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No, The ‘Latino Vote’ Does Not Define A Complex Electorate

Andrew Nixon

Ruby Aguirre thinks the term “Latino” is too vague. 

The term is a blanket descriptor to describe a group of people that often share a language, but don’t always share culture. It’s often used interchangeably with the word “Hispanic,” which is used in the United States census. 

“I was confused on how to fill out the census, because what is my race?” the Sacramento voter asked. “It’s a tricky question — are we Hispanic? Are we Latino?”

But in an election that hinged on the so-called Latino vote, Aguirre says the term doesn’t accurately reflect the various communities, and even fails to capture the context of those votes. 

“I don’t think the Latino vote is an appropriate term for describing a very diverse group of people,” she said. 

Aguirre personally prefers to identify as Chicana, a term used to describe Mexican-Americans in California. Chicana, or Chicano, originated from the racial justice movements in the 1960s. Early leaders of this movement chose the word in contrastwith the term “Mexican American,” which they felt aligned itself too closely with assimilation and whiteness. 

They created the term “Chicano” in response to the Black Power movement, as a term to show they were aligned with the struggle of African Americans for equality and racial justice. 

But experts like Alma Lopez, director of the Sacramento advocacy group Brown Issues, said even that term is imperfect because of its political bent.

“The term Chicano was something that brought a lot of people together, but then again, it was not for everybody,” Lopez explained. “There were a lot of folks who pushed back against the term Chicano because it didn’t fit their identity.”

Chicano, like Latino, Hispanic and other descriptors, doesn’t fully capture the identity of individual cultures that spread throughout the U.S.

Cristina Mora, a sociologist with UC Berkeley and author of the book “Making Hispanics: How Activists, Bureaucrats, and Media Constructed a New American,” says that any single term to encompass such a large group will be flawed because dynamics change over time. 

Even the term “Latino” today doesn’t even encompass the same group of people in the U.S. that it did 50 years ago, Mora explained. 

“With this great diversity comes people who are coming in from different nations with different histories, understandings of race, understandings of indigeneity,” Mora said, “Understandings of skin color that contribute to the dynamism, but also the great challenge of mobilizing and thinking about Latinos as a community.”

And it’s a challenge reflected when trying to categorize election results. 

In Florida, President Donald Trump benefited largely from the Cuban American vote — a group that often leans Republican. But many Cuban Americans in Florida voted because of their  shared fear of socialism, a platform that Trump repeatedly said without evidence that Democratic candidate former vice president Joe Biden supported. 

Latinos in Florida are more likely to be either Cuban or Puerto Rican — the latter of which has largely voted Democrat over the years. Only 9% of people who identify as Latino in Florida are from Mexico. 

For Cubans who fled Fidel Castro’s socialist regime, Trump’s rhetoric worked.

But while the so-called Latino vote might help Republican candidates in Florida, that’s not the case in liberal California where Mexican Americans make up a large majority of the state’s Latino population.

A Pew Research study from 2016 voters showed Mexican Americans make up 82%of what’s categorized as the state’s Hispanic population. Just 2% are Puerto Rican, and 16% claim other Hispanic origins. 

A recent prediction by the Public Policy Institute of California said the majority of Latinos in the state were planning to vote for Biden. 

Pablo Reyes Morales, an organizer with NorCal Resist, an advocacy group focused on immigration issues in California, said people shouldn’t read too much into statements about the “Latino” vote. 

“There’s a huge difference between a wealthy, privileged Cuban that left Castro’s regime in Cuba, to an asylee from Mexico,” he said. 

Reyes Morales said that he believed categorizing this large group of people as “Latinos” or “Hispanics” could serve to falsely unite them under one policy umbrella — which he added could be dangerous. 

“The more that you can put people into buckets, the easier it is to say ‘This is a message that resonates,’” he said. 

In the end, Reyes Morales said Latinos who voted for Trump did so for the same reasons any other American did — self-interest.

“The way that I would describe Latinos that voted for Trump is the way that I would describe white people that voted for Trump or Black people that voted for Trump or any people that voted for Trump,” he said.