That the immigration dilemma was virtually ignored during CNN’s town hall in Iowa last night can only have one of two explanations: first, the establishment media doesn’t believe immigration is as important to Latinos as it likes to report, or second, the establishment media doesn’t think the Latino vote will be much of a factor in Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucus next Monday. Perhaps the folks over at CNN have read the 2014 Pew study which stated more than half of Latino voters say they would vote for a candidate who held an opposing view on immigration. The same study showed education, jobs and health care were higher priorities for Latino voters than immigration reform. Yet, as the indomitable Julio Ricardo Varela noted in a November 2015 piece on Latino USA, “there is no denying that even if immigration might not be the top issue, U.S. Latino voters still think it is important that some form of comprehensive immigration reform get passed soon.” And while immigration may not be the top issue among Latino voters, I doubt the establishment media knows that. As far as the likes of CNN are concerned, the Latino vote is one big taco-eating, tequila-drinking, Spanish-speaking, salsa-dancing, sombrero-wearing, maracas-shaking — may I stop now? — monolith.
Which brings me to the second reason for ignoring the immigration issue. Latino voters — or, more specific, Latinos eligible to vote — are a small percentage of Iowa’s total electorate. The League of United Latin American Citizens estimates that about 200,000 Iowans will participate in Monday’s caucus. Meanwhile, only about 1,000 Latinos caucused in 2012. It would seem the establishment media has every reason in the world to believe Latinos won’t be a factor this year in Iowa — or anyplace else, for that matter.
In every other year since 2004 I’ve written about how, despite past turnout rates, Latinos were going to shake up the world and finally show up at the polls in numbers. Yet every other year since 2004 Latinos have disappointed everybody by doing what they always do: staying home. In the last elections, in 2014, Latino voter turnout was more than 10 percent lower than the statewide averages. Black voter turnout has surpassed 55 percent since 2000, while Latino voter turnout hasn’t reached 50 percent since 1992. The Latino population has doubled since 1992, yet Latinos have failed to capitalize on their growing numbers by marching to polls on Election Day. I’ve been aware of the trend since 2004, though it has never stopped me from calling on Latino readers to register and vote every election year. I’m not stupid, just hopelessly optimistic. “I can’t be a pessimist,” James Baldwin memorably admitted, “because I’m alive.” As a living, breathing Latino American — a Latino of and in the United States — I’m compelled to believe U.S. Latinos possess within themselves the power to control their own destinies and the destiny of their people. If I believed otherwise, I would stop writing on the spot. (Then again, writing being the daemon that is, I’d probably keep on writing even while the ship goes down.) I want to believe that voter turnout among Latinos will finally surpass 55 or even 60 percent (blacks and whites vote at a rate somewhere in the upper sixties), but experience tells me not to hold my breath. After all, having seen the sun rise and set every day of my life, I’d be a fool to expect something different tomorrow.
Seeing as Latinos won’t vote again this year, the question is: why? I have two theories. One has to do with fatalism. The other is tied to the immigrant mindset.
Even atheist Latinos such as myself are all too aware of the phrase Si Dios quiere, a mantra which insinuates itself into every action and plan of action taken up by a Latino. Whenever I start charting a future course, either for the coming week or the coming year, some old-school Latino is usually there to check my ambition with a “Si Dios quiere.” At first glance the phrase sounds like a harmless expression of humility, but it’s much more sinister than that, since to implies that nothing is possible without the approval of a supreme being, and that this celestial version of Abraham Quintanilla already has a plan and his will is destiny. You get a good whiff of fatalism whenever you hear the average Latino on the street talk about the 2016 election, which they seem certain Hillary will win. Most Latinos still don’t understand what all the debating and campaigning has been about when, in their minds, Hillary need only pick up the White House keys from her former boss and future predecessor.
The fatalism argument falls apart, however, when we observe how tirelessly Latino workers work and Latino students study. If Latinos truly believed their lives were part of some divine plan, they wouldn’t break their backs or wrack their brains in hopes of advancing themselves, and yet, break their backs and wrack their brains they do, all the time, everywhere. Plus Latino fatalism can’t be the reason voter turnout is so low, considering voter turnout is high throughout much of Latin America itself, where most of Latino culture and customs originate. In fact voter turnout in Latin America towers over the overall U.S. turnout rate. Then again, voting is required by law in many Latin American countries, so maybe those governments know more about their citizenry than U.S. Latinos are reluctant to admit.
Another tether of the Latino-American mind is the notion of not only being an immigrant and, therefore, a newcomer to the United States, but also a guest. Many Latinos perpetuate this idea that the United States doesn’t belong to Latinos but belongs to white people (they may have a point there, unfortunately). How many young Latino boys and girls are told by their elders to keep their heads down, not make too much noise, not trouble the waters, and be grateful for whatever little they manage to receive? (Even one of the most hardworking Latinos I know, a friend’s mom, talks of her paycheck as though it were an allowance, as though she didn’t earn that money and wasn’t deserving of it and much more. And whenever her check arrives, she’s quick to add: “Gracias a Dios.” Too many Latinos are blissfully the same in this regard.) The immigrant mindset is what instructs most Latinos to be happy simply living in a country as safe and generous as the United States, and that petitioning the U.S. government to reform society in anyway is pushing one’s luck and wearing thin the welcome. Let the güeros decide who runs things, caution our papas and abuelitos. In the end, Latinos will get by as they always have — a huevos.
Still, a growing sliver of Latino population isn’t having any of it. These Latinos, whether they believe in a god or not, mold their own destinies and believe the United States to belong to them as much as anyone else, regardless of whether they are fifth-generation neomexicano or just took the Oath of Allegiance last week. They always vote, at all levels of government… even in primaries and caucuses… and in midterm election years, too. Some of them were the 1,000 Iowa Latinos who caucused in 2012, knowing full well they were part of a negligible minority. These Latinos vote because, though others may ultimately decide the fate of Latinos, these Latinos refuse to go quietly into the teeth of the system. They vote because they know voting matters, and that the Latino vote would matter more if more Latinos voted. They vote because, should the tug of war over immigration reform, multiculturalism, health care, economic justice, criminal justice and other important issues be lost, they don’t want anyone to be able to say it was because they dropped the rope.
Whether this minority of voting Latinos will grow large enough to one day be a majority, I have my doubts. But I’m optimistic.
Hector Luis Alamo is a Chicago-based writer and the deputy editor at Latino Rebels. You can connect with him @HectorLuisAlamo.