“When I step into a voting booth, I just punch every immigrant-, woman- and Latino-sounding name I see. It’s like: Hey! Get in there folks! Let’s go!

And so goes the disclosure from an older family friend explaining to me her, uh, stance on various political issues and how they influence her voting. She cannot be completely faulted, considering she spent much of her life not seeing that representation in politics–or in her workplace, education, on television or just about anywhere else where it was needed. While I like to believe my voting behavior is way better informed and more sophisticated, I would be lying if I said I didn’t catch a flash of happiness at seeing Latino names in the booth, too. I do.

I’ve been hearing this phrase a lot more recently in light of recent and upcoming elections, and I suppose my family friend and I are two small parts of it: The Latino Vote. Each time I hear it I cannot help but think of the meanings the term holds for myself and others. How is it useful? What is it omitting?

To the extent that it identifies our shared political interests from which assumptions about Latinos and voting inclinations can be made, thinking about us in terms of one solid voting bloc is certainly useful. That this broad generalization is useful is especially the case for pundits, pollsters, and politicians. Polls indicate that Latinos rank jobs, education, healthcare and immigration reform at the top of their issue list. It is not surprising that our community cares about these issues as they affect many of us directly. But the War on Terror, the War on Drugs, environmentalism and other pressing concerns are relevant to us, too. In 2008, Rosa Clemente, a Bronx-born Latina, ran as a vice-presidential candidate on the Green Party ticket and was the first Latina in history to run as a vice-presidential candidate.

In an ideal world, politicians would recognize the complexity of our interests and political aims. Until then, I am afraid we will simply get them pandering to us via Hollywood celebs and courting us in Everything-Is-Bigger-In-Texas speeches about all the rolled-up-sleeve-worthy action they are taking on immigration–trivializing the serious and growing conflict at the U.S./Mexico border (especially at the hands of Nativist extremists) by using the border as a videoshoot-ready patriotic backdrop. Indeed, immigration reform should be of primary importance to all Americans concerned about the fair and humane treatment of all people.

While Latinos are united on many key issues like the economy and immigration, our interests diverge on other political issues, and we differ in other respects. Overall, Latinos vote Democrat but not always. Many Cuban-Americans identify as Republican. Florida is not the only place where we find Latinos on the right: New Mexico has a Republican Latina governor, Republican Susana Martinez, backed by the Tea Party.  Nevada’s first Latino governor, Brian Sandoval, is Republican. Along with Martinez and Sandoval, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) was also elected in the 2010 mid-terms. These wins alone should signal to all those interested in the Latino vote that Latinos are not nearly as monolithic as some think. More so than any other ethnic minority group, Latinos in America are heavily heterogeneous in terms of national origins, racial/ethnic identity and acculturation levels. Social conservatism also figures into voting behaviors for us. Dueling perspectives in this area within our community was most recently illustrated by Senator Diaz (D-NY) and his granddaughter holding rival demonstrations on the issue of same-sex marriage in the Bronx–on the same day, at the same time, a few hundred feet apart. Clearly, while identifying Latinos as a singular bloc of voters can be helpful to those interested in charting our course, the degree to which this broad characterization can be useful will depend on the degree to which all of our differences can be appreciated.

As the Latino population grows, so too does the body of eligible Latino voters. That alone isn’t anything to be happy about, per se. Considering the low voter turnout here in Chicago during our last mayoral election, for example, the growth of the Latino population may simply mean there will be more people sitting at home watching telenovelas on Univision instead of voting. For many Latinos, not choosing anyone is preferable to choosing the least horrible candidate at the voting booth. Disturbingly enough, of all the ways to characterize the Latino Vote, apathetic may prove to be the best fitting.

We would be foolish to believe our strength will come with numbers alone. The strength needed to address issues pertinent to the Latino community will have to come from the conscientious organization, education and mobilization of concerned citizens. More importantly, we will need politicians truly willing to take on these issues–and not just politicians with Latino sounding names either, but those with immigrant, woman and regular ol’ American sounding names, too.

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