HOUSTON — The time has come again. Once every four years, writers and political commentators across the country suddenly become concerned with the Latino community. It might be nice, if their attention wasn’t so obviously tethered to our potential as a voting bloc. But with the election only weeks away, the buzz around who and who hasn’t earned our vote has begun. For all its supposed appreciation for our culture (Taco Tuesday!), Latinos have meant little more to Americans than an instrument by which to obtain power.
But this year is different. For the first time in decades, Texas and Arizona are in play for the presidential race and a record 32 million Latinos are eligible to vote. Now more than ever, the debate surrounding our political loyalties has become the dominant political discourse. And almost without exception, they are asking the same question:
Why are so many Latinos still supporting Donald Trump?
It’s a fair question from their limited perspective. From the moment he introduced his candidacy for presidency, Trump has conjured only the lowest and most humiliating images of Latinos: the diseased peasant; the criminal; the invader.
“They’re not sending their best,” he famously spoke of Mexico to a crowd of mostly white supporters in 2015, “They’re not sending you.”
His first term has been marked by increasingly cruel measures to stop immigration from Latin America—from his planned expansion of the border wall to Family Separation, Trump’s obsession with “securing the border” has been nothing more than a coded, racist attack on Latinos.
And still, as human rights violations continue along the border and in detention centers across the country, Trump is outperforming his 2016 bid for the presidency by nearly 10% with Latinos. In Florida, a state which has supported the presidential elect in nearly every election since 1964, Trump even enjoys a small, but steady, lead among Latinos. A flurry of cable news broadcasts and opinion pieces have attempted to understand Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s “Latino problem,” conjuring the well-worn arguments that arise every election cycle: that we fear socialism; that we are tied to Catholic or evangelical conservatism, that we, despite claiming ancestry from more than 20 different Latin American countries, share a common cultural predilection for tough guy, machísmo, politics.
It is a painful reminder that the country has never learned to view Latinos as people, but only an abstract concept, as if the widely diverse communities of Latin American immigrants, and the children and grandchildren of those immigrants, were a single political party.
It’s not to say these generalizations aren’t based in some truth but the way the white Latinos in Miami-Dade County feel about Biden’s plans for Medicare is not the way my family from El Paso feels. Nor does it mean that all Latinos see their aspirations for the country represented by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. Or Trump Campaign Committee Member Steve Cortes. Never have these differences been more on display than during the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. While a generation of young people who identify as Latinx joined civil rights demonstrations after the murder of George Floyd, affirming their solidarity with Black America with the phrase “Tu lucha es mi lucha,” I watched in shame and embarrassment as my own extended family posted racist comments on social media about anyone challenging the authority of the police, who they felt were justified in their actions.
That Latinos could have layered, even competing visions for their families and the country, is a truth still out of reach for most people. Even, and perhaps especially, among white liberals who claim allyship with BIPOC and expect Latinos (and all “minorities”) to support socially progressive agendas. As journalist Lizette Alvarez explored in the Washington Post, Latinos can be racist, too. Latinos can, and many do, support the xenophobic, anti-immigration policies of the Trump administration. I’m reminded of this when I recall the painful afternoon my grade school science teacher, a Mexican-American man who decorated his classroom with pre-Columbian art, warned me not to make friends with “illegals.” How they would drag me down, get me into trouble. How they would doom my chances of leading a successful life.
I’ve heard that kind of talk my entire life—his perspective isn’t unique among Latinos. But neither is mine. I was raised in a traditional, albeit open-minded home, where English was the dominant language. My father worked as a community organizer in immigrant communities across Texas and taught me the struggle for justice and equality was everyone’s responsibility. How no one was without blame when oppressed people are abused by our systems. But our loved ones, our family and clergymen, often espoused an entirely different world view. They resented being grouped together with “wetbacks” and being looked down upon. Some even changed their names to pass as white people. Growing up in north Houston, I’ve known Latinos who fell along every point of the political spectrum.
And it’s no wonder—Latinos don’t share skin color or social privilege. Some, but not all, speak Spanish, while others have adopted English or French. (Yes, we don’t even share a single colonizer’s language,) We also don’t face the same challenges or prejudices. American-born, I can never truly understand the lives of the immigrants my father helped empower. Or how traumatic it is to navigate our society fearing the threat of deportation. Our histories are different. We may be linked by our ancestry, by empathy and brotherhood, but our realities are separate. And no amount of polling can account for those differences.
And yet, for many the question persists: Why are so many Latinos supporting Trump?
That’s not the right question to ask.
Latinos feel no one type of way about Trump. Or Biden. We are large, diverse, contradictory. The country has never taken the opportunity to get to know us. Perhaps that’s why they keep asking the same stupid questions.
Ricardo Joel Rivera is a writer and a professional fundraiser for nonprofit organizations. He is from Houston, TX. Twitter: @rjrivera89.