On Monday, July 8, Andrea Cristina Mercado, director of The New Florida Majority, spoke at a Water For Grassroots forum on the theme of belonging, and how that’s reflected in the politics of Florida and the U.S. today.

New Florida Majority is one of Florida’s most effective organizations at voter registration, at expanding the electorate by engaging people who the political system has ignored. The organization was a leader in the effort to win restoring voting rights for felons and is now working to ensure that as many of them as possible register and vote. All donations to NFM in the coming month are funding its voter registration organizing work; you can make your contribution here: newfloridamajority.org/support/donate/

Andrea provided a compelling talk and engaged discussion on organizing for a more inclusive and equal Florida, how to win the state in 2020, and the role New Yorkers can play. More than half of those who came signed up to volunteer in the future.

Below is some of what Ms. Mercado had to say.

“One in five Floridians are immigrants from another country. [But] only one in three Floridians are actually born in the state….So who belongs, in a state where the majority is from somewhere else?

After Hurricane Maria, more than a million Puerto Ricans were displaced, after the island was devastated. And one central Florida elected official responded, not with a welcome center and, and not with a jobs fair or housing information. He said was, ‘We have to get them back to the island as soon as possible, before they change the makeup of the state.’

Does he feel the same way about the 3% of Floridians from Illinois? Or the 3% from Ohio? Or the 4% from Pennsylvania? I’m willing to guess not. And so we begin to move a little bit closer to what’s actually behind the immigration debate. You don’t hear about caravans of elders coming in ‘waves’ and ‘swarms’ or ‘droves’ to the fine state of Florida.

In this last election in 2018, we had one candidate running who was the first Black man running for governor in a state that was part of the Confederacy. And again and again, his main talking point was that he was running for anyone who’s ever been told they don’t belong. And the other candidate campaigned with TV ads showing his infant daughter how to build a wall.

Wall-building won, and he’s about to sign into law one of the worst anti-immigrant bills in the country that will have police defy the Constitution and conscript them into the deportation force and override city policies and turn every stop sign into a checkpoint.

But I think what’s interesting is that this election animated historic turnout. You look at the numbers of people coming out in Florida, passion was running high on all sides. And what gives me hope is that the difference between wall-building, and a state where we all belong, was less than 1%. In a state with over 20 million people, it was less than 30,000. And I think that says a lot about where we are as a divided nation….

Anti-immigrant sentiment [is now] a cornerstone in competing visions for our country: Florida for all, versus a very narrow few. White nationalism versus diversity, or multiracial democracy….

But this is an argument that’s been going on for generations. What is America? Is it a white, Christian nation? Or it is a country where all of us belong – bring me your tired, your hungry, your weak?… What’s being debated is not the minutiae of immigration policy….That’s not the debate that we’re having, it’s not a policy solutions debate….No, we’re debating who belongs in this country. Fundamentally, who is this country for? And that’s a question as old as the Langston Hughes poem that says, ‘America never was America to me.’

It’s reaching a new and different fever pitch. The philosophy of white nationalism, the belief that national identity should be built around white ethnicity, and that white people should maintain a demographic majority and dominance in the nation’s culture and political life. It’s not just an idea that’s rearing its head –it’s emerged from chat rooms into the streets of Charlottesville, into shootings in Charleston and New Zealand and Pittsburgh and San Diego. And the mail bomber from south Florida –my home – who used the same post office that kept thousands of mail-in ballots from being counted in our midterm elections. It’s a dangerous ideology that’s infiltrating all levels of our government.

And this narrow vision of who belongs, who’s truly American, mainstreams white supremacy and argues for an ethno-state where it’s white men that hold power and privilege. And it’s not that they don’t believe that people of color don’t belong. It’s that in their eyes, we belong in the back of the bus, in the back of the kitchen, in the fields.

I’d like to say loudly and definitively, we’re not going back. Our cultures are too beautiful, our contributions are too great, our vision of the future is too vibrant to allow it to be taken away.

While stirring racial anxiety in the face of changing demographics might be their strategy to hold onto power, increasingly, everyday Americans hunger for a society in which we all belong.

And when we bring people together across difference, we build a new majority of inclusion and understanding. We might not bring everyone along. But for those of us who believe in the promise of democracy, in the vision of liberty and justice for all, this is our shared purpose.”

Thanks to Andrea, the groups that joined Water For Grassroots as co-hosts (Downtown East for Progress, Indivisible Brooklyn, Get Organized BK, Center for Popular Democracy), and everyone who came.