Stop the Latino Apathy and Become an American Participant!

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

4 comments on “Stop the Latino Apathy and Become an American Participant!

  1. Virgilio Alvarez on said:

    Dear Sir:

    As a Cuban refugee from the most violent dictatorship our continent has ever witnessed, including the Spanish conquest, I agree with you that all Hispanics need to be involved in the political process.

    What you failed to say is that early Cuban political refugees came here to become Americans. We did not come here to become dependents. This mentality, although it does not apply to the many hard-working Hispanics, unfortunately does apply to way too many of us who see this nation as provider of freebies. That has got to stop if we are to become independent and free.

    We got help from the Federal government when we arrived, but we shed that umbilical cord rapidly because we wanted the kind of independence that providing for oneself provides. When you depend on the government, or anyone for that matter, you have to follow their rules. If you want real freedom and the American Dream, you must forget about the promises of any kind of help from the government. This is the country of the “self-made man”. All the wealth created by in this country was created by private industry, not by government entitlements. The American government has not created and will never create anything. On the contrary, it has been an obstacle to even more wealth creation. All the government wants to do is “spread the wealth around” That is not the road to freedom and the American Dream.

    Remember, knowledge is power. Economic freedom is also power. By taxing Americans to the hilt, the government reduces our power and we are transferring that power to the few elites who are slowly taking over our government. The government does not want competition. Since they control the taxing power, they want to reduce the number of corporations and individuals with money who can provide freedom to their employees. When everyone works for the government (Cuba), only the government has power. Why do you think the Castro’s do not allow free enterprise? Because if there are private individuals who have private wealth, that becomes a threat to them. This is a lesson we need to learn.

    In addition, we embrace the principles by which this nation was created, especially the Constitution, The Bill of Rights, respect for the law, the principles espoused by our Founding Fathers, capitalism, free markets, less government (especially). In Cuba, the government owns everything, yes, including the lives of every Cuban, whether they are part of the government or not. Even Cubans who leave the country and leave family behind are still captives of that system because they need to help their families back home. If Cuba was such a paradise, there would be no need to send any money to your relatives.

    The secret about the truth of the Castro dictatorship has been very conveniently hidden from the masses in Latin America, America and the world at large. There is a conspiracy by the left-wing media and the communists to create a certain aura about the Castro’s revolution that this is the model to follow. And now, they want to institute these same principles in this nation by the Democrats, who are no more than socialists disguised as democrats, just like the Castro’s were until they got full power.

    Please make sure that you wake up the Hispanics that our enemies are not those who want to conserve this great nation. After all, we came to this country because it is a nation of laws and then we want to come here and break their laws! This does not make sense! Do we want to convert this nation into what our nations are?

    There is a certain element that has infiltrated the Hispanic movement that is what makes many citizens cringe. When we see the Che Guevara T-shirts, the hammer and sickle flags and other manifestation like these in the Hispanic movement, it turns a lot of people off, including many Cuban-American who know what these people want to do to this country.

    I hope that you understand where I am coming from. I Love my heritage and I am proud to be a Cuban by birth, just like Italians, Irish, Anglos etc. are. But in this nation, we can celebrate our heritage in freedom. Something that many of our nations do not allow! And that, unfortunately, includes México and some of their immigration laws and behavior. Ladies and Gentlemen, we need to put our own houses in order before we come to this great nation to try and give them lectures!

    We need to get rid of our dictators, from the right and from the left. We need to get rid of the corrupt elements. The American people were and are willing to give their lives for their way of life. We, on the other hand, are willing to flee instead of fight our ills back home. Why?

    If there was no America to run to, what would be do? Where would we go? This is the reason why we must fight to preserve this nation and the reasons why it became so great.

    I appreciate the opportunity to express my opinion and welcome any comments.

    Thank you.

  2. Ricardo A. López on said:

    Virgilio, thank you for posting. I agree that nobody should come into this country with a dependent mentality. However, we should point out that the great majority of Latino immigrants come here to work and are very hard workers. I recently conducted a study where I interviewed many managers from companies who typically hire Latino workers. The overwhelming opinion was that Latinos consistently worked harder and were more productive than non-Hispanics, especially in the construction industry. This study centered on companies who hire Hispanics from Mexico and central America.

    I also conducted a study a few years ago with new Cuban immigrants. There we saw a completely different story because these were Latinos who grew up in Castro’s regime and under the impression that the government is supposed to provide everything for them. They often came to the U.S. with a “candy store” mentality and expressed frustration in the realization that the “candy store” is available; but only if you earn it.

  3. Virgilio Alvarez on said:

    Mr. Lopez:

    You are absolutely right about recent Cuban arrivals. I know several who are very hard working individuals and they feel badly because those “candy store” Cubans give them a bad name.

    I am sure that the Latinos from other countries feel the same about their countrymen/women who are here only to disrupt and give us all a bad name. Unfortunately, the media sometimes plays this card because it sells. I am tired of seeing Che Guevara T-shirts and other symbols that have nothing to do with hard-working Latinos and the life that we came here to seek and the principles under which we want to raise our children.

    This is our most important task: To root-out of our movement these agitators and infiltrated communists who want to disgrace our ethnicity.

    One more thing, the worst thing that we can do to our children is to insist on bi-lingual education. We must stop that. When I came to this country, at 15 years of age, it only took me a few months to learn my way around in English. There was no bi-lingual education and you do not have any idea about how glad I am of that. Bilingual education is only a demagoguery tool and it only limits our children in their advancement in this nation.

    My daughter is completely bilingual because we taught her Spanish at home, which is where that belongs. Although it is only conversational at the beginning, they can pursue a better understanding of the Spanish language, such as grammar, etc. as they grow older. But, English is the tool that will set them free in this country.

    I would like to know you opinion on these matters.

    Sincerely, Virgilio Alvarez

  4. toyota camry on said:

    Great blog! much appreciated.

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