A dozen years ago, historian and geographer Mike Davis wrote a thoughtful examination of the role of Latinos in the making and remaking of Los Angeles. Called Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the U.S. Big City, the book made an important statement about politics in a closing chapter. “Latinos, all political pundits agree, are the sleeping dragon of U.S. politics.”
It’s a refrain I have been hearing for most of my conscious life: Mexican Americans are a “sleeping giant” in US politics. Just wait until we start showing up at the polls.
Today will mark the unequivocal emergence of Latinos on the national political stage. The “giant” or the “dragon” will awaken. Of course, to those of us who have been studying and watching this process closely for year, it woke up long ago. It is only now beginning to roar so loudly that you can’t ignore it.
The pathway to this kind of political clout has been in the works for more than a century. It began in 1903 when beet pickers from Mexico joined with beet pickers from Japan to struggle for better pay. It began in 1929, in Corpus Christi, Texas, when Mexican American professionals came together to found LULAC. It began in 1935 when Latin American radicals founded a civil rights organization called El Congreso de Pueblos de Habla Español.
What you will witness today began in 1947, when Mexican American activists in Los Angeles worked to get thousands to register to vote and elected Ed Roybal to the LA City Council and, later, the House of Representatives. It began in the barrios of California and Texas when women and men with dedication continued that work to create groups like MAPA, the American G.I Forum, and others who would represent Mexican American issues to major political parties. It began in 1960 when the Democratic Party organized “Viva Kennedy” clubs to elect JFK as the first Catholic President.
President John F. Kennedy at a Latino-focused political event the night before he was assassinated.
Today is the culmination of years of struggle and hard work. It may look sudden to the pundits; it may seem like a simple demographic ascendancy to the pollsters. But it is anything but. Today is the end of the first phase of building political power for Latinos in the U.S., a phase that has lasted for more than a century.
It is also the beginning of our political future as major constituencies within the U.S. electorate, and another step toward a nation where “whiteness” no longer holds the uncontested seat of power. This is, I hope, a step toward the multiracial democracy we must become.