There’s No Such Thing as “the Latino Vote”

Geraldo Cadava

Latino voters, just like any other group, are divided along class and ideological lines. The key to winning working-class Latinos to a left politics is to offer a positive vision that materially improves their lives.

Sophia Hildalgo (L) and Amore Rodriguez of Miami stay with their car decorated in "Cubans for Biden paint as Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden delivered remarks during a drive-in voter mobilization event at Miramar Regional Park on October 13.(Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

Interview by
Jaime Acosta Gonzalez

Election after election, the “Latino vote” continues to frustrate statistical forecasters and political prognosticators, who continually predict that an imminent Latino wave will cement a majority for the Democratic Party. This expectation, predicated on the idea that Latinos will naturally gravitate toward progressive politics, places blind faith in changing demographics, ignoring the hard work of political organizing and policy-driven outreach.

Despite assumptions that the nativist and xenophobic forces now dominating the Republican Party would repel Latino voters, early evidence suggests that Donald Trump increased his share of Latino support nationwide. While this might seem surprising, historian Geraldo Cadava’s new book, The Hispanic Republican: The Shaping of an American Political Identity, From Nixon to Trump, offers an important account of how the Republican Party has cultivated support among Latinos since the 1970s. Moving beyond a limited view that typecasts Hispanic Republicans as simply Cuban exiles or conservative Catholics, Cadava traces a longer history of patronage politics and institution building that has, over time, yielded a loyal and influential base within the Republican Party.

In the following interview by Jaime Acosta Gonzalez, Cadava discusses the formation of Hispanic Republican identity, the challenges of defeating an anti-communist message, and how we might get beyond thinking about Latinos as a monolith.

Jaime Acosta Gonzalez

People of Latin American descent living in the United States have, over the last seventy years, self-identified in various ways: as hyphenated-Americans (Cuban-American, Mexican-American, etc.), Chicanos, Latinos, and, more recently, Latinx. The group of people you write about identify as “Hispanic,” and more specifically “Hispanic Republicans.” Can you explain the significance of this self-identification?

Geraldo Cadava

The ethnic labels applied to Latinos or the self-conceptions of Latinos have meant a lot of different things over time. I used the term “Hispanic” because it’s the term preferred by the actors I wrote about, especially in the early years of the movement during the ‘60s and ‘70s. The first official auxiliary of the Republican National Committee took the name the Republican National Hispanic Assembly.

I think it also means to them a connection with Spain and the Spanish Empire in the Americas. What’s important about articulating a connection to Spain is how it simultaneously implies that you don’t see yourself as of African or indigenous descent, and that does relate to an aspirational whiteness.

One of the most fascinating things that I learned while doing research is that Latino conservatives don’t see the history of the Spanish Empire in the Americas in the same way that most of us who studied Latino history do. The version of Latino history I learned was that the Spanish Empire colonized and conquered the Americas, sowed a lot of violence, pressed indigenous groups into labor, and forced Christianity upon them. Many Latino conservatives see the presence of the Spanish in the Americas as a civilizing influence. They introduced large-scale cattle ranching and agriculture to the Southwest. They spread Christianity throughout the Americas. These are positive associations.

One of my favorite books I came across was Manuel Machado’s Listen Chicano! (1978). You can kind of imagine this conservative Latino grabbing a Chicano by the lapel and shaking him saying, “Listen here!” It’s this whole revision of Chicano history that I hadn’t seen before. It reclaims the Spanish Empire as a proud tradition that all Latinos in the US should buy into. For many Hispanic conservatives, this is what the term “Hispanic” signifies.

Jaime Acosta Gonzalez

Do you think the “Hispanic” investment in civilizational grand narratives grafts quite easily onto the Republican Party?

Geraldo Cadava

Hispanic Republicans are always struggling for inclusion and acceptance within the Republican Party, and so it serves their purposes to be able to imagine themselves as people whose roots in the Americas extend back to the period even before white Europeans. Every Hispanic heritage month it comes up that Spanish was the first European language spoken in the US and that they were here for a hundred years before pilgrims settled Plymouth Rock. That is a point of pride for Hispanic Republicans.

Jaime Acosta Gonzalez

You note that the 1964 election between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater marked the first time that a GOP candidate had done better among Hispanics than among African Americans, a trend that has remained constant ever since. In the aftermath of this election, how did the GOP leverage the gains of African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement to grow their share of the Hispanic vote in subsequent elections? In particular, how did Richard Nixon emerge as the candidate who broke through with Hispanics?

Geraldo Cadava

The mid-to-late 1960s is a critical moment in the turning away of African Americans from the Republican Party. Goldwater didn’t support the Civil Rights Act, and the Republican Party embraced the “Southern Strategy.” As a result, African Americans left the party in great numbers. Therefore, Republican strategists were very explicit about their need to make up for that lost support, and Hispanics became their prime targets.

What’s interesting in your question is the idea that the Republican Party leveraged the civil rights gains of African Americans to recruit Latinos, because I think that’s kind of what happened. The Republicans acknowledged that they needed to make up for those lost votes. The way they went about doing that was a divide-and-conquer strategy. The Republican Party, and Latinos who had begun to move toward the Republican Party, started saying things like “Latinos have been loyal to the Democratic Party since the New Deal. FDR helped them put food on the table and get jobs in their time of need. How are we going to crack that?”

The answer was, in part, asking, “What has your loyalty to the Democratic Party gotten you?” They also began to say that the Democratic Party cares only about African Americans, and that their civil rights strategy was only about giving them handouts. They would say, “We know Latinos aren’t like that,” that Latinos were proud and didn’t want to take government handouts, and that the Republican Party cares about you and will represent your interests.

During the civil rights era, Latinos with conservative impulses — and I wouldn’t call them Republicans yet, because they hadn’t fully embraced that partisan identity — started saying that the African-American protesters were loud, take to the streets, and are disruptive, and that Latinos protested more respectfully, peacefully, and behind the scenes. That’s part of the dynamic between African Americans and Latinos during the civil rights era that leads the Republican party to see opportunities with Latinos.

What Nixon does specifically is start making high-level appointments, like the first Hispanic treasurer of the United States, Romana Acosta Bañuelos. Nixon created all of these economic agencies, like the National Economic Development Agency and the Office of Minority Business Enterprise, and generally built this third plank of the Civil Rights Movement tied to notions of uplift, a “brown capitalism” centered around economic opportunity.

Jaime Acosta Gonzalez

The argument of your book is that we only gain a partial view of Hispanic Republican identity by focusing on the Cuban-American experience. While it is true that Hispanics are motivated to vote for the Republican Party for a number of economic and ideological reasons, it is also true that anti-communism has remained a central feature of Hispanic Republican identity from the 1950s onward, and not just among Cuban exiles.

How have Hispanic Republicans mobilized a shared narrative about communism or socialism over time?

Geraldo Cadava

I’m not sure how this will play with the Jacobin crowd, but in February I wrote an op-ed in the New York Times titled “Will Latinos Buy Into ‘Tío Bernie’s’ Socialism?,” coincidentally four days before the 60 Minutes interview with Sanders where he was grilled about his earlier statements regarding Fidel.

Sanders supporters were upset because they thought I was saying there was no way he could win among Latinos because of the socialism issue. What I was saying was that just because Sanders had strong support in the Democratic primaries, it’s not clear that support would translate to strong Latino support in a general election.

The other thing people said was that I was just talking about a small number of Cuban and Venezuelan exiles in South Florida. I think it’s a mistake to put anti-communist Latinos into that box, because you miss how far and wide the anti-socialist message travels among all Latino groups.

All Latino national groups have their version of anti-communism. The Puerto Rican Republicans have always looked at the independistas, Puerto Ricans advocating for the independence of the island, as radical Marxists. There are these critical episodes in the early 1950s where activists bombed the governor’s mansion in San Juan, Lolita Lebron opens fire on congress, they shoot through a window near the White House where Eisenhower was taking a nap. They are all labeled, in the context of the Cold War, as “radical communists.” So, Puerto Rican conservatives have their own version of anti-communism.

Same thing with Mexican immigrants whose families came in the 1920s after the Mexican Revolution. They see the 1917 constitution as a Marxist-inspired document because of land redistribution and the way it stripped the Catholic church of its authority. Many Mexicans have their own version of anti-communism.

I think it’s a mistake to think that you can put Latino conservatives who have strongly anti-communist views into a box in South Florida, limiting it to Cubans and Venezuelans. As you note in your question, there is a much longer history dating back to the earliest days of the Cold War and continuing into the present.

One thing that’s amazing to me is how the anti-communist message gets passed along from one group to another. In the 1980s, when the Sandinistas and Contras are fighting in Nicaragua, veterans of the Bay of Pigs are training Contras in Miami. Part of the reason Cuban-American politicians like Ileana Ros-Lehtinen become the champions of Nicaraguan refugees is because of the Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs trying to oust Castro. Cuban Americans said they fully understand the plight of Nicaraguan refugees because they experienced the same things two decades earlier. I think that idea gets passed down from one group to another across time.

You’re seeing it play out now with how Hispanic Republicans think about the Democratic Socialists of America and people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. I listened to Ted Cruz give a speech in 2018 at a gathering in DC of the Latino Coalition, an advocacy group for small business owners looking to grow their businesses and secure government or private loans. Cruz, in a single breath, mentioned Fidel Castro, Nicolas Maduro, and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. It’s a flat narrative about socialism that has managed to resonate for the last seventy years.

I think there’s this idea that now that Fidel is gone, a younger generation of Cuban Americans, whose experiences weren’t defined by the Cold War, will be more progressive. That assumption underestimates how deep the narrative is. We saw how even younger Cubans supported Trump in the recent election.

Jaime Acosta Gonzalez

How have Hispanic Republicans actively shaped US foreign policy in Latin America during and even after the Cold War? In your view, has the electoral pressure to appeal to Hispanic Republicans resulted in a more aggressive or interventionist approach?

Geraldo Cadava

That’s interesting. I do think Hispanic Republicans have played a role in shaping US policy towards Latin America. Maybe they’ve even wanted to play a greater role than they have. In the fifties, one of the ways that Hispanic Republicans first started reaching out to the Eisenhower administration, for example, was by offering their services as Cold Warriors. They said that their language skills and understanding of the region’s history and culture could help the United States accomplish its Cold War objectives.

Later, Cubans like Jorge Mas Canosa helped shape Cuba policy, Mexican American businessmen and Hispanic Chambers of Commerce advised Republicans on trade issues, and support from Hispanic Republicans on Reagan’s intervention in Nicaragua — or Trump’s policies on Venezuela — certainly gave Republicans cover for inflicting violence in the hemisphere.

Jaime Acosta Gonzalez

Hispanic Republicans constitute a minority within a minority. Historically, between 20 and 40 percent of Hispanics vote for the Republican candidate during a presidential election. With the appointment of Ana Navarro as head of Latino outreach, it seems like the Biden/Harris strategy was to try to persuade conservative Hispanics instead of growing the working-class Latino base that voted for Bernie Sanders during the primaries.  What do you make of this strategy?

Geraldo Cadava

One way to approach this is to say that Biden always found his greatest support, including during the primaries, among the less progressive-minded Latinos. What has proven true in the wake of the election is that in states like Arizona and Nevada, a lot of Biden’s success depended less on his own campaign and more on the efforts of grassroots organizations like LUCHA, who have been organizing for over a decade trying to build Latino support. Maybe they were more in the Sanders camp during the primary, but they were all behind the cause of beating Trump in the general election.

I think bringing Ana Navarro on board fit the Biden campaign’s theory of the case. She maybe still even identifies as a Republican, but we know that Biden staked his candidacy on reaching out and appealing to disaffected Republicans. Because of Navarro’s story — her father was a Contra in Nicaragua — there’s a symbolism in her move away from the Republican Party over to Biden.

I talk to some frustrated Democrats who say that given the post-election media coverage, it’s almost as if Trump won the Latino vote. I think that explains why Latino Democrats and Biden’s pollsters are very insistent on saying that a record number of Latinos showed up to help Biden win in critical swing states. That’s their way of pushing back on the hyper-focus right now on Hispanic Republicans.

I think the reason there’s disappointment is that the narrative over the last forty years with respect to the Latino vote is that there’s this impending surge of voters who are always about to transform American politics and benefit the Democratic Party. This year, there was a lot of talk about how a Latino becomes eligible to vote every thirty seconds, and a lot of attention to the dramatic increase in early voting among Latinos. Citing those numbers didn’t say anything about how they actually voted. There was much closer to an even split between Republicans and Democrats who showed up to vote early in a state like Texas than Democrats had hoped.

We know the Democratic narrative, therefore the shift toward Trump, given all the shit he’s done, is the more surprising narrative, which is why the media got carried away with it. If what the hyper-attention to Latino Republicans this time helps us do in the future is not take Latino voters for granted as Democrats, then that can be an end in itself.

Jaime Acosta Gonzalez

After the 2016 election, Judith Stein published a piece in Jacobin titled “A Losing Coalition.” She noted how “Given our identity-determined culture, demographic groups are boxed into separate categories. We speak of Rust Belt whites who need jobs, but blacks who need police justice.” If you added Latinos to this statement, they would “need” immigration reform.

I agree with Stein that the identitarian language we use to describe the political demands of various groups impoverishes our understanding of their material conditions. How can we demystify abstractions such as the “Latino vote” through a more policy-driven approach?

Geraldo Cadava

I’ve been on a bit of a rant lately about how there’s no such thing as “the Latino vote.” Every election there’s this hyper-attention to critical swing states like Florida, Texas, and Arizona. When we talk about the Latino vote, we focus on those places. As a result, we’re ignoring the fact that Latinos are spread across the country and make a difference in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Iowa, Minnesota, and everywhere they live.

We need to stop thinking about Latinos as a group of voters who are only concentrated in important swing states and start to think of them as nationally important voters.

Looking at the Rio Grande Valley, one of the questions asked after the election is: are Mexican Americans in the Rio Grande Valley in fact more like rural voters in Iowa and Nebraska than they are like other Latinos in Harris Country, where Houston is located? I think you can ask the same thing about Latinos in California’s Central Valley: are they more like Mexican Americans in the Rio Grande Valley than they are like Latinos in Los Angeles or San Francisco?

The reason you can make the comparison is that Mexican Americans in the Rio Grande Valley are between 80 to 90 percent of the population, so they don’t see themselves as marginalized outsiders or minorities in that region in the same way Latinos in other places do. They’re able to think of themselves as a majority, not a persecuted minority.

Once you begin to make the comparison between rural South Texas and rural Iowa, you can ask what the interests are that bring those groups together, in terms of their economic or educational or religious beliefs. And once candidates get to know Latinos on the ground — across the country, wherever they live — they can better craft policies that respond to their needs and desires.

The Biden campaign had a national message for Latinos that was based on Trump’s failed response to the coronavirus and his four years of terrorizing immigrants. These are, of course, urgent subjects — perhaps the urgent subjects. But they didn’t offer a positive message about how Biden would help make life for Latinos better. I feel like this is what Chuck Rocha of the Sanders campaign has been saying all along.