From the moment election-night pundits saw the first exit-poll results, all of America has been talking about the Latino vote. Latinos comprised 10 percent of the electorate this year, the numbers showed, and supported President Obama over Mitt Romney by an unprecedented 50 percentage points. Latino voters put Obama over the top in Colorado, Florida, and Nevada and were key to the Senate victories of Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts and Tim Kaine in Virginia.
The sheer numbers should have surprised no one—politicos have long seen Latinos becoming a major force in the American electorate, commensurate with population growth. But few anticipated them voting Democratic to the extent that they did, which is why Republicans are undergoing such public soul-searching about demographics and the future of the party, including several high-profile GOP conversions to the cause of immigration reform.
But these discussions too often oversimplify the shifts and trends by ignoring the diversity of the Latino electorate. A “Hispanic” or “Latino” voter, after all, simply means a voter who is able to trace his or her ancestry to the Spanish-speaking regions of Latin America and the Caribbean. Latinos hail from Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Colombia, and beyond—more than twenty countries in all. The term is also racially indeterminate: Latinos can be white, black, indigenous, and every combination thereof. Characterizing a voter as Latino tells us nothing about country of origin, gender, age, ideological orientation, sexual preference, economic class, or length of residence in the United States. The Latino vote includes farm workers living below the poverty line and middle-class homeowners, urban hipsters and rural evangelicals, white and black, gay and straight, Catholic and Protestant, Spanish monolinguals and fourth-generation speakers of English only.
A gay Mexican-American lawyer is Latino. So is a Mexican-American evangelical cafeteria worker. And a Cuban small-business owner. And a Salvadoran auto mechanic. And a Nicaraguan DREAM activist studying at a state university. And a Dominican military veteran. And a feminist Puerto Rican who teaches third grade. All of these individuals are Latino voters.
But what that category means to these people when they enter the voting booth is a different matter. Some Latinos voted for Obama because he instituted a deferred-deportation program and supports immigration reform and the DREAM Act. But many other Latinos voted for Obama because he supports reproductive rights, or because of his stance on marriage equality, or because he gave the order to kill Osama bin Laden, or because of healthcare reform. In other words, Latino voters are both “Latino” and “voters,” and how those two categories interact and overlap in their political decision-making is as varied as they are.
What this diversity means is that, rather than a monolithic cultural community, Latinos are in fact a series of communities. At times these populations display widespread agreement, as on Nov. 6. Support for Obama in the 2012 presidential election is an excellent example of Latinos expressing a shared political preference. But it hardly means that Latinos constitute a singular or united political community with a distinct policy agenda.
Nor are they a politically passive population, a “sleeping giant” that just happened to wake up on Election Day. Latinos are quite simply part of America’s political community—current and future citizens with ideas and opinions, an electorate that has finally reached a demographic threshold at which their numbers allow them to impact the outcome of state and federal elections.
If this is the new political reality, perhaps what makes most sense is to think of Latino politics as coalition politics, as something Latinos do rather than something they are. Thinking about Latinos as a coalition helps us understand the shift in how Latino voters came to support immigration. Historically, Latino voters have ranked issues such as the economy and education much higher than immigration in importance. But the ongoing attacks on immigrants at both the state level in places such as Arizona and Alabama—along with the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Republican primary—worked to raise the profile of immigration as a political issue. So when Puerto Rican voters (who have automatic U.S. citizenship) and other U.S.-born Latinos supported immigration reform and DREAM activists, they weren’t just pursuing their self-interest—they were standing in solidarity with immigrant communities. This is community as coalition, a point critical to understanding the future of Latino politics.
In other words, because Latinos are defined by their diversity, there is no simple list of “Latino interests.” Latino interests are the political issues in which Latinos become interested. As with all voters, it is this process of majorities becoming interested that will define the Latino electorate in campaigns to come.
Cristina Beltrán is an associate professor and director of Latino Studies in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University. She is the author of The Trouble with Unity: Latino Politics and the Creation of Identity (Oxford University Press).