Several years ago, shortly before the 2016 elections, I was having a drink with an acquaintance of mine, another Latino Brown alumni, who we’ll call Mando Gonzalez. Other than our last names and our Brown degrees, Mando and I don’t have much in common, but we hit it off at an alumni function and went on to get the occasional drink or coffee when we find ourselves in the same city. When the conversation turned to the election and how much Hillary Clinton needed the Latino vote, Mando said something that I found nearly blasphemous at the time, but that I’ve pondered since. I paraphrase, but he said: “There is no Latino vote; Latino identity is an invention of academia.”
His point, as he further explained, was that Latino-ness is something your kids “catch” when they go to college, like feminism. And not just any kind of college, but a predominantly white institution. Had Mando, the son of Mexican immigrants who was reared in a Spanish-speaking Los Angeles household, gone to, say, UCLA—a school with a 21 percent Hispanic population (about 6,600 students), and whose Chicano-studies program is nearly 20 years old—he would have likely emerged with a different worldview. Surrounded by so many other Hispanics of similar backgrounds, he argued, he likely would have just considered himself Mexican American. Mando felt that having the rarified experience of being part of a pan-ethnic Hispanic minority at a predominantly white institution is what gave the term Latino emotional and intellectual resonance. (To help paint a picture, Brown—by no means an outlier among the Ivies—boasts a 10 percent Latino enrollment rate, which is about 1,000 students. This number includes students from every Latino ethnic and geographic background that the U.S. has to offer.)
I found myself thinking of Mando this weekend while reading the recent New York Times coverage of Mayra Flores, the newly elected, ultraconservative congresswoman in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley. I was wringing my hands the whole time, yet I was also utterly unsurprised. I wasn’t surprised that Flores and other conservative Latinas’ success in running for office has largely been fueled by the power of Latina political organizing—something the Hillary Clinton campaign tried to tap into as well. I also wasn’t surprised that Flores’s simple slogan, “God, Family, Country,” was persuasive; it clearly reflects the values of a certain slice of her predominantly Mexican American, pro-law-enforcement region of South Texas.
But here’s what had me wringing my hands: I could very easily see that slogan having appeal in pockets of Florida, Arizona, Central California, and even parts of New York. As we watch this Hispanic drift toward the GOP, I wonder: What, exactly, are Democrats offering “Latinx” voters? (Indeed, that very language is somewhat polarizing, as just 3 percent of the Hispanic population uses the term, but that’s a newsletter for another day.) What, beyond the blanket and possibly patronizing presumption that Latino voters all see themselves as people of color and therefore are voting against their own interests by voting Republican, is being offered up? Or, to return to Mando’s take, how do you make a compelling case for voting around Latinx identity politics when only a micro-segment of the population feels an emotional tether to that identity? In a community like Flores’s, which is overwhelmingly not just Hispanic, but Mexican American, what aspect of a pan-ethnic identity do voters there connect with? Do they connect with such an identity at all?
Personally, getting to college and finding a Latino community was a salve for me. I am of mixed Puerto Rican and Mexican American heritage; I spent my school years in Brooklyn and the summers in Northern California with my paternal grandmother. No single identity felt fully correct, and at that time it didn’t matter, because in the streets of Brooklyn, you were just “Spanish.” When I got to college, the term Latino, which spoke to my own pan-ethnic identity, felt like a comfortable identity to embrace. (I preferred it to Hispanic, which, in my opinion, put the colonizer in the center of our experience.) Away from my family and home and with such a small group of us on this largely white campus, the Latino community became my family. I learned how to cumbia from my Colombian friends, perfected my bachata with my Dominican ones, and developed a familiarity and affection for the cultures of many other ethnicities and experiences that comprise what we think of as Latinx in the United States. (While I tend to use the terms interchangeably, I personally prefer Latin, Latine, or Latinx, in a sign of respect for my gender-nonbinary brothers and sisters out there, although I also understand the resistance.)
My experience is rare. Going away to college is what gave me access to Latine diversity, yet only about 16 percent of Latinos have college degrees. (Again, a gap that merits its own post.) Within that group, students are overwhelmingly attending local community colleges, state schools, and regional private, often religious, institutions, with majority minority or Latinx populations. Couple that with the sheer fact that nearly 72 percent of Americans live near where they were born and raised; that number includes Hispanic Americans, who traditionally have gravitated to certain regions and areas based on ethnicity. What we can extrapolate is that most Hispanic Americans are living a highly specific, regional experience of their identity. Even among college-educated Hispanics, the pan-ethnic experience that made Latino identity into more than just a demographic term for me is not a universal one.
Maybe Mando was right. Yes, part of the Democrats’ problem with the Latino vote is their laziness in failing to look at the regional cultures and concerns of the Hispanic electorate and tailoring their messages to that (or their refusal to even use the terminology most Hispanics prefer). But I believe it’s also, as David Shor has pointed out, a blind spot that Democratic campaigns have developed, in which they over-index the worldview and experiences of the college graduate. As Shor’s theory was paraphrased in Politico:
Although young people as a whole turn out to vote at a lower rate than the general population, the aforementioned type of young person is actually overrepresented within the core of the Democratic Party’s infrastructure. According to Shor, the problem with this permanent class of young staffers is that they tend to hold views that are both more liberal and more ideologically motivated than the views of the coveted median voter, and yet they yield a significant amount of influence over the party’s messaging and policy decisions. As a result, Democrats end up spending a lot of time talking about issues that matter to college-educated liberals but not to the multiracial bloc of moderate voters that the party needs to win over to secure governing majorities in Washington.
In my experience volunteering in politics, this holds true for the young Latinx movers and shakers seeking to make a mark in politics as well. A quick search of “emerging leaders” celebrated by the Biden administration last Hispanic Heritage Month reveals a talented bunch of young staffers, all of whom, as expected, have four-year degrees, many from elite, predominantly white institutions, where I would imagine they, like me, found some comfort in their pan-ethnic Latino communities. But their reality is not reflective of the reality of Mayra Flores’s constituents, many of whose families have lived in the Rio Grande Valley since before it was Texas, and the majority of whom are Mexican American.
When every candidate on the ballot is Mexican American, what matters to voters is not an allegiance based on identity, but which candidates’ values (God, family, country) are aligned with their own. I don’t know what the midterms will hold, and I can’t even wrap my head around the 2024 presidential race, but what I can tell you is that any candidate who comes out with a blanket Latinx Outreach Strategy isn’t going to win over the Hispanic voter.