What is often referred to as the “Latino vote” is merely the propensity of political and media elites to fault Latino voters for not abiding by their expectations, even as actual Latinos delivered critical votes to preserve democracy itself. Few moves capture the political theater inherent to the mirage of a unified “Latino vote”—the term used to simplify the nation’s second largest racial/ethnic electorate—than the obsession with Latino men who supported the president. It’s all to the exclusion of Latinas in Arizona, Texas, North Carolina, and elsewhere, who marshaled a political force and built an electoral wall of reckoning.
For decades, the illusion of a “Latino vote” represented the facile container for a multi-racial ethnic group that includes people whose roots in this nation predates borders or whose heritage can be traced to countries from the Patagonia to the Caribbean. Advocates, journalists and political scientists have repeated, at near mantra-levels, that Latinos are not a “monolith.” But “Latino vote” persisted into the 2020 election, revealing less about Latinos and more about the presumptuousness of “Latino vote” adherents whose response to the electoral force of Latinos resembles the discovery of a new species—distant, confused, and fetishizing.
The news about Republican gains among Cuban and Venezuelan voters eclipsed the reality that a diverse bloc of Latinos backed Democrats. Why? Because in the “Latino vote” model it was seemingly inconceivable that immigrants or their children would send their votes to a president who built his political brand by demonizing immigrants. But before they were immigrants or the “Latino vote,” many Florida Latinos, specifically Cubans and Venezuelans, belonged to the privileged class in their countries. To reach the U.S., they didn’t cross a desert. They traveled business class.
In the 2020 election, the singular feature of the “Latino vote” effect is its usefulness in papering over the failures of a political class of liberals and Democrats.
“It’s easy to see why immigrants with privilege would identify with more conservative positions,” said Eduardo A. Gamarra, professor of political science at Florida International University. What’s more, some South Florida voters had a long history of backing Republicans, having sent Ileana Ros-Lehtinen to Washington for decades as their representative. The Republican gains were also attributed to a disinformation campaign that equated a Democratic president with socialism and communism, ideologies that many voters had fled. Largely ignored were the reports that Democrats failed to formulate a response, and in the end, many areas of Florida with the highest rates of enrollment in Obamacare voted for the candidate who would axe it. “It’s a hard thing to explain why they would voluntarily exchange some social service for really nothing,” said Gamarra. Republicans traded on dreams, successfully catalyzing ideological fears within a nationalist version of the much-cherished American fantasy, with no response among Democrats.
In the 2020 election, the singular feature of the “Latino vote” effect is its usefulness in papering over the failures of a political class of liberals and Democrats by redirecting attention to Latinos as a source of morbid curiosity, all the while selectively omitting facts that exposed their failures.
After Mexican-American voters in Zapata county, a rural border county west of the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, backed the Republican president for the first time in a century, the very narrow margin of victory triggered intense debate with commentators, who often misidentified the county’s location, peddling well-worn theories of rosary-clenching social conservatives. Meanwhile, the “Latino vote” skipped over my home county, Jim Wells, some one hundred miles across the brush country to the north, and the neighboring Duval—counties that were the involved in the infamous box 13 scandal that cinched Lyndon B. Johnson’s victory for U.S. Senate in 1948. Jim Wells went red.
News reports regularly referred to Zapata as a poor border county—32 percent of residents live in poverty, one of the highest levels in Texas—but it is also among the counties with the highest rates of employment tied to the oil and gas industry in the nation. In interviews with people across South Texas, every person told me that the Republican president’s false claims of reviving oil and gas production, in the midst of a global slump, had spread like brushfire on social media, rallying voters. Their reports were echoed in the conclusions from a local informal poll. Drilling in the region had dried up, sending workers to distant oil patches.
Lost was the complicating factor that in the 2020 election, Zapata split the ticket, going blue in the U.S. Senate race. Missing was the inconvenient fact that Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist, nearly took Zapata in the primary and Jim Wells and won neighboring Starr and Duval, ranching counties where the major November event is the beginning of deer hunting season. Lest such outcomes seem an aberration, in the March primary, Jessica Cisneros, an immigration attorney who supported Medicare for All, the Green New Deal as a jobs program and received backing from the Justice Democrats, came within some 2600 votes of unseating Rep. Henry Cuellar, an eight-term incumbent backed by the party establishment.
Instead of an electorate wooed by extreme conservatism, the seemingly incongruent results suggest that the Democratic platform wasn’t progressive enough in a region where Latinos, mainly Mexican-Americans, are concentrated in the working class.
“I don’t believe the Democratic party speaks on class issues or worker issues,” said Jose Jimenez Jr., the former field director for the Sanders campaign for South Texas, “and it enables workers to feel seen and heard with hot button issues like Second Amendment and oil and gas.” Sanders backed the Green New Deal, but his climate change message, said Jimenez, centered on creating renewable energy workforce, appealing to people who wear steel-toe boots and coveralls to work.
Going into the election, economic anxieties in the region were heightened. South Texas has registered the highest rates of Covid-19 infection in the nation. A recent poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health estimates that 72 percent Latino have experienced “serious” financial hardships during the pandemic, higher than any other racial or ethnic group. The “Latino vote” narrative fails to ask why Democrats were unable to leverage the wholesale bundling of a Covid-19 response in a state with the highest rate of uninsured in the nation, and where Latinos make up 60 percent of the uninsured.
Republicans traded on dreams, successfully catalyzing ideological fears within a nationalist version of the much-cherished American fantasy.
Instead, Sen. John Cornyn (R), who backed the repeal of Obamacare, rode into South Texas like a cacique to claim credit for federal Covid-19 funding and walked away with the endorsement of some one hundred elected officials and power players. In the simpleton vision of the “Latino vote,” that detail is eclipsed by voters who said they backed Republicans because the president signed their stimulus checks. Reductionism, however, knows no partisan divide. In the familiar savior narrative, Hillary Clinton carried South Texas because of her experience registering voters in the region nearly fifty years ago. Given that the average Texas Latino is in their late twenties, another contributing factor may well be the backing by the political elite. In the “dirt poor” border county of Hidalgo, Clinton raised nearly $1 million for her first presidential bid through construction magnate and bundler Alonzo Cantu. In 2020, Cantu backed Cornyn.
Meanwhile, the expectation that Mexican-American voters are predestined to vote against a xenophobe reflects an assumption and perception that Latinos are, by definition, immigrants. Strict liberal racial debates leave little room for the many Latinos in South Texas and south Florida who live in majority-Latino towns and regions and who, like me, first confront perceptions of themselves as a “minority” when they leave. Finding this corruption-as-racism requires peering deeply into Democratic strongholds where the business class keeps their televisions tuned to Fox News and conservative talk radio dominates. Its insidiousness makes it possible for a congressional candidate, Beth Van Duyne, who pushed anti-Sharia laws and defended the arrest of teenager Ahmed Mohamed after school officials mistook his digital clock for a bomb, to receive the endorsement of the state’s leading newspaper over Candace Valenzuela, her progressive Afro-Latina opponent.
Systemic inequalities can explain why one of the counties with highest rates of poverty and few employment opportunities can simultaneously be home to workers for billion-dollar multinational corporations. It requires a political education to draw a connection between a racist immigration policy and a South Texas economy built on the backs of Latino workers—all the while underinvesting in education and ensuring a steady supply of those backs. A recent report commissioned by the Texas Organizing Project (TOP) Education Fund studied the political culture of Texas Latino voters, and non-voters and found they “lacked the language and the frameworks to make sense of their experiences as structural or systemic racism.”
Without those connections, Republicans can construct their own mirages. “Republicans never talked about racial impact of policy or how the structural racism in many policies that exist,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, professor of political science at the University of Houston and author of the report “Six Myths About Texas Latinx Republicans.” “They talk about post racial economic matters that are attractive to individuals that are moving into the middle class.”
Such a racial context is equally useful for those who are tempted scrutinize and pathologize voter choices narrowly through Latino “culture” and “identity,” while ignoring the machinations of power. After all, campaigns and elections are, if nothing else, one of the most potent refractors of power itself.
Democrats, pollsters, and advocates have minimized the losses, rightly pointing out that South Texas represents a small percentage of Texas Latino voters. Lurking behind these voting numbers are well-established Republican party ground operations in South Florida and in South Texas, including the Koch Brothers-backed Libre Initiative. After the 2016 election, a Democratic strategist identified the party’s “lazy, complacent” Democrats who represent Latino-majority districts in Texas and do nothing to increase voter turnout. Many of those identified districts hemorrhaged Latino voters in 2020.
If the losses serve a purpose it is to underscore the monumental achievements of grass roots groups behind electoral gains in Texas and the historic electoral shift in Arizona—groups that matched and exceeded Republican efforts, and succeeded with little backing from liberals and Democrats. Significantly, the Biden/Harris ticket received more votes than Hillary Clinton four years ago with record turnout in metro areas where those groups operate—with nearly 80 percent of Latinos backing Democrats, according to an analysis by UCLA’s Latino Policy and Politics Initiative.
Instead of corralling the “Latino vote,” they created “independent power organizations” uniting working-class Latinos in coalition with African Americans to define their platform, select candidates who represent them, and draw connections between systemic racism and inequality. Not only did groups such as Mi Familia Vota, MiGente, Voto Latino, and TOP register and mobilize voters, their year-round organizing made it possible for them to fill the message vacuum found in South Texas and Florida. In the election run-up, TOP, a Black and Latino progressive grassroots organization, sent mailers to voters in Dallas, Harris, and Fort Bend counties reminding them that 55 percent of the state’s Covid-19 deaths were Latinos. On the eve of election their outreach included circling back on solid voters to make sure they weren’t forgotten.
The historic voter turnout in Harris County which exceeded 1.6 million votes built on down ballot victories, including backing the successful reelection of a reform-minded district attorney, that addressed voter concerns about criminal justice. Two years earlier, TOP and other groups began dismantling the barriers to voting by backing renegade Democratic candidate, Lina Hidalgo, who became the county’s top elected official. An interim pro-voting county clerk was appointed and this election, Harris County established over 800 voting locations, easing voting in the toughest state to cast a ballot.
True to form, after the election, adherents of the “Latino vote” began analyzing how Latinos “failed” Democrats, ignoring the consequential impact of Latino voters.
In Arizona, grass-roots organizations harnessed the fear and anger from decades of relentless political attacks on Latinos, immigrants, and citizens that resulted in “show me your papers” law, efforts to eliminate ethnic studies in public schools, and strict voter I.D. laws. A coalition group including Living United for Change in Arizona, LUCHA, backed a successful minimum wage ballot measure in 2016, helped lead the effort that successfully defeated anti-immigrant Sherriff Joe Arpaio along with officials responsible for voter suppression. In this election, they helped secure passage of a ballot initiative to raise state income tax funds for education.
On election eve, when Latinos and Native American voters in Arizona were making history, Alejandra Gomez, co-executive director of LUCHA in Arizona, brushed off the notion of “flipping” the state saying that electoral change came from a decade of conversations that began in convenience stores and laundromats. It came from backing candidates who committed to eliminating voter suppression practices and expanding access. “We did not wait for Arizona to become a battleground state,” she said. “We made it a battleground state.”
True to form, after the election, adherents of the “Latino vote” began analyzing how Latinos “failed” Democrats, ignoring the consequential impact of Latino voters and, unsurprisingly, crediting Democratic gains to white voters. On election night, I asked Crystal Zermeño, TOP’s director of electoral strategy, if such narratives represent an attempt, including by some Democrats, to diminish triumphs of Black and Latino voters. She chuckled darkly and said, “they don’t track it and then they don’t know what to do with it.” To do so would mean abandoning mirages filled with fantasy Latinos and instead redrawing a winning map.