In his 2001 collection of articles titled Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the US Big City, author Mike Davis described Latinos as a political “sleeping dragon.” Contextualizing just some of their historic political disenfranchisement from a system that simply did not care about them or their interests and needs, and contrasting that with their emerging demographic growth, he saw them as a political force about to awaken.
I believe 2008 will be largely seen as that moment when the “sleeping dragon” awoke. From the current fixation on the issue of immigration; to a widespread and diverse anti-Latino racism fueling regulations meant to continue their marginalization; to a rash of federal raids nurturing fear and causing both emotional and economic hardship; to the two main political parties seeking to garner the votes of an unknown and little understood electorate, 2008 is shaping up to be the political “coming out”–or quinceañera–party for Latinos.
The question is, what will this dragon do? Will they support Obama or McCain? Will they lean to the left or to the right? Current polls suggest what Latino scholars and pundits have been suggesting for months now: the Latino support for Clinton will easily transfer to Obama in the fall election while McCain will post decent numbers due to his previous support for immigration reform.
But don’t be too sure. This quinceañera is anything but predictable. While you’ve seen the Obama “Sí Se Puede” video in Spanish, and can already imagine the growing excitement within certain quarters of the Latino electorate to elect a person of color to the “highest position in the land,” issues like gay marriage are competing to sway Latinos to the right this fall. All-in-all, the dragon may be scorching a few of us this November.
While most will see this year as the actual political emergence of Latinos, it is not. Latinos have been “announcing” their political presence for generations. But that voice has rarely been heard or measured in a national sense.
Latinos have been politically active since the United States invaded and conquered the northern two-fifths of their nation in the U.S.-Mexico War (1846-1848). In the wake of the military conquest came the political and economic conquest, a time of sustained marginalization and political disenfranchisement. Upper-class Mexicans often served as part of that process, trying to align themselves with the U.S. newcomers, often at the expense of the poor, laboring class of (most often mixed-race) Mexicans and Indians who made up the majority of the population. Those masses often engaged in informal kinds of political acts, like banditry, the creation of community organizations and institutions, and other forms of resistance. [See see Acuña 2006; Chávez-García 2004; Hurtado 1990; and Pitt1969]
In the early 20th century, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and Mexicans organized trade unions, mutual aide societies, and political clubs throughout the U.S. In the 1920s middle-class professionals in Texas founded LULAC, an organization promoting both cultural and political assimilation of Mexican Americans into mainstream U.S. society. In the 1930s, a host of labor and political organizations protested the forced and illegal deportation of more than 125,000 Mexicans from the Southwest, most of which were legal, U.S.-born citizens. Beginning in the same period, Puerto Ricans in New York began to mobilize in East Harlem to have a political voice. They eventually secured educational rights for their children and, after WWII, helped elect a socialist to the House of Representatives. In the 1940s and 1950s a growing number of organizations like American G.I Forum, MAPA, and the CSO also fought to secure the political rights of Mexicans and Mexican Americans in a time of rising expectations and growing frustrations with a system that struggled to practice the “freedom and democracy” it preached. [See Acuña 2006; Whalen, et. al. 2005; Sánchez Korrol 1983]
In the 1960s, Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans mobilized behind the first formal, national electorate endeavors seeking to register and win the support of Latino voters. These campaigns–called “Viva Kennedy” and, later, “Viva Johnson”–were the first time a presidential campaign reached out to Latinos. In the case of Kennedy in 1960, these efforts may have proved crucial to his victory, at the time, the slimmist in U.S. History.
From the 1960s onward, as the Democratic Party became the national party of Civil Rights in the realm of education, work, voting, and public housing, a kind of “Civil Rights Coalition” developed uniting most voters of color, with unionized working class voters, and others. It was not until the 1980s, and the candidacy of Ronald Regan, that any noticeable challenges were made to this coalition (as he chipped away at the working-class white base of the Democratic Party)
Latino Voters and the Recent Past
Though Regan supported and secured major immigration legislation (the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986), Latino voters remained largely Democratic with a handful of local exceptions. The 1990s further swayed them to the left as the Republican Party, in a host of both big states and border states, began supporting restrictive measures targeting Latinos and other populations of color. The various anti-Affirmative Action campaigns in California, Michigan, Texas, and Florida, as well as efforts like California’s Proposition 187, helped politically educate an electorate coming of age.
Bill Clinton received the benefit of these decades of political machinations in his election and reelection bids in the 1990s. In 1996, even after supporting legislation that militarized the border and increased border deaths by shocking degrees, he won the Latino vote handily. In Texas, he won more than three quarters of them. He won them in California. He even came close to winning the Cuban American vote, at the time still unquestionably Republican.
George Bush entered the national political arena with the reputation of a pro-Latino, border state governor. In 2000, that got him a respectable third of the Latino vote, this despite the Democratic Patry’s seemingly secure lock on raza. In 2004, much to everybody’s surprise, he was reelected with as much as 44% of the Latino electorate.
How did conservative begin to tap into Latino America? One way was gay marriage.
Before I go on it is important for me to clarify that Latinos are not any more homophobic than anyone else. If you are about to analyze the numbers of Latinos who are anti-gay marriage as proof of “these people’s homophobia,” just check yourself. Remember, Latinos–like white voters, Black voters, Native American voters, and Asian voters–are diverse in their beliefs and shortcomings.
Gay Marriage as a Conservative Electoral Strategy
Clearly, Karl Rove deserves a lot of credit with regards to Bush’s victory in 2004, both with Latino and non-Latino voters. Part of that strategy was to force the conservative base to come out, a bloc whose votes represent a small but solid margin upon which to build a victory in any number of swing states. One of the primary issues that brought them out was gay marriage.
In 11 states (some of them clear swing states), Republicans ran anti-gay marriage ballot initiatives, though in each case gay marriage was already illegal. This is an important thing to remember. This was a time when both federal and state laws effectively made these unions not only illegal, buy unlikely to become legal in the near future. The one exception was Massachusetts, which had recently become the first state to allow same-sex couples to marry.
Now the new exception is California. And California will be joined this fall by others in confronting new anti-gay marriage ballot initiatives in the polling booth. The states include Arizona, Florida, and possibly others. Arkansas has an initiative to ban same-sex couples from adopting.
Without question, Latinos–heavily Catholic and prone to conservative issues in the social arena–are among the constituencies of support for these homophobic measures. But they are also the same for other progressive measures, including the efforts to defeat these ballot initiatives.
Where will they fall?
The Outlook in 2008
As the Los Angeles Times and many others have reported, the results of a recent Gallup Poll show Obama beating McCain among likely Latino voters 62% to 29%. But these numbers are not fixed in stone. One of the issues that has the potential to sway Latino voters will be the issue of gay marriage.
This is an issue that can go both ways. While conservative homophobes may have an upper hand on the surface, the pro-egalitarian side of the debate also has the potential to resonate with Latinos. The question is, who will get to them first?
My great fear is that, in California and elsewhere, the coalitions fighting against these restrictive ballot measures won’t reach out in any organized and systematic way to Latino voters. This may be a huge mistake, because, I assure you, the other side already is.
The anti-gay marriage coalition is surprisingly diverse and, most importantly, grass roots. They are made up of small organizations, on the ground, who can reach out to and mobilize voters. They were ready to get their measure on the California ballot before the State Supreme Court even issued their decision on May 15th [see the San Francisco Chronicle article on this here]. And, as should be of no surprise to anyone following Latino politics and religion, a core constituency group of this grassroots coalition are Latino churches.
A list of the organizations composing the coalition in California can be found here. Among them are a host of Latinos and Latino organizations. The Alliance for Marriage, a national coalition responsible for the upcoming ballot proposition in California, includes even more. Their Board of Advisors includes a list of politically mobilized Latino evangelicals who are already beginning their efforts to win over Spanish-speaking voters this fall.
Latinos are in many ways less homophobic than the average U.S. American. This may surprise many people “north of the border,” but it is a strong lesson in the ability of homophobic practices to change to fit the circumstance. Latin American Catholicism is almost always less absolute than Anglo American Puritanism. That said, Latinos in the U.S. are also more religious than the typical U.S. American voter. The issue of gay marriage in 2008 may be the focal point upon which this vote pivots.