Sergio Valdez, a 28-year-old former molecular biologist, recently moved back to his hometown of Nogales for the first time since he left for college. And he brought a new set of political beliefs with him.
A pro-life advocate who expresses unwavering support for law enforcement, Valdez said he thinks the city has become too comfortable with its hobbled economic situation, which has led to a population exodus.
He tried putting his politics into action last summer, he said, when he stood outside a local supermarket holding a pro-life sign – until he was asked to vacate the premises.
He also talked to a local Catholic priest about his concerns about local politics. A few days later, the priest introduced him to a group of approximately 25 like-minded individuals. The group, which now has close to 60 members, call themselves the Santa Cruz County Patriots and identify as conservative constitutionalists.
The members communicate via group chat and publish content on YouTube. So far, their public activism has included car rallies and demonstrations in support of Donald Trump’s 2020 re-election effort and the “Back the Blue” pro-police campaign. One of their demonstrations, held late last October at the Mariposa Mall in Nogales, included a confrontation with a group of four people, one of whom reportedly flashed a gun at the demonstrators.
Their candidate lost the 2020 presidential election, thanks in part to Arizona favoring the Democrat for the first time since 1996, and Republicans lost their majority in the U.S. Senate, with Arizona playing a key role in that shift as well. In Santa Cruz County, voters favored Democratic candidates in every partisan local, state and federal race on the ballot except for Superior Court judge, in which both candidates were Independents.
In the aftermath of those apparent successes for the left, the Santa Cruz County Patriots say they have big plans for their conservative grassroots movement, including making inroads into local government. And while they adamantly assert their independence from the Republican Party, their ambition coincides with that of conservative and Republican groups elsewhere in the country, who saw Trump make gains in 2020 in heavily Latino areas of Florida and along the U.S.-Mexico border in South Texas, and are now eyeing Hispanic voters – a traditionally loyal voting bloc for Democrats – as a potential new source of strength for the political right.
A survey by the Pew Research Center estimated that nationwide, 38 percent of Hispanic voters supported Trump in 2020, compared to 28 percent who voted for him in 2016. In Santa Cruz County, where the population is approximately 83 percent Hispanic/Latino, Joe Biden enjoyed his largest margin of victory among Arizona counties in 2020. Even so, Trump’s 31.6-percent share of the local vote last fall was up from the less than 24 percent he received here in 2016.
“I believe that they are conservative they just don’t know it,” Steven McEwen, chair of the Republican Party in Santa Cruz County, said of local voters. “That is where the momentum comes from ... trying to show them that basically we are on their side.”
National to local
According to group members, the Santa Cruz County Patriots developed by word of mouth following the protests against police brutality and systemic racism that swept across the United States after Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd on May 24, 2020.
Group member Marco Antonio Flores, Sr., 71, said he and others feared that the nationwide demonstrations would eventually make their way to the local community, bringing violence and threatening the city’s infrastructure and monuments. In fact, there were several peaceful and well-received demonstrations in Nogales and Patagonia in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
In addition to their suspicion of BLM and fear of groups like antifa, the Santa Cruz County Patriots say they believe in strong border security and pro-life principles, and oppose talk of “defunding” the police.
But now they say they are focusing their efforts more on local issues.
“We have noticed that we have potential,” Flores said. “Back in October, November, we were focusing nationally.”
Their goal, he said, is to start by changing the way people approach voting by becoming individual sources of information for citizens across Santa Cruz County. And they say they plan to do so in a nonpartisan way.
“I’m not going to blame the politicians, I’m not going to blame the leadership. I’m blaming it on the people here who do not take an effective measure to get to know the politics,” Flores said.
Speaking with the NI back in March, Valdez expressed concern with what he saw at home during elections.
“It took my parents five minutes to vote,” he said, adding that politics is a sensitive topic in his household. “I’d rather not assume that everyone here votes the way my parents do, which is with very little information because I view voting as a huge privilege.”
Valdez, who was born and raised in Nogales, said he began questioning the political ideologies he grew up with when he entered college at the University of Arizona. But his desire to make change in his hometown intensified when he was working in New Mexico.
“I’ve been seeing a lot of politicians who are very unqualified at what they’re doing and nobody is holding them accountable,” he said of local elected leaders. “I feel like the only way I can change things is if I get involved in politics.”
Valdez is among the youngest members of the Santa Cruz County Patriots. The 2011 graduate of Nogales High School said that education is his top priority for the community.
“One of the issues I found when I went to college was that my education was a joke … I struggled so much in college,” he said.
Valdez said he envisions himself being part of a school board or working as a school superintendent in the future, but said he wants to prove that he can be successful in other endeavors first. “I want to prove myself so people can take me seriously,” he said.
Another one of the younger members of the group, 19-year-old Allison Hayes, said she also wants to see better educational opportunities in the county. Hayes was homeschooled but said she has seen disparities in the education system while working with local youth through her church.
Her concerns also stem from the absence of higher education institutions in the county, which she said is causing younger generations to relocate to seek better opportunities. “They work in produce or nothing,” she said.
Flores and other older members said they think the stagnant local economy is the issue from which change should begin.
For its part, the Republican Party has been trying for several years now to boost its influence in Santa Cruz County, but with little success so far.
In 2016, the party put up three candidates for the County Board of Supervisors and tried to raise the GOP’s profile on local airwaves and at events like the Independence Day parade in Nogales. They later opened a “victory office” downtown, where a team of young people made thousands of calls to try to sway local voters.
The effort flopped, as all of the party’s local candidates lost by double digits, the incumbent Republican state representative in Legislative District 2 was ousted due to an overwhelming loss in Santa Cruz County, and Trump, running in his first presidential election, fared worse here than Republican nominee Mitt Romney had in 2012.
The party’s share of the registered voters in Santa Cruz County also declined to 16 percent by November 2016, from 17 percent at the time of the 2012 primary election and approximately 21 percent in 2002.
The number ticked up slightly to 16.6 percent in June 2020, then to 16.8 percent as of Monday, according to data from the County Recorder’s Office. (The Democratic Party’s share of local voter registrations had dipped to 49.6 percent as of Monday, from just above 50 percent in 2016 and 2020.)
Valdez said he feels there is a stigma around being Republican or having conservative views in general in the county. But McEwen, the Republican Party chair, said the values of the people in the community align with conservative values.
“I think we all hold those views,” he said. “But I think that possibly, the conservatives have been labeled as something else and we are not.”
McEwen said that while it’s too soon to sort out local candidates for the 2022 elections, the party looks forward to working with the Santa Cruz County Patriots to identify and prepare future contenders.
Still, Flores and Hayes insisted that their members are not set on the idea that they will run for office on the Republican ticket, and said it depends on the nature of the position. (A number of local elected offices, including those at the City of Nogales and Town of Patagonia, as well as on school and fire district boards, are filled via nonpartisan elections). This is how the group plans to “think outside the box,” as Flores put it.
But if the group is to become a player in local political campaigns and elections, its members will likely need to overcome their reticence to stand tall behind their beliefs. It took weeks of coordination for them to agree to participate in this story, and the group made it clear that some of its members or supporters did not want to be publicly affiliated with them. The Santa Cruz County Patriots also refused to identify group members who are considering running for office in Santa Cruz County because, they said, they feared that their mission would be misrepresented.
Asked if their reluctance to talk about their views more openly could minimize their chance of political success, McEwen said he understands why they move with caution.
“First off, they’ve only been in existence for about six months and I’ve seen them do some wonderful things … before I was elected chairman I participated in those things,” he said.
“I think they’re on a learning curve … they are being prudent … they don’t want to go out there and do something that is going to be thrown back in their faces, that’s not how they want to present themselves,” he added.
Getting the message out
Conservatives and Republicans do have one ready-made talking point with which to approach voters in Santa Cruz County: The area has consistently lagged in terms of opportunity and growth, and county politics have long been dominated by Democrats.
Still, for all their complaints about the problems facing Santa Cruz County, the patriots refused to criticize local elected leaders by name, Democratic or nonpartisan.
Francis Glad, chair of the Santa Cruz County Democratic Party, recognized the problems that exist locally, but said a major factor hindering progress in the county is the lack of political candidates, regardless of their party.
Glad said her first encounter with the Santa Cruz County Patriots was during the Independence Day parade in Patagonia earlier this month. But it wasn’t the first time she heard about the group, and she said she’s not surprised by their efforts.
“It became apparent that we were going to have a lot more conservative groups, or actually that conservative groups were organizing much more effectively after the 2020 election,” she said.
Asked for her opinion of the group, Glad was diplomatic, saying she is confident that most people are rational and well informed. But she also expressed some concern.
“I’m concerned that they are getting people to become involved simply because of the level of misinformation that is out there,” she said.
Some Democrats at the national level have pointed to the party’s inability to effectively counter misinformation propogated by the right, as well as ineffective economic messaging and lackluster outreach to voters of color, as problem areas for the party in 2020 that they need to address going forward.
For their part, the Santa Cruz County Patriots are offering few specific details on their plans for the future. But they promise they will get their message out to the community, and they say they’ll do it in both English and in Spanish.
“We can tell you this much … We have been working with different radio stations and we will be putting out subject matter once a month and maybe once a week. Depending on the funding that we have, we might do more,” Flores said. “It’s one of the avenues to help and inform our locals.”
As for Valdez, he said he returned home with a mission. “Patriotism is about staying here and fighting the problem,” he said.