SIOUX CITY, Iowa, 5:14 p.m. — Walter and Elsi Carranza have never voted in a caucus before.

In the basement of the unheated Mount Olive Baptist Church, they hunch down in winter coats and listen quietly for 45 minutes as Obama volunteer Carlos Odio translates caucus-trainer Rick Mullin’s lesson on how to caucus: arrive on time, go to your candidate’s corner, switch candidates if yours is unviable. Occasionally, Walter tosses a question at Rick.

What happens if my name isn’t on the precinct list? What happens after the initial caucus tallies are taken? What if I don’t speak English? Can I still caucus?

Hispanic Apathy

Only four potential Hispanic caucus-goers attended a training session for first-time voters held in Sioux City, IA on Sunday afternoon. The low turnout added to Democratic concerns about the political apathy of the growing Hispanic population in Iowa.

The Latino population of Iowa has risen sharply over the last decade, sparking questions among Iowa politicos about what the demographic represents for political parties and candidates from Des Moines to Dubuque. Meatpacking plants looking for cheap labor have introduced Latino areas to previously homogeneous communities like Perry and Sioux City. In 2000, the U.S. Census tallied Sioux City’s Hispanic community at 10.9 percent of the city’s total population – four times the statewide average of 2.8 percent. Today, Hispanics represent the fastest-growing minority group in Iowa. But these populations, Mullin said, have yet to come of age politically. This year’s election may change that.

“For Hispanics, this year there’s the huge discussion of immigration,” Woodbury County Democratic Chairwoman Teresa Wolff said Sunday night. “People who have been here 10, 15 years and are part of our community need to have legal status as citizens. Immigration reform on both sides is not working, and we need someone who can make that happen.”

With so much on the line, Wolff said she thinks 2008 could be a watershed year for Hispanic turnout. But there are real barriers to such participation. First and foremost among these is language. Of the 11 major presidential candidates this year, only two – New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd – speak fluent Spanish. Aside from the candidates themselves, it’s hard for Latinos to relate to a campaign conducted in English.

That frustrates Mullin, who sees an untapped political reservoir in a community lacking a political compass. “We want to have the Latinos, we want to have the Asians, we want to have all the groups work within the Democratic Party,” he said. “We’re saying ‘Help us help you.'”

But political participation is a two-way street, and Latinos are not about to dive into Democratic – or Republican – politics if candidates do not pay attention to the Latino side of issues like immigration, health care and economic development.

“[Immigration reform] is an important issue, and we have to support it,” Carranza said of potential moves toward legalization or guest-worker programs. “But it’s not the only issue.”

Courting these voters remains a central concern for Democrats who see the emerging Latino working class as the successors of the old blue-collar, unionized Democratic base.

“The Democratic party was built on immigrants,” Wolff said. “[Hispanics] should be taking up the mantle. The issues we work toward – health care, education – these are their issues as well.”

Zack Abrahamson