by Anne Bruno
Photograph by Aaron Pinkston
Cristina Tzintzún Ramírez
Founder and Executive Director, Jolt
The day I meet Cristina Tzintzún Ramírez at the offices of Jolt, an initiative she founded to engage young Latinos in Texas’ democratic process, the feeling of calm before a storm is in the air. It’s less than a week before the highly anticipated midterm elections, and I comment on the amount of work in front of her over the next few days. “We definitely have a lot more to do before Tuesday,” Tzintzún Ramírez says, referring to Jolt’s aggressive block-walking campaign. “But right now, I’m working on some events coming up next month.”
Acting now and strategizing for the future is the modus operandi for one of Texas’ most accomplished grassroots organizers. And if the nonprofit she founded can deliver on the holy grail of voter turnout in Texas — the Latino vote — there’s no doubt about it, a shock to the system (as the organization’s name implies) will take place.
“In November of 2016, my husband and I had recently moved back to Texas from Washington, D.C. I was six months pregnant and working out the details for the launch,” Tzintzún Ramírez says. “It was supposed to happen the following spring, but by the time the election happened, it was clear we couldn’t wait.”
Using a network model of student chapters and young-adult unions (members range in age from 16 to their mid-30s), Jolt is growing fast and gaining national attention for events like its Quinceañera at the Capitol, a co-celebration of Latino family bonds and resistance against Texas Senate Bill 4, often called the “show-me-your-papers law.” The buzz on social media attests to the organization’s momentum and member commitment. Tzintzún Ramírez expects the number of Jolt groups scattered across the state in big cities like Houston as well as smaller communities like Tyler to reach 20 by year’s end.
Jolt’s ultimate goal is to achieve government representation that is actually representative of the state’s population: At about 40 percent today, with a total population close to 11 million, Latinos are expected to make up the majority of Texans by 2030.
“We’re talking about the future of Texas. Developing leaders and getting young Latinos engaged in democracy is key,” Tzintzún Ramírez says. “Over the next decade, half of all Texans turning 18 will be Latinos. These are voices that need to be heard … on the decisions that affect their lives, now and going forward.”
Tzintzún Ramírez is well-qualified to focus her attention and considerable energy on such a far-reaching issue. She grew up in Ohio, the child of two cultures, with an immigrant mother from a poor farming family in Mexico and what she calls a white hippie father with Texas connections. A self-described nerd in high school, she immersed herself in books about social movements and civil rights activists before coming to Austin to attend the University of Texas, where she graduated with a degree in liberal arts and Latin American studies. Tzintzún Ramírez’s husband is a DACA recipient who came to the U.S. when he was eight; his citizenship had not yet been legalized at the time they married.
While still a student at UT, she co-founded the Workers Defense Project, a nonprofit that advocates for the rights and fair treatment of low-wage workers in Texas, most of whom are immigrants, many undocumented. In 2015 she left the organization, having grown it from a volunteer staff and “a box of nice brochures” to a powerful initiative with a multimillion-dollar budget that helped to pass a host of state and local laws.
“When I was younger,” Tzintzún Ramírez explains, “I used to think I was just speaking up for my mother and other people like her. But at WDP, I saw all these children of the workers — who were just like me — and I realized I was actually advocating for our future. I could see the power of children of immigrants and that no one was tapping into it.”
The results of this year’s midterm elections prove that Tzintzún Ramírez’s work is already paying off. Young voters, Latinos in particular, turned out in record numbers. Early vote estimates show that the youth vote rose about 470 percent and the Latino vote grew more than 200 percent.
“Policymakers have failed in Texas — when there’s no shame about the fact that Texas ranks last in voting,” she says. “How can someone be OK with the fact that they were elected by only a tiny percent of the people they’re supposed to be representing?”
For Tzintzún Ramírez, Jolt is the answer to that question and holds the power to flip the switch on status-quo politics in Texas for good.