By Gabriel Buelna and Enrique M. Buelna
Mexican Americans proved to be Donald Trump’s Achilles heel in this historic election. Amassing their political clout in five key states —California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado— they raised up a formidable wall that Trump could not overcome. This defiance should have been predicted by Republicans and their xenophobic enthusiasts, but they failed to appreciate the racial animus that runs deep in the Southwest. Their presumption that Latinos would lean into the Trump train was met instead by alarm bells. Mexican Americans read in Trumpism not freedom, but the further deterioration of their political, social, and economic well-being.
Though xenophobia and racism have long plagued the lives of Latinos in this country, Mexican Americans have had to endure a very special form of it. Since 1848, Mexican Americans have had to tolerate all sorts of creative, and not so creative, means to keep them from attaining political and economic power. When legal structures failed to stop their advance, lynch mobs —the old standby— were often raised to terrorize this population into compliance. Despite decades of court battles and social protests to demand equal treatment and first-class citizenship, the results have been uneven. To this day, the fear of Mexican American political power still generates wild notions of conspiratorial cabals and reconquest nightmares. Nevertheless, conditions within the last two decades have shifted the political winds in favor of faster and more profound changes for Mexican American political clout. At the center of this change has been demographics.
In California, Latinos represent almost 40 percent of the state’s population, and 30.5 percent of its voters. Only New Mexico, at 49.3 percent, has the highest overall representation of Latinos of any other state. Nevada has 29.2 percent Latinos, Arizona 31.7 percent, and Colorado 21.8 percent. In almost every case, Mexican Americans make up almost 80 percent of the total Latino population. In other words, Latino intragroup diversity abounds, but it’s highly skewed toward Mexicans, especially in the Southwest.
In the 1990s, California was the first state to respond to the changing demographics by implementing laws targeting Latinos. Proposition 187 was particularly heinous as it attempted to deny social services for individuals suspected of being in the country without proper documentation. Two years later, the state passed Proposition 227, a measure designed to end bilingual education, limit the usage of other languages in the classroom, and cement English as the culturally dominant language. The result was a backlash against the Republican Party, sending it into a political tailspin from which it has yet to recover.
In the 2000s, demographic changes in Arizona so alarmed Republicans that they mounted several efforts to try and stop the impending tide. In 2010, SB 1070 was enacted giving local law enforcement the right to stop and detain anyone suspected of being in the country without documentation. In effect, anyone with brown skin was guilty by association. That same year, Arizona passed HB 2281, which restricted public schools from offering ethnic studies to its students. The law targeted a successful Mexican American Studies program within Tucson schools. Implicit in their rationale was that Mexican Americans were a disloyal population who were being manipulated by outside forces. This attitude was exemplified by Arizona’s own attorney general at the time, Tom Horne, who stated that Mexican Americans students were secretly aspiring for a return of the Southwest to Mexico.
The former head of the Tucson program, Sean Arce, stated that HB 2281 had “served as a precursor for things to come under Trump. More importantly, the resistance to this anti-Mexican sentiment in Arizona materialized into getting Trump out.”
It should come as no surprise that Mexican Americans were the first group to feel the vitriol from the White House. Mexican Americans understood that the references to rapists and crime went beyond immigration status, it was meant to instill terror in the entire community. Trump’s bravado and disrespect of Mexican Americans was in plain sight when, in 2016, he removed Mexican-born journalist Jorge Ramos from a press conference, demanding that he “Sit down” and “Go back to Univision.”
Chicanos understood the code for the hateful reference to the derogatory Go back to Mexico. And, when he expressed his doubt regarding the judgment of federal judge Gonzalo Curiel because of his Mexican heritage, it was also clear that Americanness was being defined along race and color once again.
But Trump is an equal opportunity Latino offender. In 2017, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, he dismissed the death toll, estimated at over 3,000, preferring to believe his own estimates that only a handful perished. Trump illustrated his dismissiveness of hurricane victims, and Puerto Ricans in general, when he tossed paper towels at them during a visit to the island. Later, he considered offering Puerto Rico in exchange for Greenland, because he thought “Puerto Rico was dirty and the people are poor.” Then in 2018, Trump extended his vitriol to Haiti, El Salvador, and African nations when he called them all “shithole countries,” whose populations he hoped could be kept out.
There should be no doubt as to why Latinos voted overwhelmingly for Joe Biden. They saw in Biden an opportunity to remove a very real threat to their lives. According to Latinos Decisions, Latinos broke in favor of Biden by 70 percent in national polling. Mexican Americans averaged 74 percent, Puerto Ricans 70 percent, Central Americans 59 percent, South Americans 58 percent, and Cuban Americans 45 percent.
Polling data from Arizona alone indicates that Mexican Americans specifically voted for Biden by 73 percent. In total, Spanish-speaking Arizonans rallied around the Democratic candidate by 84 percent. Also in Arizona, 60 to 90 percent of Navajo Nation voters went for Biden. In California, 78 percent of Mexican Americans voted for Biden, 70 percent in Nevada, and 75 percent in Colorado. Mexican Americans and Native Americans in the Southwest outpaced other Latinos in every state, and were a clear voting bloc for Biden. In winning Nevada and Arizona by thin margins, this Mexican American and Native American bump carried Biden over the finish line.
Sadly, though Latinos leaned into the Democratic Party, the party did not always reciprocate in kind. In a recent poll, the following question was asked of potential voters: “Over the past few months, did anyone from a campaign, political party, or a community organization contact you to ask you to vote, or register to vote?” Mexican American participants responded in the negative more often than did African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and Whites. This survey result should send alarm bells for those hoping to keep Latinos inside the Democratic fold. Despite feeling ignored, this community still rose to the occasion.
Mexican Americans, and Latinos in general, saw the writing on the wall long ago. They mobilized in large numbers because they understood the danger of Trump and his movement, and believed Biden would be the antidote. Republicans misread the Latino angst, and underestimated how Mexican Americans would respond to the vitriol against them.
The wall that Mexican Americans formed fell on Donald Trump, crushing his chances for a second term.
But can this wall be rebuilt in time for the next elections? We believe it can be, but only if leaders do a better job of reaching out to and including them as equal partners going forward. This community demands deliberate and comprehensive solutions to inequities in education (demands for cultural and linguistic rights), job insecurity, inadequate healthcare, poor housing, mounting student debt, predatory financial institutions, immigration (DREAMers and regularization of status for millions), criminal justice system, and to political structures that continue to impede self-determination. So no more platitudes that demand they be patient.
If Mexican Americans decide to stay home next time, believing that they have no skin in the game, the disaster will be felt far and wide.
Gabriel Buelna, Ph.D., holds a doctorate in political science from the Claremont School of Politics and Economics, is a faculty member in Chicana/o Studies at Cal State Northridge, and a Trustee at the Los Angeles Community College District. Watch his YouTube Channel BuelnaNews or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is based out of Los Angeles and can be followed on Twitter @Gabriel_Buelna
Enrique M. Buelna, Ph.D., holds a doctorate in history from University of California, Irvine, is a faculty member in the Department of History at Cabrillo College, and is the author of Chicano Communists and the Struggle for Social Justice (2019), University of Arizona Press. He can be reached at email@example.com.