Since the 1980s—dubbed the “Decade of the Hispanic”—every major election cycle brings the breathy declaration that the Latino vote will be decisive in selecting the next U.S. President. But after nearly every election, the post-mortem is “not this time,” leaving many to wonder when and whether that “Hispanic” decade will ever come.
Of course, hope never dies and neither does the eager anticipation that the Latino moment is finally upon us. It’s helped along this political season by the reaction to the vitriol spread by Donald Trump. Latino anger about the rhetoric is apparent in the polls and in daily life: piñatas of Trump, ready to be whacked, are selling well in the Southwest. Equally apparent is the potential for this to translate into payback: Latino naturalizations are on a sharp rise, assisted by organizers hoping to turn anger into votes.
But will a wave of naturalization actually change the results of the elections? Will Latinos—a term that encompasses Puerto Ricans in the Northeast, Mexican-Americans in the West, Cubans based in Florida, and a host of nationalities scattered throughout the United States—actually act as a group? What about younger voters, particularly millennials, perhaps less steeped in identity politics and more scarred by the recent economic crisis?
Even if Latinos do come together across groups, geographies, and generations, do they actually live in places where their numbers can sway results one way or another? And with Republicans being the only side to have offered up Hispanic candidates—Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio—can we really assume that the Latino vote will be aligned with a progressive agenda?
So much potential, so many questions, and so much at stake not only for Latino America but for the future of progressive politics.
Understanding the current state of Latino politics requires going back to the upheaval of the 1960s—and the interplay that developed between left-wing movements and the Democratic Party. Latino activists in that decade fought against school segregation and neighborhood neglect, and for farm worker rights and educational equality. Mexican-American radicals formed the Raza Unida Party, less important in its impact than in its symbolism, while a group of young Puerto Rican leftists organized the Young Lords, which often worked with African Americans to advance “community control.” Revolution was in the air and Latinos were not immune from its allure.
But there was also a strong connection with the Democratic Party. Throughout the 1960s, many Mexican-American homes in the Southwest had pictures of John and later Robert Kennedy abutting those of Jesus and the Pope. Some movement activists played both sides: Edward Roybal cut his political teeth in the 1950s working with the same Community Service Organization (CSO) that trained Cesar Chavez before becoming, in 1962, the first Latino Congressman elected in California in the twentieth century.
The Republican Party competed for Latino allegiances too. Having adopted a “Southern Strategy” that tapped into white anger but also alienated black support, Richard Nixon and his allies wanted to woo a different and growing minority constituency. The Nixon administration was the first to adopt the term “Hispanic” and to collect data on the group. The administration also encouraged the formation of Latino-owned businesses for whom the GOP’s embrace of free markets might have appeal. But it wasn’t just a matter of growing a new base: underlying the GOP effort was an attempt to separate Latinos from African Americans not just in the data but in the politics of the times—and left-leaning organizers countered by emphasizing the interwoven fates of both groups.
The Democratic Party had its own response to the Republican effort, facilitating the formation of Latino political institutions and promoting rising Latino office-holders. In 1976, both the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the National Association of Latino Democratic Officials were formed. In 1978, the latter was renamed the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), a bipartisan nod to what was still a strongly Democratic constituency. New Hispanic (and Democratic) heroes emerged: in 1981, the charismatic Henry Cisneros was elected mayor of San Antonio, spearheading reforms that tamped down community protest while he aligned with business and helped to strengthen the local economy. Until a sex scandal damaged his image in the late 1980s, Cisneros was considered a favorite to be the first Hispanic vice-presidential candidate.
The “out of many, one” frame represented by NALEO was a bit of an historical stretch: linking Mexican-Americans with Puerto Ricans and Cubans was initially embraced more by the emerging political elite than by activists who often retained a fierce attachment to their own national origins and local struggles. But the pan-Latino project was soon boosted by a fierce new opponent: anti-immigrant politics.
Immigration issues have always roiled Latino politics—but not always in the ways observers expect. Prior to the 1970s, key Latino political organizations, such as the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), had actually been opposed to “illegal immigration.” Even after virtually the entire Latino civil rights infrastructure shifted away from restrictionist policy, immigration was still viewed as a bit of a side issue since Latino political power was inevitably connected to those who could vote—that is, U.S. citizens.
Another nuance complicated immigration as a “Latino issue”: it did not fit neatly into partisan politics. After all, labor-friendly Democrats were often among those most worried about immigrant competition and most opposed to reform. While a generation of immigrants may not have replaced their pictures of Robert Kennedy with those of Ronald Reagan, many older Mexican-Americans warmly recall how the Republican president’s Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 granted “amnesty” and a path to citizenship for many of their friends and family members.
However, a slow but steady turn away from the Republican Party—and a reset for Democrats—came with the 1994 battle over Proposition 187 in California. Pushed by GOP governor Pete Wilson, who stoked nativist anxiety in his campaign for reelection, the Proposition sought to strip all access to public benefits, including public education, from any immigrant lacking legal status. It was widely perceived as a broad attack on all immigrants and all Latinos—and it contributed to a grassroots embrace of a pan-Latino identity.
Let me share a personal example. My Dad was born in Cuba and migrated to the United States in the 1930s. When the Second World War came, he faced a choice between deportation and joining the army to fight in Europe. After earning his citizenship and the vote through his service, he eventually became the perfect Latino swing voter: he voted for Reagan in 1980 but for Jesse Jackson in the 1988 Democratic primary and then for Obama in 2008. My father always proudly and distinctively called himself a Cubano, but Prop 187 led him to declare himself “Latino” as well.
The odious proposition, which was later ruled unconstitutional, forced a generation of Mexican-American political figures in California and elsewhere to declare their allegiance to immigrant rights. Tensions continued over tactics: some continued to criticize protestors waving Mexican flags, while others hailed a return to the movement activism of the 1960s. But the new consensus was clear: in California, Latino leaders began to steadily promote naturalization and amass political power until not a single Republican held statewide office.
That the Golden State’s battle over immigration would have broad national implications should have been expected: after all, California was home to one-third of the nation’s Latinos in the early 1990s. Hoping to counter the drift away from the GOP, Republicans in other states, including Governor (and soon President) George W. Bush in Texas, adopted a more immigrant-friendly tone. After securing at least 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in his reelection bid in 2004, he returned the electoral favor by proposing comprehensive immigration reform. The reform effort failed, and while Democrats helped scuttle the deal by objecting to guest-worker provisions, the GOP took most of the blame. In 2008, Barack Obama captured more than two-thirds of the Latino vote over John McCain. Four years later, Mitt Romney’s suggestion that undocumented immigrants should simply “self-deport” did much to drive his share of the Latino vote below 30 percent.
Republican officials responded with a post-mortem that suggested a lighter touch with immigration might help the party regain its ground with Latinos. But when the 2013 Senate immigration bill stalled in the House of Representatives and then House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his 2014 primary to an anti-immigrant Tea Party candidate, the dye for 2016 was cast: the Republicans would run as the party of the wall, Democrats would portray themselves as the facilitators of reform, and observers of Latino politics would wonder whether this would finally be “the year of the Hispanic.”
How does the history of Latino politics illuminate its present?
First, while polls almost always suggest that Latinos rank immigration below other issues such as the economy and education, immigration has become a litmus test: threatening to deport family members is simply a non-starter. This is historically novel; the early days of Latino politics were more like traditional ethnic politics, focused mainly on the native-born and their shot at political power. But partly because of the now larger number of mixed-status households, the racialization of the immigration issue, and the tendency of the naturalized to vote at higher rates than the U.S.-born (54 percent versus 46 percent in 2012), today’s politics are driven as much by issues raised by Dreamers as by those raised by third-generation Latinos.
Second, Latino politics may have roots in community organizing and movement building, but it’s also never been too far from the Democratic Party either. Such proximity is, for better or worse, likely to continue. The Republican Party has tried to be competitive—look, we have Hispanic candidates!—but its actual base has hardened in the form of Tea Party adherents and Trump aficionados fearful of demographic change. Republicans could make a comeback in the Hispanic community—and the Koch brothers are funding the so-called Libre initiative to do just that. However, the rhetoric unleashed by this election could essentially have the same effect as California’s Prop 187, locking party alignment for a generation or more.
Third, pan-Latino identity, once the result of a sort of strained political imagination, is increasingly real. There are many reasons for this, including the advantage to Spanish-language media (like Univision and Telemundo) of constituting a single group for purposes of efficient marketing. But Latino voters also sense the underlying racism in anti-immigrant appeals and Latino politicians see the power in collective numbers. Even Cubans—particularly the younger cohort less shaped by exile politics—have begun to see their lives as increasingly “linked” to a larger Latino fate, including on immigration. One anecdotal example of this solidarity: arguably the nation’s leading Latino political figure on immigration, Luis Gutiérrez, is Puerto Rican, a group that, by virtue of being U.S. citizens by birth, is not directly affected by the travails of a broken immigration system.
Fourth, the growing numbers of those who identify as pan-Latino also increasingly identify as nonwhite. This was not foreordained: many assumed that Latinos could gradually assimilate, becoming more like Italian Americans rather than African Americans in terms of how they integrate into American society. Indeed, this was the political basis for the Republican project—widening the circle of whiteness to let another potentially anti-black group in. But demonizing a group of people can prompt them to reassess their political allegiances—and recent research suggests that the longer Latino immigrants live in the United States, the less likely they are to identify as white. It seems that something about the American experience of race just knocks the whiteness right out of you.
All this should be good news for progressives. Latinos are movement-oriented and Democratic stalwarts, making them ripe for new forms of integrated voter engagement. They increasingly identify as a single group and increasingly reject attempts to separate themselves from African Americans, cementing their role in the nascent “Obama coalition.” Moreover, getting it right on a single key issue—immigration—can open up a conversation with Latinos on many other issues, such as the economy and education as well as climate change (Latinos, at least in California, poll more favorably on environmental issues than do their white counterparts).
Unfortunately, both progressives and mainstream Democrats tend to be somewhat complacent, convinced that minority constituencies will come to them. This is partly because they believe in the merits of their own goals (income redistribution and job growth will do the trick!), partly because they sense there are few other avenues available (really, you’ll vote for the GOP?), and partly because some still see the white working class as the most important swing vote (which it seems to be these days but mostly in terms of explaining the rise of Donald Trump in the Republican primaries).
This has often led to what some observers call “hispandering” by Democrats: dangling cabinet appointments, offering up Spanish-language one-liners, and listing things candidates have in common with our abuelas (yes, Hillary did do that, prompting a #NotMyAbuela hashtag campaign in response). Of course, the Republicans have gone one worse, offering up candidates with Spanish surnames who promise not just to stall immigration reform but to actively deport neighbors and friends. Both approaches can lead to the disillusionment of Latino voters—especially young Latino voters—who already lack faith in the nation’s political institutions.
What is needed instead is deep engagement and a long-term plan to develop the Latino base. One sector that has made this investment in recent years is labor. Part of this is pure self-interest: in the 1990s, the Justice for Janitors campaign, among others, made clear that mobilizing immigrant Latino workers, once viewed as competitors to union labor, could lead to new types of organizing. SEIU and others have continued that effort, with one of the newest campaigns focused on organizing and promoting the interests of (often immigrant) home-care workers. Extending the reach into Latino constituencies just makes demographic sense: with projections suggesting that Latinos will comprise one third of the U.S. workforce by 2050, unions are going where growth is likely.
Unions and labor institutions that have gotten this right, wedding growing Latino worker bases with electoral strategies, have become political kingmakers, a tag that is regularly given to the Culinary Union (UNITE HERE 226) in Nevada and is certainly appropriate for the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. Along the way, labor has had to shift its tune on immigration policy: the AFL-CIO and SEIU (in addition to other member unions) were part of the fight to pass the latest iteration of immigration reform in the Senate, in contrast to previous positions taken as recently as 2007. A telling bit of evidence of the labor-Latino alignment: what was once celebrated as a worker holiday, May Day, has now been rebranded as a day pushing for immigrant rights.
While there are some hopeful signs, the general story is that the latent political power of Latinos goes underutilized and unrealized for a series of reasons. The first is the age of the population: the median age of Latinos is twenty-eight, versus forty-three for non-Hispanic whites, and the gap is twenty-three to forty-three if we focus our attention just on Latino and white citizens (U.S.-born or naturalized). The second factor is, of course, citizenship: while Latinos constitute roughly 15 percent of all adults in the U.S. (and more than 17 percent of all residents), they are likely to form only 12 percent of all voting-age citizens in 2016.
You might assume that this fall-off from all adults to all potential voters happens because Latinos are such a large share of immigrants, particularly the undocumented—but that’s only partly true. Yes, Latinos are about three-quarters of the undocumented and nearly 60 percent of all non-citizen immigrants. But the most striking fact is that Latinos are over half of the nearly 9 million individuals who are eligible to naturalize but have not yet crossed that threshold into civic participation.
It is little wonder that the usual cast of Latino mobilizers, such as NALEO, the National Council of La Raza, Mi Familia Vota, and Voto Latino have all included a focus on naturalization, and are joined by newer actors such as the National Partnership for New Americans and the Latino Victory Foundation. Partly as a result, naturalizations in 2015 were up by 11 percent from 2014 and seem to be accelerating. While an upswing is normal as an election year arrives, the 2016 naturalization “blitz” (as many have coined it) is also capitalizing on the political climate, particularly the reaction to Trump, and finding a remarkably receptive audience even among those who were once dissuaded from seeking citizenship by high fees and tough tests.
But stepping up citizenship will not be enough. Even with the right to vote, registration and turnout rates often lag; for example, although Latinos are nearly 11 percent of all voting age U.S. citizens, they form only 8.4 percent of voters. Indeed, overall Latino turnout as a percent of all eligible Latinos was more than sixteen percentage points below that of whites and blacks. Some of that is a shortfall in the turnout of registered voters but the majority is due to persistently low registration rates. In response, NCLR has launched registration efforts in targeted states (especially Florida, Colorado, Nevada, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina) and it and Voto Latino have partnered with Mitú—a Latino multimedia outlet—to target Latino millennials. Univision, the top-rated Spanish language network in the United States, is leveraging itself and its subsidiaries to get out the word, with the goal of registering 3 million new Latino voters by the election.
Will it work? NALEO, a stalwart in the Latino engagement arena, is predicting that the turnout for Latinos will be 17 percent higher than in 2012. The challenge will be to make sure that happens not just in California, New York, or Texas—states so blue or red that increases will barely affect local, let alone national, politics—but in exactly the swing states that NCLR is now targeting. All that may make a difference for 2016.
The larger question, especially for both progressives and mainstream Democrats, is what happens after the election. The Trump phenomenon masks the challenges ahead. The fact that his net favorability rating among Latinos is a startling negative 64 percent might help the Democratic Party secure the presidency, and the taint he will leave on the Republican Party is likely to scare away Latinos for a while (as did Mitt Romney, with far less odious comments). But winning against Trump is not the same thing as devising a winning Latino strategy for the long run. As my friend, political commentator Van Jones, said at a meeting of progressive advocates this spring, just because the other side is stupid doesn’t make us smart—it just makes us lucky.
So what do we need to do for a smarter future?
First, we need to really trust the emerging “New American Majority” so many are talking about. In the 2014 midterms, the president was advised to put off any further executive actions on immigration reform because of the likelihood that this might cause blue senators in red states to lose their jobs. They lost anyway—and in places like Colorado, activating the Latino vote through a commitment to immigration reform might have actually saved, not cost seats.
Second, while we need to accelerate naturalization, we also need to emphasize efforts to engage Latino youth. The millennial generation constitutes a whopping 44 percent of all Latino eligible voters, as compared to 35 percent of black voters and 27 percent of white voters. Currently, the number of Latino youth attaining eligibility to vote because they had turned eighteen is roughly three times as many as those Latinos attaining eligibility through naturalization—800,000 Latino youths coming of age as compared to about 250,000 newly naturalized Latino citizens each year. While stepping up naturalization is important, given the current slowdowns in immigration, particularly from Mexico, this imbalance in favor of U.S.-born youth is likely to grow.
Third, securing that youth engagement will require articulating issues in a sharper way. The popularity of the insurgent Sanders campaign with young voters is mirrored by its success with younger Latinos. Indeed, contrary to the usual stereotypes, a spring 2016 Field Poll of California voters showed Sanders with a larger margin over Clinton with Latinos under forty than with whites under forty. But it is also the case that Obama’s 2008 campaign was viewed more favorably by younger Latinos—and this suggests that the explicitly progressive tilt of both candidates (at least while campaigning) can work, particularly given the culture of political mobilization that has seen a resurgence with the generation of Dreamers and their allies.
Fourth, we need to recognize the centrality of the black-Latino alliance—if only because the conservative and Republican project in this arena has been all about separation. More to the point, the identification of Latinos as “people of color,” while confusing to some who have focused more on skin tone than on politics, contributes to an interwoven identity that feeds into a broader set of solidarities. Putting more resources into inter-group organizing efforts, particularly in our urban areas and in the South, where the two groups live in close proximity, will be key.
Finally, we need to couple our attention to race and immigration issues with a focus on economic justice and economic growth. Latino poverty rates are roughly similar to those of African Americans, and both are suffering from an economy that has under-delivered on jobs and wages. While politically engaging Latinos requires that we tackle the challenges of immigration status, educational inequality, and housing insecurity—both to improve lives and to gain trust—the broad working-class economic agenda that has been so central to progressive politics is clearly resonant and necessary.
And it will work. While in college, I and others organized urban boycott activities for the United Farm Workers. As a bit of a reward, we were once given the opportunity to meet in a small group with Cesar Chavez. For a young Latino student, it was the rough equivalent of seeing Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, and, well, Cesar Chavez, all rolled into one. Eager to meet my Hispanic hero, I was struck that the concerns he expressed were not wrapped up in ethnicity but in justice and the need to address shared human suffering.
What is often missed in the discussion of Latino politics is that it is fundamentally about the future of the United States—and not just because of impending demographic shifts. This is a group, from a range of national origins and across skin color, that has developed a common identity. Latinos both value hard work and expect the government to provide a structure in which they can succeed. It is, in short, a group that is central to demonstrating and practicing the intersectional solidarities and working-class loyalties that will allow progressive politics and policies to thrive in the United States.
Dr. Manuel Pastor is Professor of Sociology and American Studies & Ethnicity at the University of Southern California and the director of the USC Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration.
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