Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Myth of the Latino Vote

It seems like pundits do almost nothing but slice and dice the electorate into what they wish were neatly organized and predictable groups - white voters, black voters, old voters, young voters, men, women, extra terrestrials...

I didn't think I could be more disgusted with the whole process until Richard Wolffe showed up on MSNBC talking about how Obama needed to court the Latino vote in Florida. Wolffe suggested that Obama was going to have to go down to Florida "speak their language" and "eat tacos." Eat tacos!!! Argh!!! His statement is ignorant and offensive on so many levels I hardly know where to begin.

Not all "Latinos" eat tacos. I challenge Mr. Wolffe to head over to the Cuban restaurant Puerto Sagua on Miami beach and try to find a taco on the menu.

Not all people from Latin America speak Spanish. There are hundreds of indigenous languages still spoken and some immigrants from Latin America have never spoken Spanish. That doesn't even begin to look at Portuguese, French and various creoles. Even Latinos in the U.S. whose families speak Spanish often don't speak Spanish themselves.

In fact, growing up in South Florida, the majority of my friends barely spoke enough Spanish to converse with their abuelas. As media executives Jeff Valdez and Jose Cancela explain in an interview with Hispanic Magazine, the vast majority of Latinos speak English and only about a quarter are considered "Spanish dominant" - and that's coming from the people trying to sell Spanish language ad space.

The idea of Latinos or Hispanics as a group is a creation of statisticians and advertising executives. If you don't believe me, check out Arlene Dávila's book Latinos Inc. In short, advertising executives convinced advertisers that there was this huge group of "Latinos" out there who all shared the same characteristics and could be advertised to as a group, on Spanish language television of course.

The truth is that a wealthy, white, educated, fervently anti-communist, Cuban revolution-era exile in Miami doesn't have the same political interests as a migrant laborer from Mexico picking strawberries in Watsonville, California.

A Spanish, African, and Taino descended Puerto Rican musician who splits her time between New York and the island does not have the same political interests as a Californio politician whose Spanish descended ancestors have been living on the same land since the 1700s.

"Latinos" covers every conceivable background, history, economic status, and educational level. Trying to figure out how Latinos are going to vote based on the fact that they come from some place in the non-anglo dominated Americas is absurd.

A Cuban friend of mine once told me that she was a Republican because John F. Kennedy screwed up the Bay of Pigs and Cubans have never forgotten that betrayal. Some Mexican Catholics, on the other hand, are known for having pictures of JFK prominently displayed in their homes right next to Jesus and the pope. Are you trying to tell me they are going to vote the same?

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