How my father and the 9 percent of the electorate that is Latino choose to vote should be of paramount concern to electoral strategists, especially as the primaries move to the Latino-packed West. My father and other Latinos' fluid vote is neither indecisiveness nor anti-black racism. The flux of the Latino voter reflects how history, culture and the candidates' equivocations around immigration politics continue to influence the protean Latino electorate. Either an Obama-McCain or a Clinton-McCain race would highlight how the votes of racially ambiguous Latinos bounce between red and blue in current American politics.
Unlike the black vote, which is consistently among the most reliably liberal -- especially black youth, who polls find are the most progressive voters in the country -- the Latino vote has proven to be more fluid. Their voting goes hand in hand with both their interests and their culture. During the 2004 presidential election, George W. Bush's Spanish-language appeals and promises of immigration reform won him somewhere between 37 to 44 percent of the Latino vote, a major increase from what he got in 2000. Latino voters like my father had never had their vote courted as it was in 2004.
McCain's unique challenge to Democrats for the Latino vote comes down to simple math: his GOP rivals' zeal to win white votes with anti-immigrant appeals is perceived by my father ("I'll be below the earth before voting for any of them") and other Latinos, as severely anti-immigrant and anti-Latino, if not racist. McCain's calls to treat immigrants "humanely" during the Spanish-language GOP debate contrasted strikingly with the smiley "get tough" talk of his shrill opponents.
My father and other voters heard the mantra of McCain alongside the hallowed Kennedy name during daily Spanish-language media reports about "reforma migratoria" (immigration reform) for nearly two years. That still echoes in the Latino electorate. McCain's recent about face on immigration and his new "border security first" approach will only guarantee that my father embraces his inclination to vote for a Democrat. He also wants to vote to overcome the divisive legacy of racism.
For my father, the appeal of Obama and Clinton is rooted in memories of the civil rights era, which the telegenic Illinois senator so eloquently invokes. When Obama waxes King-like about the inequities of our racial past or when Clinton marches with black leaders, I see my father, a former union shop steward, remembering when he had to listen to white union representatives at Southern Pacific Railroad begin meetings by greeting workers in the audience with: "Ladies and gentlemen -- and you colored folks too." Obama's youthful message of moral clarity about the past, his political poetry of "reconciliation," reverberates as loudly with my father as do the echoes of the Clinton years.
But when Democrats are evasive -Ð as in Clinton's driver's license flip-flop or when Obama vacillated after being asked by Univision anchors about his vote for the border wall -- I see the moral and political opening exploited by Bush in 2004, and McCain before 2008. My father and most Latinos reject the wall as a "muro de la muerte" (wall of death). That the immigration debate merits neither Clinton's attention nor Obama's abundant rhetorical powers explains Latinos' frustration (documented in the recent Pew Hispanic poll) and leaves many of us outside the wave of Obama-mania.
Obama and Clinton's Latino aspirations are further complicated by some of the more negative reports in Spanish-language media of what my father and other, mostly immigrant, Latinos perceive as anti-Latino racism and violence among some African Americans and whites. Failure to denounce the racial divisiveness proffered by Republicans -- and many Democrats -- creates not confusion, but apathy for Democratic-leaning Latinos like my father.
As the primary wagon heads to Latino-heavy states like Florida, California and southwestern states, the nuances and quirks of Latino voters will take on unprecedented import. "Al fin de todo" (In the end), reflects my father as he awaits his turn to vote, "puede que sea la misma cosa los dos partidos. Vamos a ver." (It may be that both parties are the same thing. We'll see.)
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Albion Monitor January
9, 2008 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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