The Latino loyalty factor

Roosevelt Montas is director of the core curriculum at Columbia University and recipient of the Dominican Republic's 2008 National Youth Prize.

My mother has always been a Clinton enthusiast, and since she passed her citizenship examination, in Spanish, two years ago, she has been eager to vote for the most powerful elected office in the world. Since Iowa, I’ve been asking her whether Barack Obama has won her over yet. The answer continues to be no, but her passion for Hillary Rodham Clinton seems to be waning. Beneath her hesitation, I sense a struggle between the appeal of Obama and a loyalty to Clinton that I am only beginning to understand.

In the Texas primary, the Latino vote again proved to be Clinton’s surest levy against the rising tide of support for Obama. This trend was clear in Nevada, where, in defiance of the Culinary Workers Union’s endorsement of her opponent, Latinos handed Clinton seven out of nine caucuses on the Las Vegas Strip. Nevada Latinos overall favored her by a whopping 38 points. The Super Tuesday contests and the Texas primary March 4 sent the same message: The Obama magic is failing to charm Latinos.

A common explanation for Clinton’s lead among Latinos has been the idea of a rivalry between Latinos and blacks. The theory goes that the two minorities are locked in competition for, on the one hand, a dwindling pool of jobs at the bottom of the economic scale and, on the other, the spoils of an increasingly threatened affirmative-action system. But this explanation fails to resonate with my experience. It imposes on Latinos an outdated paradigm of American race relations.


The fact is that, among my family and friends, support for Clinton does not reflect animosity toward a black candidate; like almost all Americans, Latinos are inspired by the breakthrough meaning of an Obama presidential candidacy. Even in California, where Clinton carried Latino Democrats by a 2-1 margin, 55% of Latinos nonetheless expressed a favorable opinion of Obama.

I suspect that two little-noted factors, both of them cultural rather than economic or ideological, account for the strength of Latino loyalty to Clinton: a residual comfort with political dynasties inherited from Latin American history, and the respect she commands for her family loyalty in the face of Bill Clinton’s marital failings. Both factors reflect traditional family values, a cultural trait among Latinos that political strategists like Karl Rove have exploited in the past.

On a recent trip to the Dominican Republic, where I’m from, I was assured by a prominent political analyst that Clinton would win the U.S. presidency because Americans understand that she and her husband can restore America’s economic vitality. The “Billary” candidacy, which troubles some voters, is the stuff of Latin American politics. Last year, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner overwhelmingly won her bid to succeed her husband as president of Argentina. In the recent transfer of power in Cuba, the least remarkable thing is that Fidel’s successor is his brother. Latin American political rule has long been understood as a family affair. Think of the Perons in Argentina, the Somozas in Nicaragua, the Pastranas in Colombia or the Institutional Revolutionary Party dynasty that ruled Mexico until recently.

A second powerful force drawing Latinos to Clinton is her “family values.” I don’t mean her views on abortion or homosexual unions, but how she has managed a series of very personal and very public domestic problems. In her most heartfelt response during the Texas debate Feb. 21, she alluded to this public/private story: “I think everybody here knows I’ve lived through some crises and some challenging moments in my life,” she said, before moving on to the problems of other American families. The next two minutes revealed a warm and vulnerable Hillary Clinton. By the time she was done, the audience was on its feet. Nor was the point lost on the viewers of Univision, who heard it in Spanish: for Hillary Clinton, primero la familia.

These two cultural factors -- above, or perhaps below, politics -- also help explain the generational rift among Latino voters. Younger and more educated voters have been defecting to Obama, while older ones find themselves emotionally connected to what Clinton represents. In Texas, Clinton won Latinos by a 2-1 margin, but close to half of those aged 18 to 29 voted for Obama. It’s another way in which, quite apart from their policies or positions, Clinton represents tradition, and Obama, change.

Like my mother, many Latinos are being pulled in two directions, and a lot -- maybe even the presidency -- may depend on which way they go.