It was all going so well last year. Dora the Explorer and her cousin Diego were the most popular pre-schoolers around. Everyone shook their hips to the music of Shakira. America rooted for America on “Ugly Betty,” and beauty in this country was increasingly defined by names like Alba, Lopez, Hayek and Longoria. In the media and entertainment race, if we weren’t winning, few would argue with Latinos being awarded the silver.
Since this presidential race began, however, Latinos have been on the losing end of the media dialogue. Activists used to rail that we were underrepresented in primetime television. Our current prominence in both immigration scare ads and coverage of overheated campaign rhetoric makes me wistful for the good old days when we were simply invisible. I had no idea how good we had it.
Given the current political climate and media coverage, many Americans would be surprised to learn that a majority of Latinos are not immigrants “living in the shadows,” but citizens who were actually born in this country. In fact, far from the shadows, most of us live in places that are only occasionally cloudy, like California and Florida. In Texas, where I’m from, we say “we didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.” Not only that, but according to the Pew Hispanic Center, when it comes to the Latino electorate, only a quarter of Hispanic voters are naturalized citizens; three-quarters of us were born here. But 100 percent of us have to listen to the immigrant-bashing and -blaming, which frankly, sounds a lot like Latino-bashing and -blaming.
Even former friends have turned their backs: Governor Huckabee, who had been known for his Christian compassion toward immigrants back in Arkansas became the first presidential candidate to sign a no–amnesty pledge that promises to rid our nation of the scourge of people willing to pick our fruit, clean our homes and construct our buildings for less than a living wage. (Can someone who doesn’t believe in evolution still be called a Neanderthal?)
However, it was a Democrat who brought us the Latino low point of the campaign thus far –though it’s a long way to November. After the Nevada caucus, Clinton strategist and pollster Sergio Bendixen asserted in an interview that Hispanic voters have not shown a “willingness or affinity to support black candidates.” So, in addition to our repeatedly being maligned this election as job-stealing, law-breaking, burdensome and generally unwanted, we can now add racist to the mix. Far worse than the comment’s inaccuracy was that it was picked up and repeated by media outlets to the point that it became unchallenged dogma within a week. So in addition to showcasing the media’s lack of understanding of Latino voters and/or journalistic rigor, a politically motivated comment from a campaign advisor now has the uniquely dangerous opportunity to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Certainly some Latinos are racist (after all, we’re American, aren’t we?) But the fact is, Latino political support has long been a part of successful African-American candidacies. For example, in Los Angeles, New York, Dallas and Chicago, a majority of Latinos helped put those cities’ first African-American mayors into office. In fact in one of his own prior studies, Bendixen noted that large majorities of Hispanics credited “American Blacks and the civil rights movement with making life easier for them here.”
My own belief is that the current Latino support for Clinton has little if anything to do with the fact that she’s white. Rather, just as retailers struggle to get Latino shoppers to buy store (generic) brands, Latino voters tend to default to established political brands.
Throughout the last election (which apparently coincided with the metaphor shortage of ’04), the Latino vote was universally referred to as “America’s sleeping giant.” Given the tone of this race thus far, I think it’s understandable that a lot of us may be ready to go back to bed. Wake me when it’s over.
Christy Hawbegger is the publisher of Latina Magazine.