This article was first published under the title “A Matter of Influence” on October 24, 2009 in Connections, the newsletter of the Southwest Florida’s Hispanic Business Link (See A Matter of Influence).
Latinos are beginning to understand the importance of their participation in the United States’ social, legal, and political system. The significance of this understanding cannot be overemphasized. For years Hispanics have exercised little influence in U.S. politics. And while Hispanics account for 15% of the total U.S. population, the Latino participation in the electoral process has always had a significant lag when compared to the general population and to that of other ethnicities. In last year’s election, however, voter participation among eligible Hispanics increased; with the voter turnout rate rising 3 percentage points, from 47% in 2004 to 50% in 2008. Still, the numbers do not reflect the Latino potential and the Latino turnout rate does not come close to that of other groups. Among Whites, for example, the turnout rate was 66% in 2008. The main problem affecting Latino participation in U.S. politics is rooted on social indifference and political apathy. This article explores the reasons behind this Latino indifference and demonstrates how successes in Latino political leadership are driving Hispanics to finally engage in the U.S. social and political arena.
Here are some of the reasons why it is difficult to get Latinos to participate:
- Most Latinos are recent immigrants. Most of them have come to the U.S. looking for financial stability. At the outset, the primary objective of most new Latino immigrants is not to set roots in the U.S. Many come with the idea of living here temporarily in order to get enough financial stability to enable them to return to their country of origin. Statistics show that they do eventually set roots and the returns rarely happen; however, this new immigrant mindset greatly hinder Latino participation in a society that they are not yet embracing.Not all Latinos come to the U.S. for economic reasons. Recent political and criminal unrest in Latin American is driving Latinos here for political and social concerns as well. If these Latinos are to follow the footsteps of their Cuban counterparts who fled Cuba in the late 50s for political reasons, we can expect a different mindset when it comes to social integration. Cubans have been historically much more involved in the U.S. society than other recent immigrants.
- Latinos often come from countries where regular citizens have little influence in the political and social makeup of their nation. Many governments in Latin America do not give their people the level of political influence that is relished by U.S. residents. These Latinos have learned through experience that corruption drives politics and that societal change is only affected through the power granted by money and social status. Many come to the U.S. with the idea that citizen participation in government is a futile endeavor.
- Even when Latinos do not see the U.S. government as corrupt or power driven as that of their country of origin, many Hispanics hesitate getting involved because they may have an elevated image of U.S. government effectiveness and/or do not feel it is appropriate to get involved. Research has shown that many Latinos do not get involved because they feel they know very little and cannot make a meaningful contribution or feel that their opinions would not be necessarily welcomed.
- Latinos generally have a lower level of education. Some Hispanics may not understand the workings of the U.S. political system well enough to know how to engage in society at a political level.
- For many Latinos being involved in politics still mean following the events that transpire in their country of origin. Their political connection and engagement remains abroad.
- Language can be a barrier for participation at many levels of government.
Despite all of these, there are many reasons why Latinos are becoming more involved in the American society and all indicators point to an increasing level of Latino engagement in U.S. government affairs. Two factors that are helping turn the involvement tide include societal education/acculturation, and the visual presence of Latino leaders and politicians who make Latinos feel welcomed by asking for their engagement. The insurgence of Latinos in prominent positions at all levels of government and society is crucial in making Hispanics feel that they are truly a part of the American social structure.
Latino engagement and acculturation are sometimes interlaced. The first Latinos who engaged in American politics were Mexican-Americans who were already “acculturated” in the sense that the U.S. came to them (as opposed to them coming to the U.S.). After the Mexican war of 1846, Mexicans living in the U.S. were granted U.S. citizenship, and some Mexican leaders ended up being the first Latinos to become members of the Congress and the Senate. New Mexico became the first state with significant Latino influence and involvement and it is largely due to the proliferation of Latino governors, senators, and members of congress from that state. Puerto Ricans were also granted U.S. citizenship after the Spanish-American war and Puerto Ricans became more engaged in U.S. politics in the late 19th century. Cuban Americans who left Cuba during and after the revolution were granted residency and many became citizens. Leaders from this era evolved; Jose Más Canosa, for example, became a leader of Cubans in the U.S. and was effective in winning Cuban votes for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Busch. Second generation Cubans, like senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, have become great influencers in driving Latino participation.
One area that greatly affected (and continues to affect) Latino participation was the segmentation within the Hispanic community. Many Latinos like the early Mexicans and Puerto Ricans united because of their country of origin and did not see themselves as members of one cohesive and much larger voting block. While segmentation by country of origin is still happening, many Latinos now are aware of the benefit of uniting as one voice. This unification was loosely established in 1976 (and formalized in 1978) with the creation of the Hispanic Caucus; an organization whose goal is to promote Latino leadership and promote issues affecting Latinos.
For Latinos to completely feel connected to the American society and to have a normal sense of belonging to their new country they need to be appropriately represented in government. While we are definitely moving in the right direction, it is crucial to continue to unite as one voice and to promote Latino leadership in all aspects of society. The sometimes prevalent Latino mentality that sees “Americans” as separate from Hispanics also needs to be addressed. To promote participation and belongingness we need to unequivocally declare ourselves as members of the American nation. By using this form of “acculturation” mentality we can more easily become a part of American politics in the way that the early Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and Cubans did.