."
District 86 Rep. Greg Leding (D-Fayetteville) is one of the Democrats who first approached Camacho about running for the District 89 seat. Leding said the changing demographics and the "Walmart universe" around Bentonville — with the retail giant and its suppliers relocating multicultural employees from all over the country to the area — are contributing to a shift in the politics of Northwest Arkansas.
"One thing I point out to people, and it still amazes them, is that only Pulaski County is richer with Democrats than Benton County," Leding said. "That shouldn't be a surprise because Benton County is the second most populous county. But so pervasive is the myth that there are no Democrats there that that's what everybody believes. It's just not true."
Leding said that Camacho has been a pleasant surprise, especially for someone so young, and has worked hard in the campaign. "When I learned about the work he did organizing those peace marches, one he did last year in response to some gang violence in Springdale, and one this year in response to youth suicides, it was impressive," Leding said.
While Leding believes a win for Camacho in the still right-leaning district is something of a longshot, he thinks the young politician will go far as the racial and electoral makeup of Springdale continues to change. "He knows the odds, but I think he's been a fantastic candidate, and I think he's run one of the best campaigns," Leding said. "Given how few people tend to vote in that House district, I think he's got an outside shot."
Camacho says that he has tried to run a positive campaign, but he believes he is the better candidate to represent the area. The campaign, he said, has been about "small victories" along the way.
"We know where our city can go if it doesn't have the proper representation," he said. "That's what I'm trying to provide. There are so many communities that have been ignored for so many years now: Latinos, the Marshallese community, African Americans. It's time we had someone who really takes the time to listen to these people. That's what we're trying to provide: representation for all."
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