When Zenaida Huerta started a club for Bernie Sanders supporters at her high school last fall, she started to get threats. One of her classmates “said something like, ‘none of this will matter when Trump deports you,’” the 17-year-old Whittier, California resident recalled in an interview. The bullying and harassment got so bad, she said, that school administrators dispatched staff to some of the meetings to act as security.
It’s hard for Huerta’s 62-year-old father to talk about what happened without getting choked up with emotion. Henry Huerta is a long-time labor and immigration activist, who remembers marching alongside civil-rights leader Cesar Chavez with his own father when he was younger. To see his daughter face discrimination was incredibly painful, he said: “It’s so awful to see that kind of hate directed at my children. There’s so much ugliness and racism, even in places where people might not expect to find it.”
The Huertas are attending the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia as delegates for Bernie Sanders. Their love of the Vermont senator inspired them to become delegates, but along the way, they say, they have been shocked by the backlash from Donald Trump supporters. They fear what America might look like under a president Trump, a candidate they believe has amplified hatred by running a campaign that demonizes immigrants and Muslims.
For all the media spectacle and sensationalism of the election, and all the picking apart of candidates, who sometimes seem more like caricatures than anything else, stories like the Huerta’s serve as a reminder that the presidential race has very real repercussions for people across the country. The thousands of delegates attending this year’s national conventions are evidence that even in an era where plenty of Americans believe that Washington is broken, many still want to make their voices heard in the political process, and will quite literally travel extraordinary lengths to do so.
Dallas, 35, and Carolyn Fowler, 68, are another parent-child pair of delegates headed to the Democratic National Convention from California. But they aren’t supporting the same candidate. Dallas Fowler is a delegate for Sanders and her mother is a delegate for Hillary Clinton.
The political divide has created tension. “Oh, it’s been rough. I will not deny that it’s been rough,” Dallas Fowler said in a phone interview, while her mother was also on the line. “We have had some knock-down, drag-out conversations about the issues,” she added. Carolyn Fowler chimed in with a laugh: “It definitely was not an easy road to get here,” she said, “But I wouldn’t say it’s put a strain on our relationship. She’s my daughter, and she’ll always be my daughter.”
Esther Lumm and Rosie Lopez, two sisters who live in Arizona, will also serve as Democratic delegates at the convention. Lumm, 71, is all in for Clinton, while Lopez, 77, supports Sanders. They too have had their fair share of debates over the candidates and issues at stake. “Mostly we kid each other, but there have been a few heated arguments,” Lumm said in an interview. “We never got to the point where we don’t speak or get really upset with each other. It was all kind of in fun.”
Democrats have been fighting for months over who should lead their party. That fight ostensibly ended when Sanders endorsed Clinton. But it will still take time for wounds to heal, and there are certainly hold-outs who say they won’t support the presumptive nominee. Still, the party is supposed to be coming back together now, a process expected to culminate in Philadelphia during the carefully-choreographed show of unity that is a presidential nominating convention.
That doesn’t mean accepting what now looks inevitable will be easy. “Of course we’re all sad,” Lopez said, reflecting on her support for Sanders. “He worked so hard and he had the right agenda.” But Lopez still thinks “Hillary is a formidable candidate,” even if the former secretary of state was not her first choice. “She’s talking Bernie’s talk now, which is wonderful. I never really disliked her. I’m not afraid of her candidacy. I think she’s a good candidate.”
Fear of a Trump presidency may do more to knit Democrats together than anything else. Dallas Fowler likens Trump to “the big bad wolf.” Lumm, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Mexico, thinks the Republican Party’s nominee is frightening. “It scares me, because in some people’s minds, he has made it okay to be racist, okay to be a bigot,” she said. “He says horrible things, then people feel brave and think that gives them license to do the same.” Zenaida Huerta expressed a similar sentiment of disillusionment: “For me, what was most shocking is how the kind of hate that fuels the Trump campaign can really be found anywhere,” she said.
Trump, of course, would dispute negative assessment of his character or his candidacy. He has even attempted to style himself as a unifying force. But his candidacy—and the election, in general—has ultimately highlighted deep divisions, and differences of opinion, within the country. When the dust settles on the presidential election, it won’t just be a question of whether the Democratic and Republican Parties are unified, but whether, and to what extent, the nation can come back together.