Election 2020: Belonging, Legacy, Latinos

My election coverage began in February with “Latinos and the Morality of American Politics” which appeared in Palabra, a new publication launched by the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. I argue:

If Democrats don’t have a message for Latinos, they don’t have one to disarm Trump. Without a coherent message that includes Latinos – who represent one in every five people in the US —Democrats leave intact a vision of national identity that not only excludes Latinos, but leaves unchallenged a performance of nationality predicated on vilifying Latinos – identity politics as promoted by the Trump administration.

The piece chronicles a deeply entrenched culture of surveillance with Latino/as as the target.

Political surveillance has thrived, largely unnoticed, because observing Mexicans or Latinos –from a distance–has been a central feature of American cultural life…Much of U.S. society has long been trained to enjoy viewing Latinos as curiosities.

It is this culture, this gaze, that is the basis of Trump’s performance and that Latinos are called to answer to.

This campaign season demands a reckoning with a powerful, unexamined feature of American cultural and political life: an entitled, judging gaze fixed on Latinos – U.S.-born and immigrants. From this gaze, a deeply entrenched surveillance has emerged – a social panopticon similar to the network of binoculars, cameras and drones stationed across the U.S.-Mexico border.

In August, I appeared on the public radio program The World to discuss my piece, “As Election Day nears, it’s not just about winning the ‘Latino vote.’ It’s about making a real connection.”

Researchers have found that a sense of belonging — meaning, how society perceives you — along with feeling respected and valued — can be powerful forces to mobilize or discourage voting. influence

To reach the ballot box, Latinos often must first traverse a battlefield of messages from the political left and right that casts Latinos as the perennial outsider. They will have shielded themselves from media coverage often portrays Latinos as rootless newcomers and asks that all-too-familiar question: “Where are you from?” Which presumes that the answer is: “Not here.”

Strategist Chuck Rocha told me: Missing in American politics for Latinos is “a showman, somebody who stands up and who isn’t afraid of consequences to stand for our community the way [Trump] stands for racist rednecks. We haven’t seen that.”

Belonging forms a central part of President Trump’s appeal to Latinos, a promise of inclusion and belonging has been central to independent political organizations in Arizona, North Carolina and Texas.

In a scathing opinion piece for The New York Times, Alejandra Gomez and Tomás Robles Jr., co-founders of Living United for Change in Arizona (LUCHA) accused political leaders of deserting Latino Arizonans, leaving them as scapegoats to a right-wing political agenda that was built on excluding and attacking immigrants and Latinos.

“The thing is, people want community. They want to belong to something that helps them make sense of the political world,” they wrote. “But they don’t trust politics or Democrats because both have failed them.” 

“We are reminding them and they are true leaders in our community, creating spaces to be themselves authentically in the world,” Gomez told me.

In October, I wrote, The Legacy of Oppression That’s Fueled the Surging Will of Latinos to Vote, which was co-published by Palabra and the Texas Observer. I later appeared on NPR’s The Takeaway to discuss the piece.

This election marks the first time in U.S. history that the number of eligible Latino voters is expected to be higher than the number of eligible Black voters. And the shift in demographics means that there’s been a renewed focus on how Latinos could shape the results in states like Florida and Texas.

But to fully understand Latino voters and this election, it’s crucial to acknowledge the long history of voter suppression against Latinos in the United States, which date back more than a century. For the next part in our series, “A Votar,” The Takeaway takes a look at the complicated history of Latino voting rights.

The Takeaway

Without an understanding of the legacy Latinos built, the meaning of their vote is easily reducible to a candidate’s strategic interests, making Latinos ancillary factors in an electoral calculus. The diversity of Latinos nationwide is then distilled, for example, to the swing state of Florida. 

When Latino diversity is explored, it’s often to focus on the absence of an easily digestible definition of Latino, a multitude that mostly identifies by country or heritage, according to the Pew Research Center.

What, then, is a California Chicano to a Florida Colombian American? What affinity exists between a Texas Mexican American and a New York Puerto Rican?

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