As we talk about Latino or Hispanic politics in this election year, most automatically draw a link between this particular racial-ethnic identification and a liberal political orientation. A Latino social policy agenda is generally assumed to reside within a liberal New Deal framework. Latinos in general may be socially conservative on a number of issues, but the majority support an activist government, are willing to pay more taxes for increased services, and support government expansion of the social safety net and affirmative action programs. The fact that President Obama has, according to the polls, the support of roughly two-thirds of Latino voters, reflects a real political connection, not just superior campaigning.
The 2003 fight over the very conservative Miguel Estrada's confirmation as a federal appeals court judge was controversial because it gave rise to the question: Who is a Latino or Hispanic?
Representing what was then the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund (PRLDEF) -- now named LatinoJustice PRLDEF -- I was caught in the middle of the controversy, summed up by Byron York in his February 6, 2003 National Review Online article, "Dems to Miguel Estrada: You're Not Hispanic Enough":
Angelo Falcon, an official of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, railed about the "Latino Horatio Alger story that's been concocted" about Estrada's success and, more generally, about the "concocted, invented Latino imagery" of Estrada's life.
"As the Latino community becomes larger and larger in the country, as we gain more political influence, as we become more diverse, the issue of what is a Hispanic becomes more problematic," Falcon explained. "It's not good enough to simply say that because of someone's genetics or surname that they should be considered Hispanic."
I, along with others, was trying to point out that being Hispanic for political purposes should involve having the experience of growing up in a typical Latino environment in the United States and embracing a politics that involves a focus on the well-being of largely poor and working class Latinos. The judicial nominee, Estrada, who was born in Honduras, had a privileged background and was a member of the super conservative Federalist Society, a group promoting policies and judicial decisions that would work against the best interests of the majority of Latinos. In this sense, Estrada wasn't a "genuine Hispanic" in the context of representing our community on the federal bench. The conservative media at the time called this viewpoint "racial exploitation," and columnist Deroy Murdock quipped that, "Estrada's critics would not be mollified even if he swapped his black robes for a serape and wore a sombrero on the bench."
In the current political environment, there is a battle over defining Hispanics or Latinos politically. While the Democrats seem to take Latino support largely for granted, there are Republicans trying to recast the Hispanic experience in ways that fit their politics. In 1984, Ronald Reagan pointed out to his friend, Lionel Sosa, that conservatives needed to "remind Latinos that they are Republicans; they just don't know it yet." The basis of his observation was that Latinos are socially conservative and that in time they would realize that their conservatism was most in line with Republican politics. This hasn't happened yet -- certainly not this year -- but will it happen in the near future?
There have been some changes in the economic characteristics of Latinos over the last couple of decades that hint at the potential for a growing political conservatism among Latinos in the United States. For example, between 1991 and 2011, the number of Latinos with incomes of $100,000 and above grew from 53,405 to 693,202, a twelve-fold increase (although still representing only 2 percent of Latinos in 2011.) In this same period, the number of Latino homeowners more than doubled from 10.5 to 24.2 million (although as a percent of total Latinos it remained at about 48 percent in both years). And the number of Latinos homeowners with incomes of $100,000 and above grew from almost 45,000 to more than 558,000, an eleven-fold increase. Although representing a small percentage of the total Latino population, these trends indicate that there is a growing pool of Latinos who might be more receptive to politically (and financially) conservative appeals.
My impression is that since the George W. Bush years, the Republican Party and conservatives first began to devote serious resources to create and support a number of conservative Latino organizations to challenge the liberal orthodoxy within the Latino community. There certainly were efforts before this by Republicans to reach out to Hispanic voters, but with very mixed results. In 1972, with the leadership of individuals like Ben Fernandez, Manuel Lujan and Francisco Vega, the Republican National Hispanic Assembly was formed as an offshoot of what was the Spanish Speaking Advisory Committee of the Republican National Committee. As recently as 2007, the Assembly encountered serious financial difficulties as a result of low membership and more recently has experienced divisions over disagreements over the Republican Party's stance on immigration issues. This took the form of the establishment of groups like Somos Republicans and even spawned the Tequila Party in Arizona. Today, the Assembly's National Chair is Florida-based female party activist Alci Maldonado.
Beyond this Republican Party operation, today there is a wide range of Latino conservative organizations that have developed higher profiles. Among the standouts among these are the Hispanic Leadership Network and the Libre Initiative, who have sponsored well-attended events that have attracted much media attention. In addition, the Republican Members of Congress at one point broke away from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and have formed their own Congressional Hispanic Conference, and there are groups like the Café con Leche Republicans, Newt Gingrich's online publication, El Americano, the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, Latino Issues (A Conservative Blog), the Hispanic Leadership Fund, Conservative Latina (on Facebook), the Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute and even a Hispanic Vote Super PAC.
In addition, there is the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the United States-Mexico Chamber of Commerce that advocate for Latino businesses that could be considered part of this Latino conservative block. Then there are the Latino evangelical groups like Sam Rodriguez's National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC), which are very socially conservative but progressive on immigration issues.
This growing constellation of conservative Latino organizations is a relatively new phenomenon whose impact on a broader Latino politics is not yet clear. Because this is a high stakes Presidential election year with potentially billions of political dollars fueling it given the impact of the Citizens United decision, it is not clear if many of these are largely artificially fueled efforts by the Republican Party and conservatives in an election year or indicators of a growing conservative movement within the Latino community. If Mitt Romney is elected President, will he and Latino Republicans like US Senator Marco Rubio and others build on this Latino conservative infrastructure in long-lasting ways, or will it all simply fizzle out if Barack Obama is reelected?
Only time will tell, but it is clear that this is a political phenomenon that Latino political leaders and activists of all ideologies need to pay more attention to if we are to gain a better understanding of the future of Latino politics in the United States and its role in the broader American political context. What is at stake, after all, is the very meaning of the political content of being Hispanic and Latino, and who will be defining it.
Angelo Falcón is President of the National Institute for Latino Policy (NiLP), for which he edits The NiLP Network on Latino Issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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