Tuesday, April 5, 2016

A Promising Problem: Latina/o, Chicana/o Voters

In just over thirty weeks, Americans will elect the 45th President of the United States. The campaign trail is contentious and many of the issues the candidates are debating pertain to Latinas/os and Chicanas/os, a coveted demographic for both Republicans and Democrats. Against a backdrop of deportations and voter suppression targeting Latinos, a new edited volume, A Promising Problem: The New Chicana/o History, presents the optimistic voices of scholars who call for sophisticated solutions while embracing transnationalism and the reality of multiple,
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overlapping identities. 
Although the political landscape is fraught with closed-off rhetoric, A Promising Problem encourages diversity of thought and opens the possibilities of historical imagination. We asked a few contributors to the book to comment on how their research has informed their views on the 2016 presidential election, providing new perspectives on America’s culture wars.

The Chicana/o and Latina/o vote is much debated this presidential election year. Does the history you uncover point to new realities or future directions for Chicana/o or Latina/o communities that are of importance for the 2016 election cycle?


Carlos Kevin Blanton, March 7th

Having just watched one “Super” Tuesday in early March with additional such Tuesdays to go as well as some scattered “Super” Saturdays and Sundays thrown in for good measure, I am struck at what a contradictory role Chicanas/os and Latinas/os play in this 2016 presidential election. Chicanas/os and Latinas/os are simultaneously celebrated and vilified, normalized and exoticized, and reflect both “promise” and “problem.”

As I write this, Cuban Americans named Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio remain credible Republican candidates running for President; another Republican candidate, Donald Trump, has jingoistically called for harsh deportations against Mexican immigrants as well as the construction of a massive wall on the U.S.-Mexico border for which he intends to force Mexico to pay, a claim former President of Mexico Vicente Fox has pugnaciously repudiated; and two Democratic presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, are vying for the support of Latina/o voters in states all over the country as a key demographic group for the success of their party. “Problem” and “Promise,” it seems, define this 2016 election cycle for Chicana/o and Latina/o communities. 

Suffice to say, I am very appreciative that I titled this new edited collection A Promising Problem: The New Chicana/o History. The word construction of “a promising problem” in the title, while it perhaps seems overly ironic, was one of the best ways I could concisely describe the very precarious balance we practitioners of Chicana/o history feel about working in a rich, growing, diverse, and intellectually promising field that, simultaneously, is the target of very public attacks and anti-Latina/o hysteria in the political sphere. As this 2016 election cycle continues, Chicana/o and Latina/o peoples and their issues will be front and center of the public debate as desired partners in electoral and governing success and also as being perceived as problems to be solved.

The essays in A Promising Problem add new insight into the Chicana/o past, present, and future. Transnationalism, civil rights activism, inter-Latina/o relations, the role of religion, the role of place and region such as the Nuevo South and the Midwest, and the production of culture and identity, are all important to understanding Chicana/o-Latina/o communities today in a very interdisciplinary sense. The history of these topics and more are intelligently explored in this collection. While A Promising Problem may not help anyone predict the next meaningful evening of voting, it will help readers understand Chicana/o-Latina/o people at the center of this presidential election and their pasts in fresh and insightful ways.

Felipe Hinojosa, March 27th

In a recent article in The New Yorker magazine, journalist and co-anchor on Univision news, Jorge Ramos, told the story of a Latina in Iowa who shared with him the fear that immigrants are living with in that state. “People were afraid to leave their houses,” the woman told him, and “when they went to Wal-Mart, they only felt comfortable going at night.” [1] The brief conversation happened only a few months after a Latino church pastor in Iowa, Max Villatoro, was picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials and deported to his native Honduras. This case brought national attention to Iowa at a time when the state was prepping to host a slew of Presidential candidates coming through to impress the residents in the “Corn Belt” region of the Midwest. The fear that Latina/o immigrants live with in places like Iowa is due, at least in part, to the anti-Mexican and anti-Immigrant vitriol that has become so common in this Presidential election. In some sense we should not be surprised. The history of anti-Mexican and anti-Immigrant racism is well documented in the works of Chicana/o and Latina/o historians. Not as well covered, however, is the role that religious institutions have played in pushing back against xenophobia and racism by using one of the most important representations in U.S. society, their sanctuaries.

In the 1980s, Catholic and Protestant churches across the country provided sanctuary to over 500,000 refugees fleeing war in Central America. In my own home church in Brownsville, Texas, well over 500 refugees lived in the church gymnasium for a week or two at a time while they connected with family members in places like Chicago or Houston. I have many memories of playing endless games of basketball in that gymnasium with people whom at the time I knew very little about. Today, while Republican presidential candidates continue to demonize immigrants, churches across the country have quietly revived the Sanctuary movement in places like McAllen, Texas, where Sacred Heart Catholic Church has been providing shelter, food, and clothing to immigrant families from Central America. [2] These important movements today have a history—they come from somewhere—and in my contribution to A Promising Problem: The New Chicana/o History, I begin to uncover the tense and sometimes unpredictable role that churches (Catholic and Protestant) have played in fighting back against racism and oppression.

In the late 1960s and 1970s Chicana/o and Puerto Rican activists who knew well the power of religious institutions occupied churches and sanctuaries as a way to embarrass the church and awaken it from its political slumber. For these activists it was not about overthrowing religion or closing churches, but instead to remind religious leaders of the need for socially engaged churches. Today, rather than being occupied by Chicana/o and Puerto Rican youth, progressive churches from Arizona to Iowa to Texas are opening their sanctuaries to immigrants and refugees from Latin America. The religious cultures of Latinas/os in the U.S. are complex and ever changing, but it should be clear that historically religious devotion has not canceled out political participation. The support that Pastor Max Villatoro received shortly after his detention came most vehemently from Latina/o, Asian, white, and black communities of faith across the country. As presidential candidates court the “evangelical” or “Christian” vote (which often and mistakenly are identified as white) they would be remiss to ignore the ways in which the immigrant rights movement has been sustained and fortified by Chicana/o and Latina/o faith communities.


Perla Guerrero, March 30th

As the 2016 election continues to unfold, Republican and Democratic parties keep vying for the so-called Latina/o vote, some imagined homogenous community that will secure its chosen party’s success for the next fifty years. The demographic growth of Chicanas/os and Latinas/os seemingly supports this assertion because we now account for more than 17 percent of the U.S. population and in California that percentage more than doubles to 38. Given these numbers it is clear that Chicana/o and Latina/o voters in California will play a crucial role in deciding the respective Republican and Democratic presidential candidates. And that points to one of the “promising problems”—that Chicanas/os and Latinas/os are actively participating in both parties, canvasing and phone banking for Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders.

In Arkansas, Latinas/os are 7 percent of the overall state population but in Washington County in the northwest corner of the state they constitute 16 percent. Latinas/os have started running for office, as Democratic candidates but also as Republicans. The “promising problem” of Chicanas/os and Latinas/os in Arkansas is that many community members are children of immigrants, folks who moved to Arkansas in search of a better life and who sometimes received hostile reactions. In Arkansas, like in many other places in the United States, Latina/o communities exist at crossroads—unwanted as poor or undocumented immigrants but used as cheap labor, children despised for being “anchor babies” but courted as voters as soon they’re eligible to cast a ballot.

The results 
of the presidential election in Arkansas will tell us something significant about the future of Latinas/os as voters in the Natural State. In 2010, Latina/o youth (those under 18) made up 83 percent of the youth of color in Arkansas—an overwhelming majority that keeps aging and naturalizing into becoming eligible voters. This generation will make sense of how they and their elders were and are treated by Arkansas public officials. They have grown up in the state (and love it), but they also have first-hand experience dealing with being cast as “illegal aliens” and being maligned in schools and the election can provide some answers about how those experiences will shape their voting behavior and party affiliation. If Republicans in Arkansas continue to follow the national trend of vilifying Latinas/os as “illegal aliens” and continue to support building a massive wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, it seems likely that these Latina/o voters will become Democrats. However, the Democratic Party also has to respond to community needs if they want to secure their future with Latina/o voters. 

[1] William Finnegan, “The Man Who Wouldn’t Sit Down: How Univision’s Jorge Ramos earns his viewer’s trust,” The New Yorker October 5, 2015.

[2] Amanda Sakuma, “With Children in Need, a Texas town sets Politics Aside” http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/politics-texas-town-embraces-immigrant-children

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