To be Latino during an election season can feel like landing on a movie set of a suspenseful, high-stakes drama. It’s a story of contradictions. You are a star of the show — Latinos are projected to become the largest, nonwhite racial or ethnic electorate in 2020 — but it is usually set to a predictable, one-note soundtrack: “immigration, immigration, immigration.” An audience of pundits dissects the “Latino vote,” while advocates recite well-rehearsed lines: “Latinos are not a monolith. Ignoring the Latino vote will cost candidates at the polls.”
And perhaps the only reason the Latino vote narrative captivates political writers, pundits and especially candidates is because they want to know: “How does the story end?”
Sure, action sequences turn on whether Democrats can rally Latinos or whether an incumbent president, whose political emblem is a border wall, has alienated Latinos who vote for Republicans. But it’s a story that comes down to the question: Will they show up on Election Day?
The answer depends, in part, on whether our stars feel like heroines on camera or specimens under a microscope, and whether they feel they are part of the US electorate or outsiders: “them,” “the other.”
“It matters a great deal, especially for those who are not politicized who have not developed an interest to engage or desire to engage with politics.”
“It matters a great deal, especially for those who are not politicized who have not developed an interest to engage or desire to engage with politics,” said Angela X. Ocampo, author of the forthcoming book, “Politics of Inclusion: A Sense of Belonging and Latino Political Participation.”
Before our stars became Latino voters, say researchers and voting rights advocates, daily experiences informed their enthusiasm for casting a ballot. To reach the ballot box, Latinos often must first traverse a battlefield of messages from the political left and right that casts Latinos as the perennial outsider. They will have shielded themselves from media coverage often portrays Latinos as rootless newcomers and asks that all-too-familiar question: “Where are you from?” Which presumes that the answer is: “Not here.” They will have faced a barrage of rejecting encounters, with nearly 38% of Latinos reported to the Pew Research Center in 2018 that they had been told to “go back,” chastised for speaking Spanish, or been on the receiving end of offensive slurs in the previous year. They will have pushed through the psychological impact of violent events, such as the 2019 mass shooting in El Paso, which was provoked by racist backlash against Latinos as a growing political force in Texas.
“After that terrible event, we were left at the mercy of a fear created for us,” writes Ilia Calderón, a national news anchor for Univision, in her new memoir, “My Time to Speak: Reclaiming Ancestry and Confronting Race.” The fear extended far beyond El Paso or Texas, beyond Mexicans and Mexican Americans, reaching Calderón, an Afro Latina thousands of miles away in Miami and but to Latinos across the country.
“We already had to deal with how the color of our skin makes some look at us a certain way when we walk into a store, what it means to be a woman walking around certain areas at certain times, but now we have to add our papers, last names, or nationality to the mix,” Calderón said.
From these experiences, “many Latinos in the U.S. learn that their standing in the U.S. social fabric is limited and below that of others,” writes researcher Ocampo, adding that it holds true for people whose roots run generations deep, or who arrived decades ago and raised their children.
A sense of belonging — meaning, how society perceives you — along with feeling respected and valued — can be powerful forces to mobilize or discourage voting. In his eulogy for the late civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis on July 30, former President Barack Obama said a central strategy to voter suppression is to convince people to “stop believing in your own power.”
Though Latinos possess a strong American identity, researchers have found Latinos register a lower sense of belonging than whites but slightly higher than Blacks. And given the nation’s racist hierarchy, Latinos, who can be of any race, with darker skin have a more tenuous sense of belonging than lighter-skinned Latinos. In 2018, the Pew Research Center found that following the election of Donald Trump, 49% of Latinos had “serious concerns” about the security of their place in the US. The implications can be significant. Ocampo found that a strong belief in belonging to US society can change the probability of voting by up to 10%, translating into tens of thousands of votes.
Demographics, though, seem to have little effect. Even in a state like Texas, where Latinos will soon become the largest demographic, they are underrepresented in nearly all areas of leadership. A forthcoming, statewide study by the Texas Organizing Project about Latinos’ relationship with the electoral system turned up a solid strain of unbelonging, particularly among working-class Latinos in urban areas.
“We are an ‘other.’ We still feel it,” said Crystal Zermeno, director of electoral strategy for the Texas Organizing Project.
That perception becomes a challenge when trying to convince eligible voters that the ballot box belongs to them.
“A lot of times working-class Latinos, they feel like voting is for other people. It’s not where they belong.”
“A lot of times working-class Latinos, they feel like voting is for other people. It’s not where they belong.”
Political campaigns may run on promises of better access to health care, tighter border security and help with college tuition. But to get the message across, candidates and parties need to make an authentic connection.
“I needed to make an emotional connection with an old, angry, white, Jewish man from Vermont [Sanders] with a demographic with an average age of 27, to say, ‘I understand your plight,’” said Chuck Rocha, a senior adviser during Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign effort to turn out Latino voters and recently released the book, “Tío Bernie: The Inside Story of How Bernie Sanders Brought Latinos into the Political Revolution.”
Sanders’ immigrant roots may have opened a door. But the connection comes from communicating, “You are part of our community and we’re part of your community,” Rocha said.
Belonging, or at least the semblance of it, is a tool that Republicans use — including President Trump. With Trump’s “build that wall” chant; fixation on border security, and derogatory references to asylum-seekers and other migrants, Trump has drawn clear and powerful boundaries on belonging. Contained within his rhetoric, rallies and campaign videos is a choreography for performing American identity, patriotism and citizenship.
“Who do you like more, the country or the Hispanics?” Trump asked Steve Cortes, a supporter and Hispanic Advisory Council member, during a 2019 rally in Rio Rancho, New Mexico. During his 2020 State of the Union Address, Trump momentarily paused his typical vilification of asylum-seekers and other migrants to recognize one Latino: Raul Ortiz, the newly appointed deputy chief of the US Border Patrol — a servant of surveillance.
“He’s putting forth a clear version of what it means to belong and not to belong and who is a threat and not a threat,” said Geraldo Cadava, author of “The Hispanic Republicans: The shaping of An American Political Identity from Nixon to Trump.”
In the long term, Cadava says, Trump’s strategy is untenable because of the demographic direction of the nation. But in the immediate term, it is meant to rally his base and solidify support among voters in key states. Inviting Robert Unanue, CEO of Goya Foods, a major food brand favored by Latinos, to the White House in July, provoked backlash when the CEO praised the president. Still, for Latino Republican voters, it suggested that the White House is open to them.
This, combined with a weeklong, Hispanic outreach campaign that centered on promises to play up Latino business opportunities, in the eyes of Trump’s supporters, Cadava said, “he looks like a perfectly electable candidate.” It’s an image tailored for an existing base, which stands in contrast to the scene of Trump tossing rolls of paper towels to survivors of Hurricane Maria.
Overtures of belonging can also be seen in a move by Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican of Texas, who is up for reelection, to co-sponsor legislation to fund a National Museum of the American Latino. But advocates warn such messages ring hollow when matched with policies. Cornyn, a Trump supporter and lieutenant to Sen. Mitch McConnell, has aggressively backed repealing the Affordable Care Act even though his state has the highest uninsured rate in the nation — 60% of the uninsured are Latino. With news coverage of Latinos generally centered on border and immigration issues, and 30% of Latinos reported being contacted by a candidate or party, according to a poll by Latino Decisions, the lasting image is likely a photograph of a museum. This may explain why Cornyn is 10 points behind his Democratic challenger. To this, some say Democrats have failed to summon a vision of the nation that includes Latinos.
“We [Latinos] are part of the America, the problem is we haven’t made them part of the public policy and politics of our country because we don’t spend the time to reach out and make the connection to that community.”
“We [Latinos] are part of the America, the problem is we haven’t made them part of the public policy and politics of our country because we don’t spend the time to reach out and make the connection to that community,” said Rocha, who led a campaign by Sanders that scored record turnout among Latinos.
Missing in American politics for Latinos is “a showman, somebody who stands up and who isn’t afraid of consequences to stand for our community the way [Trump] stands for racist rednecks. We haven’t seen that.”
Left is a roadmap of patriotism, of citizenship that positions Latinos in a neverending border checkpoint, not located in South Texas or Arizona, but built around the notion of an American.
“There are these tests being administered to see where these people are going to fit in the greater scheme of things if we have to deal with them,” said Antonio Arellano, acting executive director of Jolt Institute, a voter mobilization organization in Texas. “Patriotism can be displayed in many different ways, this administration has tainted nationalism by dipping it into the red cold racist filled paint that has been emblematic of America’s darkest moment in history.”
In a scathing opinion piece for The New York Times, Alejandra Gomez and Tomás Robles Jr., co-founders of Living United for Change in Arizona (LUCHA) accused political leaders of deserting Latino Arizonans, leaving them as scapegoats to a right-wing political agenda that was built on excluding and attacking immigrants and Latinos.
“The thing is, people want community. They want to belong to something that helps them make sense of the political world,” they wrote. “But they don’t trust politics or Democrats because both have failed them.”
While unbelonging may drive some people from the polls, it can also be a mobilizing force.
Following the 1990s’ anti-Latino and anti-immigrant campaign in California, that resulted in policies, such as denying education and housing to undocumented imigrants political groups harnessed the outrage and pain among Latinos in that state. In the 2000s, facing deportation, the young Latinos known as the “Dreamers” transformed their noncitizen status into a political asset and became a reckoning force across the nation. Millennials, in particular, reported to Ocampo their outsider status was a catalyzing force for political participation.
LUCHA and other advocacy groups have provided something candidates and parties have not: belonging. “We are reminding them and they are true leaders in our community, creating spaces to be themselves authentically in the world,” Gomez told me.
These advocacy groups have become a political force in Arizona, backing progressive candidates and galvanizing Latinos, not by stoking party loyalty but as “independent power organizations,” Gomez told me. In a state where Latinos are nearly a quarter of eligible voters, LUCHA and other groups helped roll back anti-immigrant laws and elected community leaders and Democrat Kyrsten Sinema to the US Senate by promoting a platform created not by a party, but by their community.
In late summer, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, made belonging a central feature in “The Biden Agenda for the Latino Community.”
“President Trump’s assault on Latino dignity started on the very first day of his campaign. … Trump’s strategy is to sow division — to cast out Latinos as being less than fully American.”
“President Trump’s assault on Latino dignity started on the very first day of his campaign. … Trump’s strategy is to sow division — to cast out Latinos as being less than fully American,” it says.
Biden’s agenda includes a host of policy offerings including a public option for health care, immigration reform and addressing climate change. It remains to be seen if that’s enough, if the strategy will amount to policies wrapped up in an anti-Trump message. And this brings to mind a critical point that Rocha made about appealing to Latino voters: Latinos changed Sanders himself, by courting them he gained a more complete portrait of the nation. Belonging, after all, is reciprocal.
Come Election Day, whether someone coming off a double shift or mourning family members who died in a pandemic, or a student facing down a deadline for a paper will take a few hours — Latinos stand in lines that are twice as long as whites — a ballot cast will be the end result of a long journey, an epic drama that began long before a campaign season.
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