Great Expectations

Gregory Rodriguez, an associate editor at Pacific News Service, is a research fellow at Pepperdine's Institute for Public Policy

The unintended consequences of California’s anti-immigrant campaigns continue to rock the state’s politics. Sheer self-defense has pushed Latino civic- and political-participation rates to all-time highs. Lingering fear and anger engendered by Proposition 187 and the partial denial of government benefits to legal immigrants have spurred foreign-born Mexicans to apply for citizenship at historically unprecedented levels. Newly released data on the 1996 presidential election reveal that new Latino voters cast ballots at a higher rate than the state’s voters as a whole and that the overall gap between Latino and non-Latino voting rates is narrowing. Yet, all this political activity may not prefigure anything permanent for reasons that have less to do with politics than culture.

Since the 1950s, when Rep. Ed Roybal first referred to them as an electoral “sleeping giant,” Latinos had been widely regarded as California’s great latent political force. Political strategists routinely factored them out of their voting calculus without any fear of tempting electoral fate. It was just three years ago that the state Republican Party, with little hesitation, let alone compunction, mounted a racialized campaign against illegal immigration to reelect Gov. Pete Wilson.

Today, strategists of both major parties are climbing all over themselves to woo what is now seen as an ever-expanding pool of eager and ready Latino voters. In the past two months, two prominent political consultants, one Democratic, the other Republican, have circulated memos detailing the size, shape and importance of the Latino electorate. But in the general rush to claim pieces of this electorate, few strategists seem mindful of the deeper cultural reason why Latinos have not previously gravitated more toward U.S. politics. As a whole, Latinos simply have never developed a cultural proclivity toward political association nor regarded government as a solution to their problems.


In 1992, the National Latino Political Survey found that Latino U.S. citizens, particularly those of Mexican origin, not only had lower voter-registration rates than Anglos, but were also considerably less likely to get involved in such political activities as signing a petition or making a political contribution. Compared with other non-white groups, U.S.-born Latinos have been less inclined to look to government as a path toward upward mobility. In Southern California, U.S.-born Latinos have lower rates of public employment than do African Americans or U.S.-born Asians.

Not surprisingly, noncitizen Latinos, according to the survey, were even less likely to look to politics or government for assistance. And despite the politically fanned outcry over immigrant use of public services, foreign-born Latinos don’t usually take full advantage of available government benefits. Indeed, California’s Latino immigrants are notorious for underutilizing county health facilities. In Los Angeles County, poor immigrant Latinos have the lowest rates of welfare use of any poverty group. While some conservative commentators have tried to portray such behavior as “virtuous,” it more accurately flows from cultural influences forged by conditions in immigrants’ home countries.

Mexicans, the vast majority of Latinos in California, bring with them both a family-centric culture and a strong distrust of government. If, as Alexis de Tocqueville argued in the mid-19th century, democracy serves to weaken Anglo American families, then Mexico’s lack of strong civic organization may deserve some credit for bolstering the Mexican family structure. Mexicans rely heavily on family and other informal social networks to negotiate daily life. This strong cultural tendency to turn to each other for help rather than to civic institutions appears to persist among U.S.-born children and grandchildren of immigrants. For example, Southern California’s charitable institutions worry that the Latino middle class does not, so far, exhibit the same tendency to donate as do Anglos. And, despite the credence the media have always given to Latino activist and civil-rights organizations, Latino Americans historically have had very low rates of involvement in advocacy groups.

The one Mexican American who entered U.S. political consciousness like no other Latino before or since practiced the organizing philosophy inherited from the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. While United Farm Workers’ leader Cesar Chavez’s spiritual base may have been rooted in Mexican Catholicism, his grass-roots organizing approach came from Community Service Organization founder Saul Alinsky.

In the past, other mostly rural and family-centric immigrants, such as the Italians or Irish, benefited from old-style ethnic political machines that greeted them at the docks. At the turn of the century, Irish immigrants in New York were lured into politics by patronage in the form of jobs. Neighborhood political clubs sometimes offered localized social welfare and organized entertainment in exchange for immigrant votes. For the Italians, who were slower to move into politics than the Irish, thriving labor unions played an enormous role in ushering them into the political arena. Indeed, unions facilitated the political assimilation of the many Italians and Irish who helped to strengthen the U.S. labor movement.

Nowadays, electoral politics is performed much less at the grass-roots level. The employment that today’s lawmakers can offer as patronage is more likely to be white-collar government contracts than blue-collar jobs. And with the private-sector work force less unionized than at any time this century, unions are no longer seen as a sure pathway to the socioeconomic and political mainstream. Mindful of this attitude, the AFL-CIO ran a campaign, from 1989 to 1994, not only to organize foreign-born Latino workers but also to introduce them to the “culture of unionism.”


This approach, which transcended mere recruiting by attempting to persuade Latino workers of the relevance of unions, could apply to electoral political institutions as well. But political strategists are not entirely aware of the work that still must be done to convince Latinos that politics is relevant even when there is no immediate hot-button issue that directly affects them.

California’s Republicans don’t appear to be making much headway in this regard. Instead of devising ways to broaden and strengthen the party’s appeal among Latinos, Republicans seem more concerned with saving their own skins. Their strategy amounts to little more than biting their tongues when Latino issues are mentioned and occasionally endorsing a Latino candidate.

Democrats, on the other hand, seem content to stick with their strategy of attracting Latinos by exploiting Latino disdain for Wilson. November’s first round of special elections to fill Louis Caldera’s vacated seat in the heavily Latino 46th Assembly District demonstrated just how unimaginative Democrats can be in broadening their appeal to Latinos. That only 12,000 voted in an election to choose an official who represents the district’s 375,000 residents should give pause to political strategists of both parties who believe that Latino voters are just dying to organize and vote.

While a political party’s primary goal is obviously to win elections, Democrats will have to take a more forward-looking approach to rallying Latinos and integrating them into civic life. While the increase of Latino representatives is a desired goal, it should not be mistaken for the full enfranchisement of Latinos.

The good news is that Latinos have become a large and active enough political force that neither party can afford to ignore them. Their formerly low participation hurt not only Latinos but all Californians by creating a power vacuum that allowed for ethnic scapegoating. Now that Latinos make up nearly one-third of the state’s population, it isn’t hard to see why their full enfranchisement is essential for our continued well being.

Political strategists are thus wise to be devising ways to reach Latinos, but they would be wiser to consider methods of overcoming Latinos’ traditional reluctance to look to politics and government as a solution. Perhaps the smartest thing they could do is to ask Latinos how elected officials can make themselves more relevant to their lives. This they must do at a time when Americans, as a whole, are losing interest in politics.


The sleeping giant is awake, but we would be foolish to think it has already learned how to stand up and walk.