Latinos continue to be portrayed as an emerging power, and every year we wait with ardent hope that we will get the respect we feel our presence deserves. Right now we do not fit into the national narrative when discussing the 2008 presidential race. That could be because while we are over 15 percent of the U.S. population, we represent only 9 percent of eligible voters — while African Americans are 12 percent — and we will likely only be about 6.5 percent of the November electorate.
But the future of the United States is Latino. According to the California Department of Finance, Latinos will become the majority of the population in California in 2040. While change is the catchphrase of this election, many are afraid of the change we represent. It is our responsibility to show that we stand for more than isolated “Latino” issues and have similar priorities that impact us all as Americans. No one wants to feel excluded. If we have felt excluded for our ethnicity, we have an even greater responsibility to not inflict that attitude on others and to not repeat the damage.
We as Latinos must learn to champion causes both narrowly and broadly; we need to be bilingual — able to speak to our community and to the whole country. A recent Pew poll showed the top areas of concern for Latinos were education, health care, and jobs and the economy. Are those issues that necessarily divide us? Not at all. We can prioritize our community while elevating everyone. As JFK said, a rising tide raises all boats. We just need to convey our priorities in a way that does not give the impression of it being a zero sum game.
How do we cultivate Latino leaders? Some people will want to marginalize us by our ethnicity. They might invite us to dinner so they feel better about themselves, but they will put us at the kids’ table. We need to follow the leading Democratic candidates’ example of developing expertise beyond the group — like Hillary Clinton did when she burnished her defense and foreign affairs credentials or how Barack Obama has cultivated a following from the country’s youth. We need to reach not solely beyond our comfort zone, but beyond what others expect of us.
We as Latinos need to do some soul-searching too. We are a diverse community and decry people for not recognizing it, but we gloss over that diversity when trying to magnify the community’s importance. What makes up Latino diversity?
English speakers vs. non-English speakers?
Spanish speakers vs. non-Spanish speakers?
What kind of Spanish? Mexican? Cuban? Dominican or Puerto Rican?
Native born vs. foreign born?
Citizen vs. non-citizen?
Legal vs. undocumented?
Are you 50 percent Latino? 25 percent? 100 percent?
Do you look Latino?
Diversity needs to also include diversity of thought. If you put a partisan litmus test on being Latino, one party ignores you and the other one takes you for granted. You can disagree with the political parties, but you can only expect to change the party if you are in it.
Who is it who helps impose litmus tests? One group is the media. They create the narrative that becomes conventional wisdom, and they create news by creating conflict between one group and another. But we need to realize that almost all reporters are white; very few are Latino. It is something I faced every day when I would confront a sea of Anglo faces as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s press secretary. When they thought of the Latino community, the press corps would only ask me questions about drivers’ licenses and immigration. If you have someone covering a community as a voyeur, then they understand issues as symbols but not the nuances.
Immigration is the story line that defines Latinos so far in this election. It is on the national agenda not because Latinos think it should be there but because the rest of the United States does. We risk having it permanently define us. It is riveting to the country because of the recent demonstrations that visually provide a clue as to the community’s potential impact. But we need to make sure all of us do not allow ourselves to fall into the magnetic pull of the convenient narrative purveyed by the media and those who — by either pigeonholing or litmus testing — want all minorities to be focused on racial grievances. We need people focused on immigration because it is an important issue, but we have a responsibility to have the rest of the country see how we are intricately woven into every fiber that makes this country great.