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Monolithic? The Fallacy of Courting ‘the Hispanic Vote’

Oftentimes when perusing through media outlets to determine the latest prediction of where the ‘Latino’ vote will be going in 2012, it is  usually lost upon readers that there is truly no such thing as a ‘Latino’ vote. Sure, the overall Hispanic vote may trend more in one ideological direction than another depending on the election year, but in these tough times in particular, it is important to remember that Hispanics are affected by the same ills that Americans are affected by. These include a high unemployment rate (it stands at 11% for Hispanics), spiraling health care costs, America’s diminishing stature in certain corners of the globe, an underfunded and oftentimes under-performing public education system, and an immigration policy that has been broken for years and is in desperate need of reform. This combination of domestic and international concerns touches upon the complexity involved with reaching out to voters of Hispanic descent.

The Pew Hispanic Center recently released figures that revealed that the number of U.S.-born Mexican-Americans has outgrown the number of Mexican-born nationals entering the U.S. Essentially, births have overtaken immigration as the main driver fueling population growth. This has huge implications for the future political development of these new U.S. citizens, whose worldview will be shaped by American society, news outlets, cultural norms, and interests. Further, the Hispanic population is extremely diverse in terms of the number of decades some Hispanic-Americans have been residing in the U.S. As Esther Cepeda of the Seattle Times reminds us: ‘There are the first- or second-generation U.S.-born Latinos and also those who can trace their ancestors back to the Mexican-American War of the mid-1840s. Their ages range from 18 to 80 and older.’ Thus, some Hispanics like to consider themselves Americans of Hispanic descent, while others prefer to be called ‘Latino’ or ‘Hispanic-American,’ or the country-specific designation of ‘Cuban-American’ or ‘Mexican-American.’ Politicians must become more aware of the subtleties involved when it comes to addressing diverse subsets of the ‘Hispanic’ designation. Immigration and the DREAM Act are obviously issues that affect many Hispanics, yet they are not the issues that are the priority for most Hispanics. In the swing state of Florida where Hispanics make up roughly 1.6 million of 11.6 million registered voters, Cubans and Puerto-Ricans are not nearly as concerned about immigration as are different Hispanic populations largely found in the West and Southwest part of the country. Cubans have a special immigration status, while Puerto-Ricans are U.S. citizens. Thus, Florida Hispanics overall tend to focus more on the economy and small business creation, and they also tend to place more value on a candidates’s foreign policy credentials, given the high number of political refugees from Latin America concentrated in South Florida. Any sign of appeasement or weakness toward Chavez, the Castro brothers, or Ortega could very well sink a candidate’s campaign among Florida Hispanics in the general election.

The current 2012 Presidential aspirants, including President Obama, would do well to remember that the Hispanic vote cannot and should not be taken for granted. In assuming that all Hispanics think a certain way or are predisposed to  I argue that for a candidate to win a sizable portion of the Hispanic-American voting bloc, he must appeal to Hispanic-Americans in a holistic manner that is sensitive to the many diverse concerns and needs of this rapidly expanding (and young) segment of the population. Talk about jobs, better quality healthcare, improved educational opportunities, and safer neighborhoods, not just immigration and “illegals.” It’s about time that American elected officials devote more sincere thought to their understanding of the many complex issues Americans of Hispanic descent (as well as first generation Hispanic-Americans) face. Grasping the subtle cultural, political, and social differences of varying subsets within the Hispanic population will signal a candidate’s respect for the intelligence of the Hispanic-American voter, and that alone may alter the trajectory of political discourse and Hispanic voter participation for decades to come.

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