Are Hispanics in the U.S. a Unified Voting Bloc?

Copyright 2016 (all rights reserved)

By Rudy Apodaca

(a slightly shorter version published as a guest column on April 2, 2016
in the Austin American-Statesman)

     The news media commonly treat U. S. Hispanics—aka Latinos—as a unified voting bloc in their coverage. Exploring the accuracy of that assumption uncovers fascinating features about American Hispanics.

     A few days ago, a fellow Mexican-American noted that Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio—who’s now dropped out of the presidential race—were wrong in thinking they had a chance of capturing the Hispanic vote. Most Hispanics he’d spoken to, he explained, wouldn’t support either of them. The “Hispanics” he spoke of were Mexican-American—or Chicanos—he knew in Texas, not Cuban or Puerto Rican.

     I agreed that a great number, if not a majority, of Chicanos wouldn’t support those candidates. There are two reasons for this. First, a high number of Chicanos traditionally support Democratic candidates because generally they’re aligned with the candidates’ social policies. Second, despite some commonalities, Mexican-Americans, due to cultural and historical differences, share little in common with other Hispanic subgroups.

     Years ago, when I was an appellate judge, I was on the National Hispanic Bar Association’s list submitted to President Clinton of prospective nominees to the U. S. Supreme Court. At the time, Bill Richardson, the former New Mexico governor, was a member of the House of Representatives and the majority chief deputy whip. He and I met in his offices on Capital Hill on the Supreme Court vacancy. In seeking his support, I reminded him of the Mexican-Americans’ long history in our country and the fact that we comprise almost 65% of Hispanics in the U. S. For that reason, I suggested, the first Latino appointed to the highest court should be a Chicano. He smiled, saying that I made a good point.

     According to the 2010 U. S. Census, Hispanics represent 16.3 percent (50.5 million) of the total population. Latinos consist of six sub-groups: Mexican-American (64.9 percent of Hispanics); Puerto Rican (9.2 percent); Cuban (3.7 percent); South & Central Americans (14.7 percent); Spaniards (1.4 percent); others (Europeans & the Dominican Republic 6.1 percent).

     Years later, I realized how parochial my suggestion to the Congressman may have sounded. When Sonia Sotomayor, a Puerto Rican, sat on the Supreme Court as the court’s first Hispanic, I initially was disappointed that President Obama hadn’t chosen a Chicano. After I learned of Justice Sotomayor’s credentials, my head swelled with pride that a deserving appointment had happened.

     Based on the census, Mexican-Americans outnumber fivefold the Puerto Ricans and Cubans combined and represent almost twice as many of all Hispanics. So my comment to Richardson that the first Hispanic on the Supreme Court should be a Chicano, all other things being equal, was based on fact.

     But the six communities of Hispanics are far more complex and interesting than their differing sizes.

     Within each subgroup of Latinos, there exists a lack of cohesiveness, marked by jealousies that keep us from helping one another even in the political arena. I’ve observed this time and time again. More importantly, I’ve felt it whenever I myself have advanced in my career.

     As an analogy, I’ll relate the story of the fisherman on the lake bank with a bucket full of live crawfish bait. Noticing the crawfish trying to climb out, a passerby warns, “You’re about to lose your bait.” “No I won’t,” replies the man. “Those are Mexican crawfish.” “What difference does that make?” “Well, when one of them gets near the top, the others always pull him back down.”

     Most of us have seen that happen in real life—but only Chicanos can tell the story and get away with it without being labeled racist.

     This tale represents my own thinking on the lack of cohesion. Too many times—first hand—I’ve seen resentment and ill will from those who dislike seeing their fellow paisano get ahead in the world, whether in politics or in other pursuits. Lest anyone accuse me of unfairly criticizing my “own people” or being divisive, let me remind you that what I write about happens within all other ethnic and religious groups. Rather than being divisive, I’m drawing attention to a persisting flaw in human nature and culture.

     These issues are sensitive and rarely spoken of among Hispanics. Nor would Latinos be proud to share them outside their own circles.

     I’ll leave it to those in academia to weigh the need for socially unifying leaders to rectify any inner divisions and to enable non-Hispanics to recognize the complexities and richness of the term Hispanic.

     But I’d urge my fellow Latinos to break the silence about a touchy subject and deepen communications within and between our communities. That would be a big step.