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The Spanish factor

I am in New York, along the east-west grid from the site of the Twin Towers, towards the tenements and the fledgling gentrification of the Lower East Side. It is a warm day and I have walked here past people laying out on pavement trestles, bits and pieces that only scavengers could covet. Every door stoop is a patio and it seems every building has a room to rent. The church is flush to the street corner in that uncompromisingly New York urban way, and hanging off its rear is a high narrow terrace. In the house, the basement is alive with Spanish: women cooking in one room, toddlers playing in another, an old lady telling the cat to get out of the way of her broom. Sitting over from me is a girl whose future has just turned lucky and she shines with the news. She is 16 and she has come from an interview at the prestigious Mother Cabrini High School in Upper Manhattan, which has offered her a scholarship. Before the new school year begins she must read, she says, Pride and Prejudice and A Man For All Seasons.

This girl represents the Hispanic factor in American politics and in the US Presidential election. Two years ago she came to New York from Ecuador, with her two siblings and her mother, to join her father who was already working in the city. The children had agreed, it was better for the family to be together. In New York, their mother cleans, their father works in construction, they live five together in one room, and if anything untoward happened to any one of them it would be a tragedy. They are undocumented immigrants, working illegally, who have no insurance, for whom access to higher education is out of the question, who pay taxes but whose healthcare depends on charity, who are the life-blood of the city but for whom security of residence does not exist. Of course they cannot vote. And they are by no means unusual.

A considerable proportion of the 39 million Hispanics (or Latinos) living in the US will not be taking part in November’s ballot:

in California, for instance, only 13 per cent of its huge Hispanic population are eligible to cast a vote, and then, only 30 per cent of the electorate overall even make it to the polling booth. Put those figures together and you understand how little the Hispanic population of the US might enact citizenship. Under current law, up to 40 per cent will never vote, and probably only half of those who are now of voting age are eligible to vote in next month’s election. Nevertheless, the Hispanic or Latino population matters to this presidential campaign in multiple and complex ways.
To begin with, Latinos as a group stand vividly before the American electorate. As a group they embody a range of important issues—border security, the economic anxieties of low-wage earners, the obligations of patriotism in a time of war, and the weight that might be given to moral or ethical issues as opposed to economic issues. Hispanics now outnumber the African-American community. They are double the size of the Asian-American and Jewish electorates and already in 23 states they form the largest minority. Since 1990, this population has grown by at least one million each year and that growth rate shows no sign of diminishing. In part now, it is growth native to the US: there are ten million US native-born Latinos under the age of 18. But in great part it is growth due to immigration, legal and illegal. Last year, 210 people died trying to make it across the border, through the desert—there is no repressing that kind of desire.

Blood, sweat and tears is what Latinos say it takes to begin the journey towards the polling booth. You can become a citizen in the States five years after you achieve legal permanent resident status but to become legal you need either the sponsorship of a close citizen relative, a petition from a prospective employer, or acceptance as an asylum seeker—blood, sweat or tears. Neither blood, sweat nor tears can be drawn from many of the Latino immigrants, at least not yet.

Alongside the scholarship winner is a young couple from Guatemala. They were in New York legally, as visitors, when their young son was born an American citizen. Shortly after his birth, they returned home. Two years later immigration authorities would grant them only a one month visitor’s visa: their citizen son represented a risk that they would stay. That one month has long passed and both parents are working. Fifteen or twenty years down the track their son will be their avenue to documentation and then his vote will tell. Now, their situation is an issue for activists and for the enfranchised amongst Latinos.

The activists include the Cabrini Sisters who run this Centre for Immigrants and who belong to a New York-wide network of like-minded groups linked into a nationally organised lobby for the rights of immigrants. The city runs on the backs of these people, Sister Pietrina says, and the sisters have no qualms about lobbying.

‘If we vote them into office we have a right to tell them what we think. We go to Washington, we go to Albany, we go to the City Council. We try our best to get bills passed that will enable our clients to get some kind of legalisation.’

At least locally, candidates have to explain to activists, including all the major church organisations, how they propose to make naturalisation and legalisation fairly available, and how they will afford to immigrants some basic protections and access to basic public benefits. They must also explain their policies to the Hispanics who are enfranchised, even though these voters’ interests and view of the world may be significantly different from that of Hispanics overall. 

Hispanics have been described as occupying an in-between space in American public life. They tend to be socially conservative and economically liberal while their own socio-economic status and their common educational, social and political concerns encourage them to be politically progressive. Mexicans in particular are eager to rally around the flag in time of war. The result of these competing factors is that both Republicans and Democrats can lay claim to the Hispanic vote. About two-thirds of the Hispanic electorate is made up of people of Mexican descent and their political allegiances tend to mirror the political divisions in their states of residence: in Texas, Mexicans tend to be Republican, in California they tend to be Democratic. However, both Republicans and Democrats must mobilise the Hispanic electorate. It was not the Hispanic vote that put Arnold Schwarzenegger into the Governorship; rather, it was the failure of Mexicans to turn out to vote as loyally Democratic as the African-Americans did in California.

In the state of Florida, for example, two major groups of Hispanics and some smaller groups could all influence the election outcome. Miami Cubans who maintain an exile mentality are critical of the Bush administration for making Iraq a priority when there was opportunity for war much closer to home, and the administration has been obliged to make some gestures of good faith towards this community. On the other hand, the children of the exiles are less interested in anti-Castro politics and they now form a substantial group that may not vote with their parents’ interests in mind. In the north-central part of Florida, young and affluent Puerto Ricans—many of them re-located from New York City—are seen as voters who must be retained by the Democrats or wrested from them. A few hundred votes decided the election in Florida, last time around, so there is serious attention being paid to the Latino voter in Florida.

Importantly for the campaign managers, religion plays an influential role in the lives of Hispanics. The Republican Party is busily courting the Catholic mainstream vote, banking on Catholic social mobility and social conservatism. Think tanks are devising electorally strategic rapprochement between Catholics and evangelicals around issues such as abortion and gay marriage. On the face of it, this is a strategy designed to win the Hispanic voter but, interestingly, Latinos resist this simple categorisation.

While 70 per cent of Latinos in the US are Catholic, the percentage of Catholics decreases in the second and third generations, where most Latino voters belong. The shift is towards Pentecostal or evangelical Protestantism, by as much as 12 per cent in the third generation. In other words, Latinos are taking on in subsequent generations something of the dominant religious character of the host country. There are now more Latino Protestants in the US than there are either Jews or Muslims.

There are more Latino Protestants than even the broad mass of Episcopalians and Presbyterians combined. However, this shift towards a conservative religiosity does not mean that Latino evangelicals respond to the same prompts that mobilise white evangelicals. Whether Protestant (mainline or evangelical) or Catholic, Latinos are in the majority Democrat voters. There was little difference between the Catholic and evangelical Latino vote during the last presidential election—the Latino evangelical vote for President Bush (35 per cent) was reflected in the national Latino vote. It will be interesting this time to observe whether there has been a shift in the relative weight given by the Hispanic population to moral issues versus economic and immigration issues. There is good reason to imagine the shift may be slight.

In this election, Hispanic voters will go to the polling booths identified as an explicit challenge to the US. The man who fingered the Clash of Civilisations, Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington, has added The Hispanic Challenge to the adventures facing America. Latinos do not assimilate, Huntington says, in the way prior immigrants did and their overwhelming numbers are seriously undermining the cultural foundations of the American idea. If Latin immigration is not stemmed, the US could become a nation of two competing cultures, creeds and languages.

A volatile, independent, and issue-driven Latino vote is likely to identify ideology where it sees it and vote accordingly. 

Margaret Coffey was in the US recently to collect program material for Encounter on ABC Radio National. An Encounter on The Hispanic Factor will be broadcast on Sunday 31 October.



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