Trump’s Appeal to Latino Evangelicals: One Pastor’s Conversion Story


On a recent Tuesday evening, two teenage boys approached their pastor, Camilo Perez, before Bible study. They wanted his take on a debate that had been gnawing at them. Their friends from a local public high school had been talking about discrimination against Latinos. Did the pastor agree? Does the government give white people more power?

“No, no, no. That’s not true. We are not in oppression. Everybody here has the same rights,” Mr. Perez recalled telling the boys in a mini-sermon that hit on some of his favorite themes: freedom in the United States, scarcity and repression in Latin America and the dangers of what he views as liberals’ notions of victimhood.

“This is an agenda against the country,” he told them. “They are trying to put confusion in your mind, and they are trying to bully you to be against your country, against everything.”

It was not the first time the pastor’s counsel was more worldly than spiritual. As he ministers to a growing flock of 250 families in the dusty suburbs of Las Vegas, Mr. Perez has transformed from a leader who rarely acknowledged politics to an eager foot soldier in the cultural and political battles in his adopted country.

It is a path traversed by a growing number of Latino evangelicals, a group that is helping reshape and re-energize the Republican coalition. Long the party of white, conservative Christian voters, the G.O.P. has for years quietly courted Latino religious leaders like Mr. Perez, finding common ground on abortion, schools and traditional views about gender roles and family.

Donald J. Trump is now reaping the rewards of that work. Polls show his support among Hispanic voters hitting levels not seen for a Republican president in 20 years. If he wins the White House, he will have people like Mr. Perez — little-known figures with underappreciated power — to thank.

It is hardly a predictable position for Mr. Perez. Nearly 20 years ago, he was a recent immigrant from Colombia, just building his flock with backyard barbecues. Now, his church, Iglesia Torreón Fuerte, hums with activity, with pre-dawn devotionals, a private school and Christian theology classes that stretch past 10 p.m.

He lives in a tidy, middle-class subdivision in a suburb he idealizes as a glittering land of opportunity. Leading Republican candidates seek him out. He has met Mr. Trump three times.

Mr. Perez has come to view Democrats as a threat to all of this, and Mr. Trump as its imperfect, but tireless, guardian. Weak and corrupt governments in Latin America have made him appreciate politicians who emphasize law and order and capitalism, he says. He once recoiled at Mr. Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and crude language. Now, he believes it is not meant to apply to law-abiding immigrants like himself.

Yes, as Mr. Perez counseled the teenagers, he conceded that there was a history of racism in the United States, “but not anymore.” After all, Barack Obama had become president, a Black man reaching the pinnacle of power. Mr. Perez even voted for him.

Mr. Perez first saw Las Vegas in a vision he had as a young man. His father, a pastor for a large congregation in Medellín, encouraged him to begin preaching even as a child. Another pastor from Guatemala came to visit and was impressed by the young man. He would go on to lead in a big city, the pastor told him, where he would be a light in the darkness.

Mr. Perez pictured a desert with a skyline sparkling with colorful lights.

He went to college, married a preacher’s daughter and was working in a ministry in Puerto Rico in 2006 when a pastor called from Las Vegas asking for help with his youth ministry.

When Mr. Perez arrived, he immediately recognized the skyline.

The youth ministry job fizzled out within months, but Mr. Perez found work as a union carpenter. Many of his co-workers were Mexican immigrants, or their parents were, and they marveled at how different Mr. Perez seemed. They asked him about his optimism and his decision to stay away from alcohol, Mr. Perez said. He invited them over for a carne asada cookout on the weekend. He promised dancing but no beer.

The gatherings became weekly events, and soon they were ending with a prayer. Attendance grew rapidly. They moved from homes to hotel conference rooms and took on a name: Torreón Fuerte, Strong Tower.

Nearly everyone had grown up nominally Roman Catholic but had not attended church in years. In a city that often seemed devoid of fellowship, the group offered community. People traded tips on parenting, job-hunting and obtaining loans.

Luis Oseguera, then in his late 30s, saw Mr. Perez as a model father and husband. That kept him coming back.

“What the pastor said, I wanted to do,” he said after one recent early-morning prayer service for men. “It was like he gave us hope, to understand there was something beyond our problems and where we had come from.”

Politics rarely entered the conversation. Like most of the congregants, Mr. Perez considered himself a Democrat almost “automatically,” he said, because everyone he knew was one. He voted for Mr. Obama because he was excited by his promises of a new era of unity, and saw his victory as a sign that the country could move past its differences.

“We were hopeful,” he said, noting that the hope faded fast, especially as Nevada’s economy sank. “That was the last good Democrat.”

Soon after Mr. Perez found a permanent home for the church, in an industrial park in Henderson, a suburb south of the Las Vegas Strip, he and his wife, Rebeca, began making plans for a school.

He had begun to clash with the secular world. When he tried to set up “Good News clubs,” where he could pray with children after school, most public schools rebuffed him. His son said a teacher had asked skeptical questions about the family’s religious practice and long days at the church, Mr. Perez said. He was uncomfortable with his children being taught by gay and lesbian teachers.

“We are a conservative family, but they were against religion and against our families,” he said.

Opening their school was fairly simple: Charter school and voucher advocates had allied with Republicans in the Nevada Legislature to make it easier. The Perezes settled on a bilingual curriculum that infused Christianity into almost every lesson, including grammar and biology. A four-day weekly schedule gave students Mondays off to spend with family, because Sundays were consumed by church activities.

The Strong Generation Christian Academy opened as a private school in 2019 with about two dozen students. Six months later, when the Covid-19 virus hit, the school was forced to move to remote teaching.

Mr. Perez said he initially saw the closures as necessary to protect elderly congregants. But when the state allowed shopping centers, but not churches, to reopen, he became incensed.

“They will silence us — that’s what I really saw happening,” he said. “We needed to do something.”

Mr. Perez connected with other evangelical pastors and cheered on a successful lawsuit by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian legal group, that accused Steve Sisolak, then the governor of Nevada and a Democrat, of placing harsher restrictions on churches than on casinos and shopping centers.

“The country changed — it abandoned the commitment to God and to family — because we were not paying enough attention,” Mr. Perez said. “We try to separate politics and religion and the Bible and everything, but it is impossible.”

Mr. Perez had been inching closer to Republican politics for a few years. In 2016, he and other community leaders met Mr. Trump during a campaign stop. Mr. Perez urged the candidate to dial back his derogatory language on immigrants.

“You need to stop talking about us like this because we are humans,” he recalled telling Mr. Trump. “You can’t generalize. And if you don’t stop doing this, the community will never support you.”

Mr. Perez backed the idea of strict border enforcement, but he wanted Mr. Trump to distinguish between immigrants who commit crimes and those who simply work to support their families.

Mr. Trump smiled and listened politely but did not respond. Still, Mr. Perez left feeling like he had been heard. He voted for Mr. Trump that November.

A few years later, the pastor was invited to Tennessee for a meeting with Ralph Reed, the chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition and a key figure in drawing evangelicals to the Republican Party.

Over time, Mr. Perez became persuaded that Mr. Trump and his party were empathetic toward law-abiding Latino immigrants. He is skeptical that, if elected, Mr. Trump will follow through on the mass deportations he has promised.

In Mr. Trump’s bluster, Mr. Perez hears echoes of strongman leaders who have recently won elections in Latin America — and he welcomes the tough tone.

“We see problems all over, from the countries we come from to here,” Mr. Perez said, pointing to gun violence and abortions as examples. “We want order, strength. People want to feel sure that they have some protections, that things aren’t out of control and things are going to get better.”

Earlier this year, he was again invited to meet Mr. Trump ahead of a Las Vegas campaign rally. The two men embraced, he said, and Mr. Trump briefly prayed with him and other pastors. This time, Mr. Perez offered no admonitions.

Mr. Perez has invited Republican candidates to speak at his church, and Republican groups have sponsored voter registration drives there. But he rarely talks about politics from the pulpit.

Each Sunday, more than 200 people crowd into the darkened sanctuary, its stage backlit with a bright screen and a colorful spotlight. Worshipers sing along in Spanish to thumping music, raising their hands in adoration.

His sermons are full of pragmatic advice: Make time for family dinners. Ask your spouse what kind of help they need. Pray together.

“We have to be growing at every moment in our lives,” he told the crowd on Easter Sunday.

Erica Perez, 42, sat toward the back, her Bible open along with a notebook, furiously taking notes as the pastor spoke. (Ms. Perez is not related to the pastor.)

About a decade ago, her husband met another man at Home Depot who invited their family to church. Taken in by the community’s warmth, they immediately became regulars. They turned down an opportunity to move to a larger home in the suburbs so that they could stay closer to the church.

“He has made a massive difference in my life and given our family a grounding we did not have before, with guides, with morality,” Ms. Perez said.

After years as an undocumented immigrant, Ms. Perez expects to obtain citizenship soon. She says she will most likely vote for Republicans.

“Before I went to church, I was kind of neutral about politics,” she said. “Now, I would say I feel the responsibility of voting. Things like abortion and legal drugs go against what we as Christians believe.”

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