Power, Justice, and Survival: Latino Politics in the 21st Century

Alfonso Gonzales

In October the news media were abuzz with polling data showing that “only 51% of Latino registered voters absolutely intended to participate in the November mid-term elections, compared with 70% of all registered voters.”1 Latino voters were “particularly dejected,” concluded The New York Times. This seemed plausible: After all, the economy has left millions of Latinos unemployed, and the nation’s foreclosure crisis has hit millions of Latino families. And not only have the Democrats failed to deliver on immigration reform, but the Obama administration has escalated President George W. Bush’s immigration dragnet, resulting in a 70% increase in deportations over the previous administration.2

Yet early post-election reports indicate that Latino turnout increased over the last mid-term election, in 2006, in those states with the highest Latino populations.3 Moreover, the Latino vote was pivotal in certain contests, such as Nevada’s Senate race, in which a robust Latino vote helped keep the Democratic incumbent Harry Reid in office. According to election eve polling data released by the group Latino Decisions, 47% of Latino voters said they voted “to support and represent the Latino community,” while 43% said they showed up to support a specific candidate.4Thus the Times and other media outlets made a bad assumption: that uninspired Latino voters would stay home. Such an assumption underestimates the political sophistication of Latinos, many of whom could simultaneously be disappointed with Democrats but also vote for them as a defensive measure against the virulently anti-immigrant Republicans.

Now that the Republican Party has won a majority in the House and gained five seats in the Senate, as well as key governorships, many Latinos will continue to engage in electoral politics, carrying on the defense against further Republican encroachments.5 But Latino politics is not limited to the electoral arena; many Latinos will also continue to organize at the grassroots level, where they have historically been effective in mobilizing at the local, national, and transnational levels. Indeed, at its core, Latino politics in the 21st century is a struggle for power, survival, and social justice that takes place both at the polls and on the streets.

After all it was Latinos who were primarily responsible for the 2006 mega-marchas, a series of large, nationwide demonstrations—perhaps the largest in U.S. history—against a draconian immigration bill produced by a Republican-controlled House. Indeed, power for Latinos, or anyone, is much more than the ability to shape election outcomes; it is a group’s ability to have its needs and demands met. And it plays a key role in determining a group’s ability to both survive and to secure social justice, especially in politically hostile environments like the one the Republican-controlled House is likely to produce.

As the political theorist Cristina Beltrán points out, there is no singular “Latino politics,” just as there is no single “Latino community.”6 Latinos are a multilingual constellation of nationalities, races, ethnicities, and cultures; they have distinct class interests, ranging from a small—but significant—group of corporate and political elites to a growing middle class of professionals and business owners. The largest sector of Latinos, however, is the working class, which often lives on the margins of society. Despite these differences, however, the concept of Latino politics allows us to refer to the collective set of strategies, tactics, and genealogies of struggle that this heterogeneous group draws upon in its political struggles.

To illustrate some of the spaces in which Latino politics takes place, we have reached out to a new generation of Latino political scientists, most of whom have come of age in the context of the anti-migrant backlash and the Latino migrant movement to emerge over the last two decades. The articles collected in this edition of the NACLA Report cover the emergence of contemporary Latino social movements and shed light on the structural basis for Latino politics on the ground. They capture the sub-national and transnational dimensions of Latino social movements on questions around immigration policy, U.S. intervention in El Salvador, and in some cases for the very right to be indigenous, Afro-Latino, a woman, or all of the above. As several of the authors note, such struggles do not take place in a vacuum but in a structural context of the global economic crisis, and in the shadow of an ongoing national debate around immigration and citizenship under the Obama administration that could either facilitate or limit the potential for progressive interracial coalitions.

The first article by Alfonso Gonzales sheds light on the different approaches to strategy among Latinos in the immigrant rights movement under the constraints imposed by the Democratic Party’s consensus on immigration policy. Gonzales notes that the Democrats’ approach to immigration reform prioritizes enforcement and “security,” and discusses how Latinos in the United States could draw on lessons from Latin American social movements to change the terms of the current immigration debate. Along similar lines, but in a different context, Chris Zepeda’s article illustrates how Mexicans in south Florida organized massive pro-migrant marches in the spring of 2006 without the resources and established social movement organizations as their urban counterparts in places like Los Angeles and New York City. Both Gonzales and Zepeda illustrate the vibrancy and regional depth of the Latino migrant movement, drawing on examples in major cities and in rural areas in 2006 and in 2010.

Héctor Perla Jr.’s article focuses on the evolution of transnational Salvadoran civil society in the aftermath of El Salvador’s civil war (1980–92). He reminds us that Salvadorans have, and continue to be, a strong political force on the question of U.S. policy toward their homeland, employing a unique model of transnational organizing. Further illustrating the link between Latino politics and Latin American politics, Marisol Raquel Gutiérrez illustrates how indigenous Oaxaqueña women in Los Angeles have become transnational political actors. Gutierrez discuses how indigenous Mexican women played an important role in their home state’s gubernatorial election in April, when the incumbent Ulises Ruiz of the PRI government was defeated by Gabino Cué, a progressive candidate, ending the PRI’s 80-year reign in the state.

Finally, Claudia Sandoval and Raymond Rocco discuss the structural context for understanding how politics plays out in Latino communities. Sandoval focuses on the barriers to African American and Latino coalition politics in Chicago posed by the discourse on citizenship. Rocco discusses how neoliberal restructuring and the global economic crisis both contain and limit the possibility of change through electoral politics. He also calls into question approaches to the study of Latino politics that limit discussion over the political to the electoral arena and proposes an alternative way for understanding Latino politics. This issue of NACLA also includes voices from the frontlines of Latino political struggles. Esther Portillo, a board member of the Salvadoran American National Association, discusses the Salvadoran American–led campaign to prevent U.S. intervention in the 2009 presidential elections in El Salvador. Miriam Jimenez, director of the Afro-Latino Forum, urges Afro-Latinos to be counted in this year’s U.S. Census.

Despite the Republican upsurge during the midterm elections, the articles in this issue of NACLA remind us that from Los Angeles to New York, from Chicago to the Deep South, and from Oaxaca to El Salvador, Latino communities will remain entrenched in power struggles for social justice and their very survival.


1. Marc Lacey, “Latino Vote Likely to Lag, Polls Says,” The New York Times, October 5, 2010.

2. Department of Homeland Security, “Secretary Napolitano Announces Record-breaking Immigration Enforcement Statistics Achieved under the Obama Administration,” press release, October 6, 2010.

3. Andres Ramirez, “2010 Latino Electoral Performance - A Brief Analysis,” blog entry, NDN Blog, ndn.org/blog, November 3, 2010.

4. Latino Decisions, “Latino Election Eve Poll Results: November 2, 2010,” blog entry, latinodecisions.wordpress.com, November 2, 2010.

5. Michael Tomasky, “Turnout: Explains a Lot,” The Guardian (London), November 3, 2010, guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/michaeltomasky.

6. Cristina Beltrán, The Trouble With Unity: Latino Politics and the Creation of Identity (Oxford University Press, 2010).

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