MIAMI (AP) - Annette Taddeo walked to a podium overlooking Miami's Biscayne Bay and described to her audience how she had fled terrorism as a teenager in Colombia and now feared for the safety of her 16-year-old daughter at an American public school.
A blue and bright orange bus behind the Democratic congressional candidate carried this message in Spanish: "A future without violence."
"Latinos are here because of the American dream, and it is really hard to do that when you are worried about your kids' safety," said Taddeo, a state senator who is challenging a Republican congresswoman, María Elvira Salazar.
Few places disappointed Democrats in 2020 as deeply as South Florida. A shift among Latinos toward the GOP contributed to several unexpected losses in House races and helped then-President Donald Trump carry Florida by more than 3 percentage points.
Democrats are campaigning differently this year as they aim to connect the party's priorities to the personal experiences of a group that often feels overlooked in national politics.
The effort comes at a volatile moment for Latinos in Florida. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has attracted national attention to immigration after arranging to fly a group of Venezuelans from Texas to Massachusetts' Martha's Vineyard as part of a state-funded relocation program for migrants who are in the country illegally.
While some Venezuelans and Latinos affiliated with the Democratic party have condemned it as a "cruel stunt," some exiles applauded DeSantis' actions. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a Cuban American, wrote a column in Spanish for a conservative online platform seemingly taking DeSantis' side by raising concerns that migrants crossing into the United States from Mexico could be criminals freed by Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro.
Gun violence, meantime, is a particularly powerful issue in Florida, where two of the deadliest mass shootings in recent years have occurred. Spanish-language media have given wide coverage both to the elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, a predominantly Hispanic area, and to the penalty trial of the shooter who attacked a high school in Parkland, Florida, in 2018.
In an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll conducted in June, 35% of Latinos named gun issues in an open-ended question allowing people to identify up to five issues for the government to be working on in the next year. That compared with 18% in late 2021 and 10% in 2020.
"This topic has risen in the consciousness of the Latino community," said Stephen Nuño-Perez, a pollster analyst at BSP Research firm who researches concerns among Latino voters for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Education Fund.
A gun control group founded by former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who survived a 2011 shooting in Tucson that killed six and injured more than a dozen, chose Florida for a state-specific initiative and selected a slate of candidates to support.
The Giffords political committee gave $15,500 to more than three dozen Latino candidates around the country, and the group has so far invested $1 million in Florida this cycle.
In Texas, ads and billboards have taken on Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, using remarks he made at one of the news conferences after the Robb Elementary school shooting in his state, when he said it "could have been worse" while initially praising the law enforcement response to the shooting. Later it was revealed that nearly 400 law enforcement officers on the scene waited outside more than an hour before the 18-year-old gunman was shot to death inside a classroom.
"It's a kitchen-table issue," said Peter Ambler, executive director of Giffords, the gun control group.
"We think we have a real opportunity, specifically in Florida, where there have been so many high-profile, tragic acts of gun violence, where there is such an epidemic of gun violence, to really shift votes."
Gun violence is killing an increasing number of children in the United States, with 1,562 deaths among those 17 or younger in 2021, according to the website Gun Violence Archive, which tracks shootings from more than 7,500 law enforcement, media, government and commercial sources.
Even though Latin American countries have tough gun restrictions, gun death rates are high as a result of gang violence, which is fueled by illegal firearm trafficking.
For some Cubans, though, gun control is off the table.
Isabel Caballero, a 96-year-old Cuban woman, said she would not support any gun restrictions. In the years after Fidel Castro and his rebels toppled dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, Cubans were encouraged to register weapons and later authorities used a list to go door-to-door encouraging people to turn over the firearms.
"'Guns, What for?' That's what he used to say. People turned them over, and then the only people who had guns were them," Caballero said of Castro and his allies. "Lesson? Do not let them go."
But other Cubans who had arrived later in Miami said they were more willing to support a change, saying they thought it was not right for children to be afraid at school.
"You can find guns everywhere, any place. You have $400 and you can get it. It shouldn't be like this," said Amauris Puebla, who came from Cuba in 1994.
Puebla was playing a game at the Domino Park on a recent morning in Little Havana when Taddeo and Rep. Val Demings, the Democrat challenging Rubio for the Senate, made a stop on the gun safety tour bus.
Demings asked him if she could play. She won.
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