What’s in a name? The label “Latino” is often used to describe a monolithic interest group or voting bloc. And while criticized as inaccurate because of Latinos’ diverse national, ethnic, and racial manifestations, as an organizing principal the label still conveys significant meaning—a narrative of shared experience—in both Latin America and the United States. Although Mexican Americans on the West Coast may have sharp differences with Puerto Rican migrants in New York and with Cuban Americans in Miami, what Latina/os have in common, besides a shared language and parallel cultures, is a history marked by U.S. intervention. It’s the result of that intervention that has for the most part driven immigration northward. While the hemisphere’s future will be determined by the continuously evolving political relationship between the United States and Latin America, the question is, what role will U.S. Latina/os play in that future?
In the 1960s and 1970s, the term “Latino” was embraced by a growing constituency of U.S.-born Latina/os who identified with the civil rights and national liberation movements of the era. They saw the term as an alternative to the Nixon administration’s use of “Hispanic,” a European-identified term with assimilationist connotations. But over the years, the “Latino” activist charge has waned; largely as a result of a perception created by corporate media and consumer marketers, Latina/os are now often cast as recent arrivals, imperfect English speakers, and “others” from el otro lado. This contradiction is reflected by the changing nature of U.S. Latina/o politics, in which crucial concerns around immigration policy have eclipsed, at least in public perception, the other class-based concerns of working people that historically have occupied a larger role in the left Latina/o agenda.
While free-trade policies aim to diminish borders to accommodate the flow of capital, the post-9/11 obsession with “national security” has refocused our attention on borders—whether it involves remilitarizing the one with Mexico or reasserting the class and race barriers that enforce segregation in our cities. Just as U.S. military intervention beginning in the early-twentieth century created migration flows to the north, so too as investment capital flows south, displaced populations move across the physical border, escaping, still, political persecution or economic devastation primarily caused by U.S. economic policy or U.S. support for anti-democratic governments.
The traditional view of U.S. Latina/o politics holds that the three dominant groups that wield political power are Mexicans, much of whose country was absorbed after the U.S.-Mexico war in 1848, and Puerto Ricans and Cubans, whose countries were ceded to the United States after the Spanish-American War in 1898 (with Puerto Rico still a U.S. territory). In the twentieth century, the political and cultural power and awareness of these groups matured, staking out three distinct regions of influence. Mexican descendants, who make up almost two-thirds of the U.S. Latina/o population, are concentrated in the West and Southwest; Puerto Ricans, who are born U.S. citizens and are therefore not technically immigrants, are concentrated in the Northeast; and Cuban-Americans are concentrated in South Florida.
In terms of political orientation, Mexican Americans are probably the most diverse. Although their political history has been anchored by citizenship and civil rights struggles and has produced a considerable left intelligentsia, the long-term experience of Mexican descendants in the United States has resulted in a slight uptick of conservative or libertarian tendency among class-ascendant Mexican Americans in various parts of the country. Puerto Ricans—because of factors ranging from their rejection of their colonial status, to their exposure to harsh discrimination in northern cities, to relatively low levels of educational and economic achievement—are mostly liberal-left. And Cuban exiles in South Florida, propped up by government entitlements for individuals and small businesses since their mass arrival in the early 1960s, form a bastion of right-leaning Latina/os that have been crucial to the electoral victories enjoyed by Ronald Reagan and both Bushes.
Yet these paradigms are shifting, along with Latina/os’ changing fortunes in the global economy.
The neoliberal free-trade era has caused increasing migrations from Mexico and Central America as it imposes ever-harsher conditions on maquiladora and agribusiness workers on both sides of the border. Ineffectual puppet governments in Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico also prompted immigration resulting from political violence and added new variations to the U.S. Latina/o political landscape. Beginning in the 1990s and accelerating through the 2000s, these new waves of Mexican and Central American immigration created unprecedented population flows to the U.S. south, particularly to Georgia, Virginia, and the Carolinas.
The 2006 economic crisis in Puerto Rico, caused primarily by debt speculation in U.S. bond markets, resulted in a migration of island residents of Puerto Rico to Central Florida. At the same time, mainland-raised Puerto Ricans are fleeing the Northeast, where the traditional base of manufacturing and public sector jobs has eroded greatly over the last 30 years. (This outward flow has also resulted in the growing influence in New York City of Dominicans—whose first generation of migration to U.S. shores came after the U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965.) These phenomena, as well the waning of hardcore anti-Castro politics among newer generations of Cuban Americans, certainly threatens Florida’s status as a Republican stronghold.
Other factors—like increased immigration of middle-class Colombians, Venezuelans, and Argentines to South Florida, as well as a more conservative strand of Puerto Rican migrants, some of whom are retired military personnel or members of the island’s rightist pro-statehood party—are significant but will most likely not affect the Democratic bent of Florida’s new Latina/o voters. But even with this new exploding Latina/o population throughout the rest of the South, it will be a generation or two before this mostly immigrant population—most of which is not eligible to vote—begins to play a significant role in electoral politics.
Whatever changes the new migrations to Florida and the U.S. South bring, the liberal Democratic political landscape of California and the Southwest has remained constant as a result of its status as the flashpoint of tension between mainstream America and Latina/os—who tend to resist the classic assimilationist path of other ethnic groups through a functional bilingualism and cultural identifications with music, dance, food, and other social practices. Even as Mexican Americans, and increasingly, naturalized Central Americans, experience some wealth accumulation and creeping interest in the tax-cutting mantras of the Republican Party, the conservative politics of fear and intolerance that has marked the mainstream response to increased migration to the region has solidified Latina/os’ anti-Republican leanings. Since most Latina/os in the region are intimately connected to an undocumented immigrant, the backlash against them—manifested in discriminatory law enforcement practices and a general increase in anti-Mexican sentiment—has also negatively affected Latina/os who have been U.S. citizens for generations.
Disagreement over strategy within the immigration reform movement erupted before the president finally announced his executive action in November, which would allow four million undocumented immigrants to live and work legally in the United States. It pitted younger and more autonomous activists—some associated with the “dreamer” movement—who insisted Obama act more swiftly, against more connected advocates with closer links to the Democratic Party, who urged patience so as not to damage the party’s chances in the midterm elections. Yet the Republican victories of those elections demonstrated that Obama, whose administration has overseen a record number of deportations, should have used his executive power earlier. Now that the reform process has begun, it should become clearer that it’s just one part of what should be a larger Latina/o political agenda.
Immigration reform is often perceived as the most important issue for Latina/os in the United States. And for good reason: it is a human rights issue that affects so many Latina/os directly and indirectly, as anti-immigrant hostility trickles down to all Latina/os, citizens or not. The humanitarian crisis of so many people living in hiding, facing the increased deportations of the Obama era, the threat of separated families, and the lack of basic rights in the workplace, has created a situation dangerously close to apartheid. But many recent polls suggest that Latina/os, while strongly concerned with immigration reform, are equally concerned with issues that affect those with citizenship or permanent resident status: the job market, affordable housing, the erosion of voting rights, and access to higher education.
These are the issues faced by African Americans, who have been marginalized repeatedly after continuing waves of European migration, as well as Asian Americans who do not fit into the model-minority demographic, and various other marginalized constituencies, including working-class whites. For all the celebration of contributions that Latina/o immigrants make to the United States, as well as the veneration of striving undocumented dreamer college graduates—a “talented tenth” of Latina/o immigrants—the reality is that many Latina/os tend to be plagued by a pattern of downward social mobility because of their lack of access to quality education, and vulnerability to entrenched systemic racism.
It’s important to understand that Latina/os come from a region, Latin America, whose societies are a product of the same colonial forces that brought together, in violent fashion, Europeans, Africans, and indigenous people. But although there was more race-mixing tolerated in Latin America, systematic race privileging has produced a society where lighter-skinned people generally accumulated more power and wealth than darker-skinned people. This means that although the theoretical “mestizo” racial unity Latina/os achieved in their home countries can sometimes hold in the United States, it can also be broken apart by the binary (black/white) racial codes of the United States. The result is that not all Latina/os are aligned in a political agenda in the way that the African American community is more known to be. Even while the furor over immigration reform has a unifying effect, Latina/o unity is not entirely assured.
Yet the growing wealth inequality in core capitalist countries worldwide has created more opportunity for diverse groups of people to come together in a common political cause. U.S. Latina/os can play a strong role in raising awareness of how labor is exploited across borders while we also are well suited to expose the exploitative and at times savage nature of U.S. foreign policy.
Turn-of-the-century Cuban revolutionary José Martí presaged this with his vision of “Our America,” a call for Latin American unity as the Spanish-American War erupted. As “Americans” with a broader hemispheric perspective, U.S. Latina/os remain a group with much invested in their home countries, and a clear understanding of how free trade agreements cast a glaring light on wage inequalities on both sides of the border. We can theoretically connect issues like the downward pressure on wages—a class issue regardless of race and ethnicity—with the destructive, inequality-creating neoliberal agenda that harms our home countries. Bringing all this into focus is a more comprehensive and potentially revolutionary agenda than merely advocating for immigrants to be allowed a pathway to citizenship solely on the terms of the status quo U.S. hemispheric agenda.
While aligning with the just and noble cause of bringing undocumented immigrants out of the shadows, Latina/os should also join with other U.S. Americans to demand reinvestment in public education, the right to unionize and engage in collective bargaining, the protection of local communities from neoliberal gentrification projects, and economic justice from queer and race-based lenses. Latina/os need not only to protect our most recent arrivals from ruthless exploitation, but also to reignite the legacy of our long history in the United States and continue to engage the struggles we embraces during the civil rights era and its aftermath.
It is encouraging for now that most Latina/os remain progressive, but as a national constituency we have the potential to help move that agenda further to the left. In this historical moment, Latina/os are uniquely positioned to push American politics to truly engage with racial and class differences, the need for a universal living wage, and just foreign policy—radically reshaping “Our America.”
Ed Morales is a freelance journalist and author of Living in Spanglish (St. Martin’s Press). He teaches at Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, and is a NACLA contributing editor. His forthcoming book is titled Raza Matters (Verso).
Read the rest of NACLA's 2015 Winter Issue: Mapping the Moment