The summer after Colin Rogero’s freshman year in high school, a group of white upper-classmen began spreading the word that, as a Latino, Rogero was not welcome in town.
“Whether they were rednecks or not, they were certainly playing the part,” Rogero recalled of his tormentors in 1992, who he noted sported cutoff T-shirts and boasted of their chewing-tobacco consumption.
Rogero, the grandson of Cuban immigrants, had recently moved with his family from the city of Miami to the Broward County suburb of Coral Springs, where he was one of the only Latino students at his school. Thanks to his speed, he quickly won a spot on the high school football team as a running back.
Walking home from football practice one summer afternoon with his cousin, Rogero saw the group of xenophobic white teenagers trailing him in a black Toyota pickup with hi-riser-style wheels. They yelled threats at the two boys, whom they called “the gangsters from Miami.”
Rogero quickly went into running-back mode, bolting down the street as fast as he could, his cousin close at his heels. After hopping the palmetto bushes that lined the main road and cutting through several streets by way of people’s yards, they jumped into a canal and swam to another cousin’s house, where they took shelter for the rest of the day.
“They would have hurt us had they caught us, but they weren’t able to,” Rogero recalled.
Nearly 25 years later, the incident would become the germ of a minute-long video advertisement, “American Nightmare,” that Rogero, a partner at the Washington, D.C.-based political advertising firm 76 Words, produced for the Latino Victory Fund, a pro-Democratic political action committee.
The Latino Victory Fund commissioned the hard-hitting ad in order to inspire Virginia residents, especially Latinos, to vote for gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam, who went on to win last week.
In the ad, released Oct. 30, a diverse group of young children ― including a Latino boy and a Muslim girl in a headscarf ― flee menacing white men in a pickup sporting a Confederate flag and a bumper sticker for Northam’s Republican opponent, Ed Gillespie.
The brief video spot immediately provoked a barrage of attacks from right-wing media outlets and Republican politicians who claimed Democrats were unfairly painting Gillespie and his supporters as violent white supremacists. Some Democrats even sought to distance themselves from it.
Just a day and a half after the ad went on the air, the Latino Victory Fund took it down from television, its website and social media accounts. The group maintains that the withdrawal of the ad was not a response to the uproar but rather a decision to err on the side of sensitivity after the terrorism-motivated truck attack in New York City on Oct. 31.
In the following days, controversy over the ad became one of several flashpoints that anxious Democrats worried would muddle Northam’s message in the final stretch of his campaign.
Northam’s comfortable win and the Democratic Party’s overall strong performance, boosted by a spike in Latino turnout, effectively put the lie to those fears.
But until now, Rogero, 39, has not revealed that the polarizing spot was rooted in his own experience.
“There’s a little bit of the artist in every piece of their work. That was true for me in this particular case,” Rogero said.
Rogero’s cousin George Fernandez remembers the day that his cousins swam across the canal and popped up in his backyard, soaking wet in T-shirts and shorts. The canal, more than 100 feet wide, was known by locals as a lake.
Fernandez’s grandmother said she thought she saw an alligator in the water, but as the figure came closer, it became clear that it was Rogero swimming over.
“I was, like, ‘Dude, what are you doing?’” Fernandez remembered. “He told me the whole story about rednecks chasing him in the truck.”
It was not hard for Fernandez, who is about the same age as Rogero, to believe. He had encountered similar harassment. And the following year, a group of white men beat Fernandez senseless while calling him a “spic.”
“They were just a bunch of rednecks,” he said of the town’s Latino-hating bullies. “That’s all they did ― just messed with people like us. For no reason, they would just chase us.”
There’s a little bit of the artist in every piece of their work. That was true for me in this particular case. Colin Rogero, 76 Words political advertising firm
Two and a half decades later, the country is more diverse than when Rogero and Fernandez were growing up. With strength in numbers has come more acceptance in some parts of the country.
But for many Latino Americans, Donald Trump’s election revived fears of vigilante violence and harassment.
“We have got a president who started his campaign, on the first day, by attacking our community, calling us rapists and thieves, who has since surrounded himself in the White House by white supremacists and has since put our community in the crosshairs,” said Cristóbal Alex, president of the Latino Victory Fund and a veteran of Democrat Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
The murder of a progressive activist at the hands of a white supremacist in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August heightened anxiety about the climate that Trump has helped engender with race-baiting rhetoric.
Then Gillespie’s gubernatorial bid poured gasoline on these fears. In an attempt to appeal to Republican base voters, Gillespie, the consummate establishment Republican, leaned heavily on racially tinged ads that played to the xenophobic side of Trump’s populism.
With the help of graphic and misleading imagery, Gillespie’s campaign warned that Northam would free convicted sex offenders, take down Confederate monuments and implement permissive immigration policies that would enable the Salvadoran gang MS-13 to murder, rape and enslave young women more frequently.
Looking at a private poll that showed lackluster enthusiasm for Northam among minority voters, the Latino Victory Fund’s Alex began to worry that Virginia’s Latino voters were insufficiently attuned to the stakes of the contest. And if Gillespie won using the Trump playbook, Republicans could duplicate his efforts in other states, a prospect Alex dreaded.
“Our team decided that when Gillespie decided to run these very anti-Latino and anti-immigrant ads that we needed to respond with something powerful,” Alex said. “We wanted to portray the feeling in our community and our neighboring communities, immigrant communities, about what that fear really looks like.”
In late September, Alex approached Rogero to discuss the development of an ad that would frame the campaign as a referendum on racially incendiary rhetoric and the violence it is capable of inspiring.
Alex’s inspiration for the ad was a bad dream about white supremacist violence, which he said featured xenophobic violence of the kind the ad portrays. Rogero never told him about his experience.
The final product contained a combination of both of their ideas. At the end of the ad, the minority children wake up in their beds; the men in the pickup chasing them were just a nightmare. The children’s parents arrive to comfort them and the camera shows them watching television footage of white supremacists marching in Charlottesville with tiki torches.
“Is this what Donald Trump and Ed Gillespie mean by the American dream?” the ad’s narrator asks.
Once the ad went live on Latino Victory Fund’s Twitter and Facebook pages, it quickly went viral, racking up 1 million views, according to Latino Victory Fund. A video about the ad created by the progressive news outlet NowThis was viewed 1.3 million times.
Latino Victory Fund purchased a $50,000 test-run of the ad in Spanish on Telemundo and Univision on Oct. 30. But given the free exposure the ad got on television and the internet, the group felt no need to make a larger buy.
Right-wing media outlets had a field day with the video, giving it wall-to-wall coverage, even as they, and the Gillespie campaign, condemned it for unfairly smearing Gillespie supporters as racist. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders denounced the ad for “stoking political racism.”
“Ralph Northam would not have run this ad and believes Virginians deserve civility, not escalation,” a Northam spokeswoman said.
The Latino Victory Fund believes that, even though it was on air for only a short time, the ad helped motivate Latinos to vote for Northam.
The organization points to election eve polling conducted by the Latino Decisions firm showing that Latino voters who had seen ads connecting Gillespie to racism were 50 percentage points more supportive of Northam’s bid than those who had not.
Statewide, Latinos made up 6 percent of voters, an increase from 2013, when they constituted 4 percent of voters, according to exit polls. And in precincts where one-third of voters were Latino, Latino turnout went from 33 percent in 2013 to 38 percent this year, according to an analysis by the Virginia Public Access Project.
One reason Rogero’s story might not have come out until now is because so many people of color and other minorities have had experiences like his. No one needed to tell them that it was inspired by real events.
“When I saw it, I’m going to be honest with you, I had chills over my body, because it put, in a nut, the experience of many immigrants in this country,” said Virginia delegate-elect Elizabeth Guzman, who won the race to represent Virginia’s 31st House District with the backing of the Latino Victory Fund.
Guzman immigrated to the United States from Peru 20 years ago and at times has felt unwelcome, she said.
But the ad also resonated with her because of the experiences of her friends and colleagues. The day the ad came out, one of Guzman’s black campaign volunteers fled a white neighborhood in her Prince William County district after a man in a truck chased after him, according to Guzman.
“When I saw that ad, I immediately felt connected,” she concluded. “It was intense. I could say it was extreme, but it was real.”