In the days after the image of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez, 25, and his 23-month-old daughter, Angie Valeria, facedown in the Rio Grande made its way around the internet, a friend posted the photo to her story on Instagram. Her caption was of horror and sadness towards the situation. She texted me a screenshot of one of the direct messages she received in response to her post. It read “bad parenting.”
What image did your mind conjure up of what the messenger looks like?
If you thought it was someone who looks like Trump, or any of his family members, you would be wrong.
The person who sent her this message is an immigrant to the U.S. He was born in a Latin American country to Spanish speaking parents and falls into a group many presidential candidates, especially Democrats, as they build their coalition of voters. He is millennial and Latino. He also illustrates the danger of lumping Latinos into one monolithic category—Latinos do not think the same, nor do they want the same things.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: defining the difference between Latino and Hispanic. Someone identifying as Latino is of Latin American origin or descent. If they’re Hispanic, it means their roots are in Spain or a Spanish-speaking country. In simplified terms someone from Spain is Hispanic, they are not Latino, and a person from Brazil is Latino but not Hispanic. The two terms are often used interchangeably when talking about people south of the American border, or who speak Spanish but that is incorrect.
We’re a large and diverse group. The majority of Hispanic and Latino Americans prefer to identify with their families’ country of origin, only 24 percent prefer to self-identify as Hispanic or Latino. Which means most people are likely to answer “Mexican, Colombia, Cuban, Ecuadorian or Puerto Rican,” when asked what they are because it’s a better representation of their culture and heritage. According to a Pew Study, Hispanics in the U.S. are comprised mostly of Mexicans (35.3 million) but also includes 5.3 million Puerto Ricans and five other Hispanic origin groups with more than 1 million people each: Salvadorans, Cubans, Dominicans, Guatemalans, and Colombians.
Within the group, there are regional, cultural and ethnic differences. Using the term is the same as labeling someone as American, then realizing the moniker means different things when it’s applied to a Chinese-American from the Bay area in San Francisco, versus an Irish-American on Chicago’s South Side. It reduces the complexity of people to nothing.
A projected 32 million Hispanics will be eligible to vote in 2020. This important voting bloc has a lot of potential to sway the political stage. However, to assume this group is a shoo-in for Democratic support is a mistake. Foreign-born, Hispanics are typically conservative. Those born in the U.S. describe themselves as liberal. Latinos have a misogyny problem. Generally speaking, older Latinos most align with the Republican party. And naturalized citizens, turn out to vote at a higher rate.
Even though Ted Cruz and his Republican party are against protection for Dreamers, support a border wall and want to do away with the Affordable Care Act—which would largely impact Latinos—35 percent of Latino voters still backed Cuban-American Cruz instead of progressive Beto O’Rourke in the 2018 Texas Senate race.
If every Latino believed these policies were bad, it would be reflected in their vote. However, it’s important to remember people make decisions for a number of reasons that do not include factors based on identity. Half of border patrol agents are Latino, and a recent report finds they are motivated by money.
Politicians’ favorite way of reaching this target demo is by attempting to speak in Spanish without being prompted. This became one of the most talked about topics after the first night of the Democratic debates last week. O’Rourke was the first to use the language with a tailored pitch that avoided answering the question on his stance towards a billionaire tax—never mind that the debate was being streamed and translated on NBC’s Spanish-sister channel Telemundo. Cory Booker followed his lead speaking in a nearly indecipherable language. Former San Antonio mayor and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro was the only Latino on stage. The only Spanish he spoke was to introduce himself and promise to “say adios to Donald Trump.”
In the days after the debate, Castro addressed critiques about his inability to speak Spanish fluently.
“Spanish was looked down upon,” he said in an interview with MSNBC. “You were punished in school if you spoke Spanish. You were not allowed to speak it. People, I think, internalized this oppression about it, and basically wanted their kids to first be able to speak English. And I think that in my family, like a lot of other families, that the residue of that, the impact of that is that there are many folks whose Spanish is not that great.”
Not every person of Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Ecuadorian or Colombian descent is fluent in the language. There is a steady decline in Spanish spoken among Latinos in the U.S. There is no blanket approach to the language. Some people speak it, others don’t and another population uses a variation of Spanglish. Throw in various dialects, and language alone is enough to see how diverse Latinos can be.
But let’s not forget Puerto Rican voting rights and their lack of federal representation in government. While Puerto Ricans can vote in the presidential primaries, they are not permitted to vote in general federal elections. Only Puerto Ricans living on the mainland can participate in the general election—even though the island is a part of the U.S. and is affected by the elected policymakers. Elizabeth Warren and Julián Castro are the only two candidates who have made Puerto Rican rights a part of their policy platforms. Castro even made Puerto Rico the first stop on his presidential campaign. They might not speak Spanish but their actions show they have been fighting for those who do.
Presidential hopefuls beware: Latinos do not think the same way, and their voting record reflects this. The people who watch El Gordo y La Flaca are not the same ones described in the 2019 CNN article “The future of the American economy is Hispanic and female.”
The Latino vote can be a deciding factor in the 2020 race. However, just like any other voting bloc, different strategies and campaign tactics are required to reach this group. Latino voters will not support someone for something as basic as speaking Spanish, and it would be a mistake to assume the group is automatically won by the Democratic Party. The path to victory begins by admitting the road to mobilizing this demographic won’t be easy.