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Op-Ed: Latino political power is still growing — but not the way many people expected

John Gimenez attaches a flag to his vehicle during an event hosted by the Hispanic Federation to encourage voting.
John Gimenez attaches a flag to his vehicle during an event hosted by the Hispanic Federation to encourage voting in the Latino community during the 2020 election.
(John Raoux / Associated Press)

Back in 2012, the election night news chatter was about how Latinos had won Barack Obama a second term, and within days of the vote, leaders of both parties had vowed to placate the awakened giant with immigration reform. Sure enough, in July 2013, a bipartisan majority in the Senate passed a bill offering an estimated 11 million immigrants in the country illegally a path to citizenship.

The reforms were dead on arrival in the House of Representatives, and an immigration bill never made it to Obama’s desk. But the Senate success turned out to be the pinnacle of a long-held political mind-set that Latino power derived from aggregating all pieces of the Latino population into one huge, ineluctable demographic bloc that would define the nation’s future by virtue of its growing numbers. Moreover, that entity would act cohesively as a minority group with shared claims, and empowerment would flow from winning battles over immigration policy.

Both supporters and opponents have embraced that assessment of the Latino political trajectory for decades. It has been advanced not only by elected officials and political strategists but also in varying ways by corporations, foundations, advocacy groups and media narratives. Though it coalesced around immigration reform, the viewpoint also shaped a great deal of Latino activism down to the grass roots.

That era is now closing.

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If demographic triumphalism lost its certainty in 2014 when Republican insurgents killed immigration reform, it received another major blow from the election of Donald J. Trump. And the current political season, which brought Trump’s defeat, has suggested alternative narratives for understanding Latino political power.

On a national level, Latinos have consistently favored Democrats by a roughly 2-to-1 ratio. This time was no different, but the news election night was about developments at the local and state levels, specifically Trump’s extraordinary gains among Latinos in Miami and South Texas even as Latinos kept Joe Biden alive in Nevada and Arizona.

As with the nation as a whole, this contest amplified long-standing differences among Latinos. These differences among Latinos are not just a matter of geography and national origins but also of age, gender, education, religion and much else. Like a megadose of online learning, obsessive attention to election results during the long count drove home the very belated realization that Latino voters are not, and have never been, a monolith.

Humpty Dumpty’s fall has consequences well beyond presidential politics. Myriad demands for representation and resources have rested on a single data point: the total number of people answering “yes” when census surveys ask if they are of “Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin” (60.5 million in 2019). This category groups together people as diverse as a Guatemalan asylum-seeker of indigenous origins, a Mexican American whose roots in the United States are a century old and the Miami-born offspring of Cold War Cuban exiles. There are important reasons why all those people choose the same identity, but those commonalities don’t guarantee a unitary view on the issues fragmenting the nation.

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Some Latinos identify, in our great reckoning over race, as people of color, others as Blacks and still others, 53% in 2010, pick white as their racial identifier on census forms. Preelection polls showed that white and Asian voters opposed California Proposition 16, which would have restored affirmative action in college admissions and state contracting. Blacks supported it. Latinos were about evenly split, thus dooming the measure even though they would have been the largest beneficiaries simply by virtue of their numbers. Meanwhile, Latinos came out strongly for several candidates and ballot measures that advanced criminal justice reform.

Diversity and dynamism are common characteristics across the spectrum of Latino identities, and those characteristics can be assets in this troubled land rather than symptoms of fragmentation. Big cities are governed by multiracial coalitions that come in distinctive shapes and colors, but Latinos play different roles in each of them.

In Congress, Latinos are already on both sides of the escalating fight between progressives and centrists among House Democrats, while on the Senate side Latinos are prominent in the competition among Republicans.

Immigration presents the Biden administration a vast agenda of reversing Trump measures affecting every aspect of the system while also dealing with likely surges on the border. In the inevitable jockeying over priorities Latinos will advance many different interests. Meanwhile, state and local governments will remain the critical battlegrounds on immigrant integration, whether the issue is access to social benefits or police cooperation with federal immigration enforcement. In Arizona, Latino voters lifted Democrats not in response to a national platform or Spanish-language TV ads, but a decade-long effort to counter harsh policies with local organizing and coalition building.

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Even eight months into the pandemic urgent new agendas are exploding out of the disproportionate effects of COVID-19 on many aspects of Latino well-being. Not only are Latinos disproportionately falling ill and dying from the coronavirus, they are among those most affected in policy disputes over healthcare access, small-business loans, fiscal stimulus and public education. Since the outcomes will be unfolding for the next several years, the pandemic will inevitably define the next era of Latino politics. It is already happening.

The fight against the virus and its consequences present a generational challenge no less consequential than the Great Depression. Just as that crisis remade the nation, this too will be transformational, for better or worse. The next trajectories for Latino politics, their power and direction, will be determined by how Latinos address the moment. California and especially Los Angeles will play an outsized role, given the number of Latinos here, the breadth of the public offices they hold and the variety of perils they face.

The growth of the Latino population is no less a factor in the changing demography of the United States than it was before Nov. 3. But the harsh light cast by the pandemic election shows that the influence of that population is not exercised as a unitary political force. Latinos have many voices. They exercise power by different means, in many venues, with a variety of objectives. In post-Trump America, that can be a great source of strength.

Roberto Suro is a professor of journalism and public policy at the University of Southern California.


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