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Deconstructing the 'Latino Vote': Myths, Realities and Missed Opportunities

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Mission Language and Vocational School polling place in San Francisco on Nov. 3, 2020.
Mission Language and Vocational School polling place in San Francisco on Nov. 3, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

A note from the KQED en Español team: In this conversation, we'll use "Latinx," "Latino" and "Latina" when referring to communities of Latin America and the Latin American diaspora. We'll use "Latinx" as as a nod toward greater inclusion of women, LGBTQ+ and nonbinary people. We've left each speaker's word choice consistent with the terms they used in this conversation. 

Inspired by the outcry we heard following the 2020 elections, particularly around generalizations made by national media and politicians about who Latinx voters are,  the team behind KQED en Español thought it was time for a conversation.

We wanted to bring together knowledgeable voices to talk about what the “Latino vote” is — if it exists at all — and what matters most to Latinx communities in the United States.

To explore the myths that the media and political pundits carry about Latinx voters and communities when it comes to election season, KQED en Español journalist Adriana Morga sat down with:

  • Christian Arana, policy director from Latino Community Foundation
  • Dr. Lisa García Bedolla, UC Berkeley's vice provost for graduate studies and dean of the graduate division
  • Sonja Diaz, founding director of UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Initiative

Portions of this interview have been edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the full conversation here.

Adriana Morga, Christian Arana, Dr. Lisa García Bedolla, and Sonja Diaz discuss 'the Latino vote'

Adriana Morga: What comes to your mind when you hear people refer to the "Latino Vote” — if there is such a thing — during election season?

Christian Arana: Too often what we see in American politics is that there's kind of a laziness to campaigning. Back in 2008, between the election between John McCain and Barack Obama, we were all talking about this Joe the Plumber guy. And who is this guy, and what does he care about? And where does he live, and what does he think? Well, when do we ever do that for Latinos?

We're right in front of you every single day, as Latinos. But when are you ever going to stop to ask what we care about, and how you're going to win us over as voters?

Dr. Lisa García Bedolla: I don't think [politicians are] lazy. I think they don't prioritize us. I study voter mobilization. And I've worked with campaigns as they're thinking about how to strategize — and in every instance, funding to look how to reach out to our voters is always at the last minute, after the real strategy gets put into place. Which is likely a white voter strategy.

Any extra money that comes at the end, then that money gets put towards our community. And that's part of why it's so superficial. Because it's done quickly and without any real thought.

Sonja Diaz: Thinking about the invisibility of Latinos, that this is not simply a political issue, but goes across all parts of our institutions, among society — not just newsrooms — but Hollywood and media and entertainment. To academia, to philanthropy. The lack of understanding about Latinos has generally led to this invisibility. Which has shown us during COVID-19 a disposability, and a lack of importance in the dignity — and the sacredness — of life.

People wave flags and cheer over the 101 freeway near the Metropolitan Detention Center during one of several May Day marches on May 1, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. Immigrants, union members, workers and supporters are participating in the annual marches in downtown Los Angeles to call for greater rights for immigrants and improved conditions for workers.
People wave flags and cheer over the 101 Freeway near the Metropolitan Detention Center during one of several May Day marches on May 1, 2016 in Los Angeles. Immigrants, union members, workers and supporters are participating in the annual marches in downtown Los Angeles to call for greater rights for immigrants and improved conditions for workers. (David McNew/Getty Images)

Morga: We've repeatedly told pundits that Latinx people are not a monolith. What are some of the biggest misconceptions that you see when it comes to Latinx people voting?

Diaz: There’s this idea that we're the sleeping giant. From our research at UCLA's Latino Policy and Politics Initiative, we found in the 2018 midterms, Latinos were really starting to show their might. They were essential in flipping half of the House seats from Republican control to Democratic control.

We released new research that showed almost twice the amount — in terms of voter turnout — for Latinos [in 2020]. When you compare it to all Americans who turned out, this was a historic turnout all around.

The second misconception is that our policy preferences are singular — and that flies in the face of evidence. Poll after poll, Latinos care about bread-and-butter issues. They care about good jobs, about health care. And under Donald Trump, they want a leader that is not going to divide them, [and] that is going to deal with discrimination. These are not issues that are typically talked about when it comes to Latinos, which is one issue all the time. And that is not what empirical science has been showing.

  • Got thoughts? Want to continue the conversation? Comment or DM us on Instagram: we're @kqedenespanol.

Arana: Time and time and time again, people pigeonhole us and our community into immigration. While yes, immigration is an important issue, it's a very emotional issue for our community. But it's not the top issue at this point.

Often, what rises to number one is health care — just like every other voter. Can we get health care? Is it affordable? [But] when a presidential candidate, for example, does come to the community, they spend most of their time talking about immigration when in fact it's so much more than that.

Morga: Let's talk about understanding the nuances of the Latinx communities. What kinds of differences exist between older and younger Latinx generations when it comes to voting, civic engagement and politics?

Bedolla: As undocumented immigrants get older, there is no social safety net for them. There are a lot of issues with the aging of our community, and how that intersects with migration status, that really deserves more attention — not least, again, because of the diversity of the community.

The cuts are usually along nativity, generation, how long people have been in the United States, socioeconomic status, what people's work status is, what kinds of jobs they're in. There are a lot more intersections among Latinos, in terms of at least public opinion, than just age — thinking about gender, generation, class, national origin and then geography.

Diaz: When these communities, communities that are not white, don't get information, don't get mail, don't get door knocks, don't get phone calls or SMS — one of the ways [they get information] is through their family, and the relationships who are really trusted. And that's where you're having these conversations.

I think that this is really going to be interesting for getting out the vote, a mobilization of Latino households — because if you get one person, chances are you get more people, because of the way in which density works in multigenerational families.

California Sen. Alex Padilla speaks during the Latino Inaugural 2021: Inheritance, Resilience and Promise event hosted by the Biden Inaugural Committee on Jan. 19, 2021. (Getty Images)

Morga: Walk us through the significance of two Latinx lawmakers, Alex Padilla and Xavier Becerra, transitioning into state and federal positions of power?

Diaz: The appointment of Alex Padilla to the United States Senate is even more special, because at no point over the course of the last 170 years have either major party endorsed formally [a Latino candidate] — and we actively have been shut out.

And so a real question for us is, "What would it have meant for the Democratic Party in California and the National [Democratic] Party to have sent a Latina to the United States Senate in the 1990s?" I think Christian [Arana] and I would have had a whole different perspective on Latino politics. I don't think that we would have this “silent majority,” or the “sleeping giant.”

And that's not because there weren't leaders that were qualified and exceptional. It's because we never were given the opportunity.

Morga: How do you think that the pandemic has affected Latinx voters when it comes to voting and will affect in the future?

Bedolla: Our community tends to be young. We have a high proportion of schoolchildren. We have a larger proportion of our population who are essential workers. If you combine both those things, it means you have parents who are having to work outside the home and put themselves at risk, and children who are having to attend school at home by themselves — in many cases without broadband — without anyone to help them with their homework. Without anyone. You're going to have parents who are sick, who are coming home and getting older folks sick.

The economic dislocation, and the profound impact on education, are going to affect the ability for folks to get good jobs [and] to buy houses. We know that socioeconomic status is strongly related to voting, and people need to survive before they can think about other kinds of things.

I think the impact is going to be great. And if we don't make sure to shore up that social safety net in order to help people come out of this without losing their homes, without losing their jobs, without losing their lives, we're going to be dealing with this for a very long time.

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Diaz: So how did Latinos vote [in 2020]? Well, we kicked it out of the park.

I mean, the research out of UCLA estimates that 16.6 million of Latinos cast a ballot in a pandemic, with misinformation and widespread voter suppression. And so what that means is that they're now being baked into the system — and they're going to get mail, they're going to get door knocks. And that makes it easier to vote.

When we look at the Georgia runoffs, I think it's important to note the ways in which the small swath of Latinos — that again, is an emerging electorate across the south — in Georgia's Gwinnett County in particular, coalesced with Asian American voters to support the majority of Black voters who essentially have transformed the United States Senate and stripped Mitch McConnell of his chairmanship.

Arana: Something that I'm looking forward to in future elections is what we saw here in California. We mailed every single registered voter their ballots, and we did it in a record amount of time.

There's no question that when you make it easier to vote for people, they will. In L.A. County, they set up drop boxes. We had these vote centers. There was an explosion of information about how to vote. And I think moving forward, pandemic or not, we need to leverage what we learned in 2020 about how people vote and just institutionalize this and make this easier.

A woman holds a sign during a Latino meet and greet and literature distribution rally on December 30, 2020 in Marietta, Georgia. In the lead-up to the January 5 runoff election, Democratic Senate candidate Jon Ossoff continues to focus on early voting efforts across metro Atlanta.
A woman holds a sign during a Latino meet and greet and literature distribution rally on Dec. 30, 2020 in Marietta, Georgia. In the lead-up to the Jan. 5 runoff election, Democratic Senate candidate Jon Ossoff continued to focus on early voting efforts across metro Atlanta. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

Morga: We know that some Latinx communities have organized to get out the vote in swing states. But civic engagement goes beyond voting. How can we mobilize our communities (especially for those who are unable to cast their ballot)?

Bedolla: I interviewed a lot of Latina women who told me that they "don't do politics." And then they would then go on to explain all of the different kinds of collective action they'd engaged in.

Going to a PTA meeting, organizing with your friends to get a stop sign on the corner because the kid got hit by a car, going to your city council meetings, and listening and making sure that your voice is heard [is civic engagement]. Most of them have open mic opportunities, making sure your voice is heard on the issues that you care about.

I think we forget that local government is actually the thing that most directly often affects our day-to-day. Trash pickup, and zoning, and all these basic things that affect what you see as you walk around your neighborhood. And you don't have to be a citizen to do that. You don't even have to be over 18 to do that.

And there are lots of things that Latinos are already doing that they don't see as “politics,” but actually are political engagement. The important thing is to get more people to understand those opportunities that are available to them, to really influence these important day-to-day decisions, and to let them know that they have the power and the capacity and the right to make their voices heard.

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