The ‘Latino Vote’ Is More Than Just a Number… and so Much More Than Immigration Reform

Jan 5, 2016
8:46 AM
Voting sign in Orange County, California (CREDIT: Tom Arthur, Wikimedia Commons)

Voting sign in Orange County, California (CREDIT: Tom Arthur, Wikimedia Commons)

This past Sunday in The New York Times, Roberto Suro asked “Whatever Happened to Latino Political Power?” as if it were a dream deferred, as if progress were a straight line from which we had strayed after just two decades of “feel-good” expectations. Now there are 58 million of us, yet here we are again, uncertain if the 27 million projected voters eligible in 2016 will finally make a difference. There’s only one problem: we don’t vote, right? And since we don’t vote, nothing has changed.

How can you tell? Immigration reform. And why is that important? Because that’s all we are about, at least according to Suro and each of the two major political parties.

To be honest, I’ve read too many polls to know for sure anymore that such is not the case. Maybe we care about other things, like education and jobs, but still our platform —as far as everyone is concerned and despite evidence to the contrary— is immigration reform. And these voters who don’t vote but who have wanted immigration reform for so long are good at only one thing: multiplying.

So what happened to L***** political power? It’s never been more than a number, a sleeping giant, an abstract figure that won’t be relevant for a few more years. In other words, if our dream is deferred, then so is the worst nightmare of the white majority.

So who are these 58 million people? Who are we before the definition gets lost in terms like H****** or L*****? Here’s what we know so far, or what we are being told we think we know:

We vote Democratic, but we didn’t always. Immigration reform is the centerpiece of our political agenda. Family values and an aspirational immigrant narrative make us weak in the knees. Some of us speak Spanish and some of us do not. Also, the Census is an awkward experience to say the least. Most importantly, we are monolithic, not unlike a Bolivarian Dream. However, regional consciousness aside, we are, according to Suro, in danger of becoming an eclipse, a blinding daydream and nothing more.

Of course, what we know is really just a caricature. Here’s what we are not:

We are not the failed expectations associated with our growing portion of the U.S. electorate. Nor are we a monolithic concept to be victimized for a perceived lack of progress. In reality, we do not have a name, a banner to call our own. And we don’t pretend to either. Hence the pronouns (and the censorship). The majority of us prefer to self-identify by referring to our country of origin anyway. Nonetheless, identity politics aside, it isn’t very encouraging to know what the rest of the country thinks of us.

Here’s a more another possible definition: we are the descendants of 19 countries where Spanish is the official language—in short, a continent. We are the remnants of colonialism and U.S. intervention. We are a history that includes class struggle, racial and ethnic identity, genocide, cultural traditions, and so on. And in the midst of trying to reconcile this heterogeneous narrative, we have to compete with this classical perspective of the L***** vote as a singular entity. Because none of these things (the kind of things that evoke nuance and understanding) matter if the only barometer for our success is immigration reform.



Yet 2010 was still a record year for ballots cast by us in a midterm election, even if voter turnout hasn’t kept pace with population growth. This means that our voter turnout percentage is stagnant (at around 8% of the total electorate for each election), but our percentage of eligible voters continues to increase. So take 8% out of a number that continues to grow exponentially and you still get more of us at the polls. Since 2006, that number is 8 million more eligible voters, with an estimated 2 million more on the way according to the figure I cited earlier for 2016. And looking ahead, by 2030, our electorate population will most likely have doubled by then.

Of course, we don’t want to settle for 8% during each election. But maybe the problem isn’t that complicated. We’re still young, younger than any other group of voters. Our median age is six years younger than the next group. And you know the problem with young people. They don’t vote. But we’ll get older. We’ll get more experienced and more politically savvy. We hope you will too as we decide more elections and chip away at that white majority. In short, we’ll vote. The increasing number of naturalized citizens and people over 65 who voted in 2012 are proof of this latency period.

It also helps to know this burden of overcoming poor voter turnout isn’t ours alone. Here’s Anne Kim’s description of the Asian vote:

Given their extreme diversity —ethnically, economically and ideologically— Asian voters simply aren’t a monolithic, formulaically winnable political constituency. In fact, they stand as testament to the limits of race-based, demographically driven politics.

Doesn’t that sound familiar? Like a social construct that exists as political shorthand mostly out of convenience?

The limit that Kim refers to goes both ways. Not only are politicians unable to manipulate these voting blocs, we also struggle to take advantage of a collective identity without taking a reactionary stance. Take Donald Trump for instance. We don’t like him. But he sure makes it easy to look past our differences, no? Unfortunately, this means that it takes a perceived threat to us as a whole in order for our community to express solidarity. Does that make us passive in a way? Complacent? Is that why we don’t have a Black Lives Matter movement of our own? Whatever happened to the Latino Spring?

Again, ask Simón Bolívar’s ghost if you are begging for an answer. We are not here to fulfill the promise of our demographic surplus. Never mind our buying power and cultural influence. Rest assured as you eat Taco Bell and struggle through high school Spanish, we are just everyone’s political sidechick trying to decide whether or not Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz are traitors.

Though the more appropriate question would be something like: “Who exactly are they betraying?” If the answer is white Republican Cubans (an established, though possibly shifting demographic to which they each belong), then you would be wrong. And what about the rest of us? Maybe…probably, but not because the two of them would fail a litmus test. We have enough of those. Be honest, we can’t agree on good hair or good skin, whether or not black or indigenous people exist. Yet we should control both houses of Congress on behalf of the Democratic Party, elect the president every four years AND ensure comprehensive immigration reform simply because of the fact that there are a lot of us

Not only that, but we also have to restrict our platform to one particular issue that presidential candidates can then pander to? And even when they do pander to us, we’ll scoff at their misguided efforts? It’s flattering when taken with a grain of salt. Eight years ago, Hillary didn’t try to be my abuela. Now Julian Castro is a legitimate running mate. The numbers game has shifted away from “demographic triumphalism” to how many of us do you need to win the election.

So I’ll ask again: “Whatever happened to L***** political power?” It remains to be seen of course. But this time around feels like an opportunity to finally introduce ourselves, you know, before someone at the party has the nerve to ask, “What are you?”


Néstor David Pastor runs social media for Radio Ambulante. He’s a writer, a musician, a grad student and, oh yeah, a Puerto Rican and Peruvian all-star. Follow him @ni_soy_pastor