An earlier version of this post appeared on Commentary & Cuentos.
Up to this point I have enjoyed or at least been mildly entertained by Hillary Clinton’s Hispandering. Part of it has to do with the fact that she has hired a cadre of creative, adept and incredibly talented Latinas who craft her Spanish-language, Latino-directed messaging. Her team all but hides Clinton’s ignorance of Latinos in their carefully crafted cloak (dare I say rebozo) of biculturalism. They turn phrases: “I am not La Hillary, but tu Hillary.” They make homages: Clinton walked onto stage to none other than the “Queen of Tejano music,” Selena, at an event in San Antonio. They tweet in Spanish, participating in #RetroJueves or showing how to say “Go Hillary” in various Spanish dialects. They forge iconographies: Clinton’s posters at events in Texas evoked images of Eva Perón, to an audience of U.S.-Latinos who might not be familiar with the actual historical person but are certainly familiar with the musical, sans Madonna or with her. Her team has wrapped her in the cultural symbols of the community she desired to reach. (Sidenote: If you want to know why La Hillary is doing better with Latinos than Bernie Sanders, one reason is that Clinton hired U.S.-Latinas not just immigrant rights activists.)
— Latino Rebels (@latinorebels) October 21, 2015
But today, my amusement with her pandering to the Latino community stopped.
Clinton traveled to Mountain View College in southwest Dallas, an impoverished and majority-minority area of a town most famously associated with the iconoclastically Texas stereotypes of big hair, big oil, big trucks, and big money. Yet, this part of Dallas stands apart. Dallas is 29 percent white, 25 percent African American and 42 percent Latino. The poverty rate is 24 percent across the city, but most of those areas are concentrated in the southern and western parts of the city — the very communities that Mountain View services. These areas are disproportionately poor and minority, and MVC reflects that in its population. The student population of MVC is 49 percent Latino, 27 percent African American, and 16 percent White.
MVC students tend to be first-generation college students and many first-generation Americans. They are products of the Dallas Independent School District, a district mired in corruption and inefficiency. There are at least 35 elementary, middle, and high schools with the ranking of “need improvement” by the TEA school rating system. The DISD has largely failed these students. In a state where only 1 in 4 high school graduates leave high school with college-ready skills, there are more than a few MVC students who cannot write a complete sentence. Many students enter the college classroom without the requisite analytical and academic skills needed to succeed. The students are hardworking, but in jobs with little future. They have jobs, but lack careers. To say that all of these students are perfect would be disingenuous, but their personal problems pale in comparison to the structural failures that plague them and their families. The data paints a picture of dramatic inequality that is not merely anecdotal but structural and systemic.
Clinton chose to speak at MVC over a plethora of other options in Dallas because of its “diversity” — a word with multiple and nefarious meanings. She gave a generic stump speech that could be given to any crowd across the nation, from white voters in Iowa to minority college students in Texas. There was nothing uniquely crafted to the audience she sought, but some talking points were rearranged. As she entered to great applause, she quickly jumped into a rote monologue on higher education, explaining that she wanted to craft a system where you can “go as far as your hard work and talent will take you.” She then told the working-class crowd that she will be at the center of rising incomes and the American dream. After a brief interlude on defense in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, she quickly returned to what she believed would be the crowd pleaser: comprehensive immigration reform. She prefaced her remarks on immigration reform with an anecdote about registering Latino voters in the 1970s in South Texas, telling the crowd she spent lots of time in Texas. She concluded the immigration portion of her speech with a celebration of American diversity as a pillar of American strength.
The problem with selecting a specific audience, but not tailoring your speech to that audience, is that it rings completely hollow. How does spending time in the Valley 50 years ago equate to cultural and political familiarity today? The problem with empty paeans to a largely imagined, shared immigrant past is that it only serves to obscure the shifts in policy and power in the late 20th and early 21st century. Her rhetoric on higher education did not address that higher education is more expensive than ever before and that not all institutions of higher education are equal. Clinton did not mention the student protests emerging across the nation.
— Los Angeles Times (@latimes) September 12, 2015
Elite four year institutions have largely given up on mid-20th-century goals of racial equality and integration, and retreated into a strange neoliberal diversity in which minority students are valuable for the kinds of educational value they can provide for white students. And when minority students call out their universities, places they too cherish and value, they are called over-sensitive. She did not mention that most Latino students attend community colleges, institutions with single-digit completion rates. In a study by the National Center for Educational Statistics and the National Survey on Earned Doctorates, of the 26 out of 100 Mexican-American students who attend college, 17 go to a community college. Only one of those 17 will transfer to a four-year college. Only eight of those 26 college-bound Mexican-American students will graduate with a bachelor’s degree. Sadly, only .2 of those 100 students will earn a doctoral degree. These are structural and institutional problems that pandering, slogans and empty promises won’t fix.
Nobody is surprised to find that Hillary is seeking Latinos. She needs their faces; she requires their proximity in order to garner the coveted and sensationalized “Latino vote.” Today my entertainment with her pandering to Latinos ended because those faces are also my students. She made my students props in her political theater, a theater that cares little for them. Their lives, the places they live, the places they learn, the places they love, the places they die, are simply scenes in a political performance. My students, in this enactment, are not the stars. They have not made the ensemble cast. They do not have speaking roles. They are not even extras. They are set pieces, ephemera and added details to signify the authenticity of the locale and the supposed earnestness of Hillary’s effort and care. So if indeed Clinton is not just La Hillary, but mi Hillary, pos entonces me vale madre. I’m sure her staff can translate the sentiment for her.
Aaron E. Sanchez received a Ph.D. in history from Southern Methodist University. You can connect with him @1stworldchicano.