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Hispanic-Americans: an under-represented group in American politics American Studies Today Online

Maria-Cristina GarciaHispanics are one of the fastest growing groups in the United States, and yet they are under-represented in American political institutions. Here, Maria-Cristina Garcia, explains why.

Maria-Cristina Garcia PhD. is in the Department of History of the Texas A&M University. She is a member of the Centre's U.S. Advisory Panel and a former Fulbright Scholar.

Posted 05 Feb 1996

Why is there no "Hispanic Vote"?
Hispanics - the most diverse group in the US
Issues that unite
Hispanic organisations
Selected readings

Further reading

Why is there no "Hispanic Vote"?

Hispanics are one of the fastest growing groups in the United States. In 1990, the US. census reported that there were 22.4 million Hispanics (also called "Latinos") in the US., up from 14. 5 million in 1980. Due to their large numbers they have the potential to be a powerful voting bloc. Indeed, since the 1960s, when Great Society legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 brought more Americans into the political mainstream, the Hispanic vote has proven to be influential in local, state, and national elections. In presidential elections, in particular, political candidates have taken special care to appeal to the Hispanic vote since Hispanics are concentrated in five key states - California, New York, Florida, Texas, and Illinois - states that together comprise over half of the electoral vote majority needed for election to the presidency.

Several factors, however, hinder their political participation as well as their development into a unified voting bloc. One such factor is the youth of the population. According to some sociologists, the younger a community the less likely they will take an active interest in the political culture. The median age of the Hispanic population is 25.5 years of age, but some groups are younger: the two largest groups of Hispanics, the Mexican Americans and the Puerto Ricans, average 21 and 20 years of age, respectively. On the other hand, the third largest group, the Cubans, average 35 years of age. Of the three, the Cubans have demonstrated the greater levels of political participation.

Secondly, a large segment of the "legal" Hispanic population cannot vote because they are not yet citizens of the US. In the November 1988 election, for example, fifty-two percent of all Hispanics legally in the US. did not vote because they were ineligible. (The illegal population, estimated by the Census Bureau to be 1.7 to 2.9 million people - the majority believed to be Hispanic - cannot vote in US. elections, of course.)

Poverty is a third factor which affects political participation. According to Maurilio Vigil, who studies Hispanic political participation, there is a correlation between such socioeconomic indicators as level of education and income, and level of political participation. Thus, since Hispanics have a higher poverty rate than other Americans (up to a quarter of Hispanics live below the poverty level), they are less likely to participate in the political process even though they are most likely to gain from their participation. Factors that contribute to low voter turnout include apathy, a belief that their vote will not make a difference, as well as a distrust of politics because of experiences in their country of origin.

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Hispanics - the most diverse group in the US

It may also be unrealistic to expect that the Hispanic population can develop into a powerful voting bloc given the diversity of their population. They are perhaps the most diverse group in the US. Hispanics trace their ancestry to twenty-two different nations, and their experiences in the US are just too different. Some Hispanics can trace their family's presence in the United States back several centuries, while others are first-generation immigrants. Some have immigrated for political reasons, others for economic opportunity. Some are living below poverty level, while others have worked their way into the middle class. Some are Catholic, others Protestant, Jewish, and even Buddhist (i.e. Chinese Cubans). Some Hispanics are bilingual, while others speak only Spanish, or conversely, only English.

Racially, Hispanics are also quite diverse. Even within one Hispanic group, there can be important regional, socioeconomic, cultural, religious, and racial differences and all these affect political behavior. A recent immigrant from Guanajuato, Mexico, for example, may have more in common with a Salvadoran refugee than with a middle-class Tejano (Mexican American from Texas) who can trace his family's presence in the US. to the Mexican Revolution.

The three largest Hispanic groups are the Mexican Americans (56%), the Puerto Ricans, (10%) and the Cubans (5%). Each group has played an important political role in the region in which they have concentrated. Historically, Mexican Americans have lived in the southwestern US (the area conquered by the US in the Mexican War); Puerto Ricans settled in the Northeast; and Cubans settled in Florida. Since World War II, however, Hispanics have begun to settle outside of their historical areas of concentration. Mexican Americans, for example, have settled in very large numbers in the Midwest and Great Lakes region; Puerto Ricans have settled in the Midwest and the Sunbelt. This means that they have had to form political coalitions with other Hispanic groups (and African Americans/Asian Americans) in their areas in order to lobby for legislation that will benefit as many Hispanics (and minorities) as possible. This is oftentimes quite difficult to do. In the city of Chicago, for example, conservative Cubans (who tend to vote Republican) find it difficult to work with the more liberal Puerto Ricans and Mexican Americans (who tend to vote Democratic).

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Issues that unite

Still, there are issues that can unite this diverse population at the local, state, and national levels. Legislation that encourages education and assists the family generally receives strong support in Hispanic communities. Most Hispanics, for example, are committed to Bilingual Education as a means of helping children (especially immigrant children) stay in school. (Bilingual education allows students to learn skills in their native language while they learn English so that they do not fall behind their English-speaking peers.) Many Hispanics also support fair immigration reform, especially laws that target illegal immigration, as a means of reducing competition for US workers. Drafting immigration legislation that is "fair", however, remains a challenge. Some features of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) were strongly opposed in Hispanic communities because of the repercussions they might have for Hispanic workers. One IRCA provision, for example, allowed sanctions (usually large fines) against employers who hired illegal workers. In theory, this promised to be a good deterrent against the hiring of "illegals" but Hispanic civil rights activists argued that such a measure would encourage discrimination in the workplace: employers would not hire Hispanics for fear that they might be illegal (residency documents are easily forged). Indeed, the General Accounting Office (GAO) reported three years later that this provision had led to employment discrimination against Hispanic workers. On the other hand, one provision of IRCA which was applauded in Hispanic communities was the amnesty program which allowed undocumented workers to apply for legal residency if they could prove continual residence in the US. since 1982, thereby ending their political limbo.

The debate over immigration reform is heating up during this election year. Among the "solutions" for dealing with illegal immigration proposed by the various political candidates are: a "national identification card" and a "national computerized worker registry" which employers could consult to assure the legal status of their workers; the denial of health and education benefits to illegals and their children as a means of deterring people from coming to the United States; a radical expansion of the Border Patrol, even using National Guard units. One Republican presidential candidate (Patrick Buchanan) has even advocated building a wall on the US-Mexico border. While many sociologists point to the important services provided by undocumented workers, particularly in southwestern agriculture, most political candidates prefer to focus on the liabilities of their migration since these guarantee media attention. The Hispanic community is caught in the middle of this debate.

Another area of concern for Hispanics is the English-Only Movement. By 1990, seventeen states had passed legislation recognizing English as the official language of their state. This legislation generally means that English is the only language that can be used in public documents and in official state business policy that can greatly affect states with large immigrant populations. In theory, strict adherence to the law could lead to a legal challenge of Bilingual Education, which worries many Hispanics. English-Only bills have been introduced in Congress but have been defeated up to now, although that may change in this more conservative political climate.

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Hispanic organisations

During the 19th and 20th centuries, Hispanics created numerous social and political organizations to address the needs of their communities. The majority of these emerged after World War II. Historically, through such measures as literacy tests and poll taxes, as well as social, educational, and employment segregation, Hispanics were prevented from exercising their political voice. Despite the odds against them, their communities made modest gains in office-holding and lobbying for protective legislation, particularly in areas such as south Texas where they constituted a numerical majority. New Mexico is the state which has witnessed the greatest Hispanic political participation throughout its history, also due to its large Hispanic population. Throughout the country, the most important political gains came as a result of the Civil Rights Movement.

Hispanic political organizations are as diverse as their constituencies and reflect the different needs of the various populations over time. Some cater to the specific needs of an individual group. The Cuban American National Foundation and the Cuban Committee for Democracy, for example, founded in 1980 and 1994, respectively, are vehicles through which Cuban Americans have tried to shape US. foreign policy towards Cuba: an issue which is of great importance to this community of largely first-generation refugees. The Puerto Rican Forum, on the other hand, founded in New York in the mid-1950's, has focused on educational issues and community development in the Puerto Rican community.

Some organizations began as parochial efforts and later expanded into state and national pan-Hispanic organizations. For example, the oldest Hispanic civil rights organization is the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), founded in 1929 by Mexican Americans in Corpus Christi, Texas. LULAC and the American G.I. Forum (also founded by Mexican Americans in 1948, in Corpus Christi) dedicated their early years to the legal challenge of segregation of Mexican Americans in schools and public facilities. They won significant battles (i.e. 1946 Mendez v. Westminster and 1948 Delgado v. Bastrop Independent School District ) which set the climate for the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. the Board of Education. While these organizations were founded by Mexican Americans to address the concerns of their communities, today their membership is open to all Hispanics from across the country. However, since Mexican Americans comprise more than half of the Hispanic population, they naturally comprise the majority of the membership. These organizations continue to work to end discrimination against Hispanics and to encourage education and political participation.

Other organizations that try to unite Hispanics across the country include: the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), a coalition of over 100 groups representing more than one million people. The NCLR publishes a bimonthly journal Agenda and holds an annual convention. The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) is a coalition Hispanic public officials who work together to register their constituencies to vote, and inform them of issues that affect them. The US. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, a coalition of state and local Hispanic chambers of commerce, promotes Hispanic businesses. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), founded in 1968 as the Hispanic counterpart to the NAACP, engages in litigation to end discrimination in education, employment, and political access. Their national headquarters are in Los Angeles, but they have four satellite offices around the country, each with its own staff of attorneys.

Although Hispanics have not made political gains commensurate with their numbers, they have had some success. By 1990, 3,700 Hispanics held local political office. Former President Reagan appointed the first Hispanic to a cabinet position: Lauro Cavazos as Secretary of Education. President Clinton appointed two Hispanics to his Cabinet: former San Antonio mayor Henry Cisneros as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and former Colorado governor Federico Pena as secretary of Transportation. There are currently eighteen Hispanics in the Congress. Together they form the Congressional Hispanic Caucus which attempts to work together to address issues that affect all their constituencies. Because of the differences in the Hispanic community, however, members of the CHC find that they oftentimes disagree more than they agree on these issues. Currently they are working on such issues as immigration reform and affirmative action. The CHC serves as an important clearinghouse of information on Hispanics, and publishes a National Directory of Hispanic Elected and Appointed Officials and a Guide to Hispanic Organizations.

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Selected readings

  • Acuna, Rodolfo. Occupied America: A History of Chicanos, Third Edition. New
  • York: Harper-Collins, 1986.
  • Allsup, Carl. The American G.I. Forum: Origins and Evolution Austin: The
  • University of Texas, Center for Mexican American Studies, 1982.
  • Fitzpatrick, Joseph P. Puerto Rican Americans: The Meaning of Migration to the Mainland. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1987.
  • Garcia, F. Chris, ed. Latinos and the Political System. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988.
  • Garcia, Maria Cristina. Havana USA: Cuban Exiles and Cuban Americans in South Florida. 19591994. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.
  • Garcia, Mario T. Mexican Americans: Leadership. Ideology. and Identity 19301960. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.
  • Gomez-Quinones, Juan. Chicano Politics: Reality and Promise, 19401990. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1990.
  • Gutierrez, David G. Walls and Mirrors: Mexican Americans. Mexican Immigrants. and the Politics of Ethnicity in the American Southwest. Berkeley: University of California, 1995.
  • San Miguel, Guadalupe. "Let Them All Take Heed": Mexican Americans and the Campaign for Educational Equality in Texas. 19101981. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1987.
  • Vigil, Maurilio E. Hispanics in American Politics. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1987. . "The Ethnic Organization as an Instrument of Political and Social Change: MALDEF, a Case Study." Journal of Ethnic Studies 18 (Spring 1990): 1532.

Further Reading

    If you enjoyed this article, you mighty also enjoy African Americans in the U.S. today seen through the prism of the "Memin Pinguin" Controversy
    According to the 2000 Census, Hispanics have now exceeded African-Americans as the largest ethnic minority group in the United States. The recent Memin Pinguin controversy, in which the Mexican post office issued stamps featuring a racial caricature of an Afro-Mexican, highlighted the fact that the Hispanic community is itself racially diverse, and that Afro-Mexicans have been an invisible and underprivileged community. In this lecture, delivered at the Liverpool John Moores University in March this year, Dr. Ezekiel Mobley argues that African Americans should become aware of their Latin cousins, and that the controversy also has lessons which Britain could learn.





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