By the time I crossed paths with Ro in August 2009, she’d been a nonperson, according to the United States government, for close to 19 of her 22 years of unmistakably human existence. You’d think her precarious legal status would’ve sparked an interest in politics, seeing how her undocumentedness wasn’t a matter of biological necessity but of political machinations. But, alas, Rocio knew as little about U.S. government and history as she did about Juárez, her ciudad natal. Much of her need-to-know knowledge centered on how to do her job (well), how to pay her bills, and how to care for her five-year-old daughter; politics and history were what other, less busy people had the luxury to think about. Consequently, Ro was ignorant to the ways of the world beyond her own, and her views tended toward the simplistic and hard-boiled. Once, while discussing the plight of South Side Chicago, she asked me honestly, “Why don’t they just move?” Her earlier naïveté is good for a few laughs now, but it annoyed the shit out of me back then. “I was totally a stupid, uneducated Republican when you met me,” she told me sometime after we got hitched in Vegas.
Today, thanks to my chronic logorrhea, my wife’s a bit more educated and a bit less Republican. In fact, she even considers herself a Democrat these days, though I still catch wiff of conservatism wafting from her every so often. I had to drag her (and my stepdaughter) to a Bernie Sanders rally at Chicago State University last February; she was skeptical of Bernie’s platform, in terms of both its practicality and its ethos. “Where’s he gonna get the money to pay for that” was her refrain during the primaries, and she didn’t believe that making public colleges and universities tuition free was something the government should do, even if it could. Suffice it to say she’s no socialist, not even a pinko, and while she’s not exactly excited by the Clinton campaign (more “ready for Hillary,” if anything), there’s never been much doubt in her mind as to who the preferred candidate is in this year’s presidential race. Now that she’s finally able to cast a ballot, having become a U.S. citizen in July, her and I plan to make our selections the week of October 26, when early voting opens here in Nevada — though she’ll be voting blue whereas I’m opting for Green.
Ro is voting for Hillary on account of misinformation. I say that confidently, not merely as her husband, but as her best friend and confidant, as someone who knows what she thinks, how she thinks, and why. She’s voting for Hillary because Hillary’s a woman and a Democrat and not a Donald Trump. That’s basically it, really. Ro sees her choice the same way most voters have been trained to see theirs: when presented with two options, one of which is clearly a “basket of deplorables” — “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, you name it,” as Hillary recently framed it — choose the other option. The other option is Hillary Rodham Clinton, or so we’re made to believe. Of course, as someone who plans to vote for a third-party candidate this November, I recognize two baskets, only with different, overlapping sets of deplorables. I know what Hillary did in Honduras and Haiti and Colombia, what she did with her husband’s victims after they were dragged from the shadows, what she didn’t do for poor mothers and children of color, and what she didn’t do for working women as she sat on Walmart’s board of directors; Rocio doesn’t know these things. I know how the Democratic and Republican parties have rigged the nation’s electoral processes to ensure a virtual duopoly over its political system, supplying Hillary with an imposing lead in the delegate count over her party rivals long before the very first primary ballot was even cast, and establishing tough thresholds so that the Democratic and Republican nominees — and only them — will be squaring off in the presidential debates this fall. Again, Ro isn’t aware of this, which has much to do with why she’s voting for Hillary.
Fortunately for Rocio, she isn’t alone — especially among fellow Latinos. For a recent mediation on the elusive Latino vote published by New York Times Magazine, journalist Marcela Valdes “more than 100 Virginians of various ethnic backgrounds.” “I spent six months interviewing scores of Latinos in Virginia, a battleground state where the Latino share of the population has more than tripled since 1990,” she writes.
“For all the energy that activists, especially on the Democratic side, have put into turning out the Latino vote, I met strikingly few Latinos outside the upper-middle class who talked about voting as if it were something they did regularly. … Through all my conversations, I began to fear that the real roots of political engagement, which lie not in quadrennial outreach programs but around dinner tables and in churches and classrooms, are far more absent from Latino life in America than most people understand.”
Putting it bluntly, and for the most part, Latinos don’t know much about politics. Valdes cites the elimination of civics teaching in schools and other institutions which used to transform immigrants into citizens as probable causes. “The problem isn’t their youth, poverty or lack of education,” she argues. “The problem is that when you’re poor, young or undereducated, it takes more effort to overcome your immigrant family’s low levels of political socialization.”
“For first-generation Americans, politics is often just one more cultural expression that they must decipher on their own. It’s rarely a priority. The immigrant parents that I spoke with swam rivers and boarded airplanes to escape violence, to earn money, to educate their children. Learning to play American politics was never on the agenda.
“In Virginia, I found that serious political talk was so rare among the American-born children of Spanish-speaking immigrants that they would often ask me questions like ‘What is the Tea Party?’ and ‘Who is my mayor?’ …
“Until the 1960s, high schools often taught courses on democracy, civics and government. At the turn of the 21st century, most teenagers received one such class, or none. This drought in civics hurts all Americans, but for Latinos it’s devastating. Several studies have found that merely hearing parents chat about politics or watching them cast a ballot improves the odds that a child will later vote as an adult. Yet a national survey directed by Mark Hugo Lopez in 2002 found that young Latinos were the least likely to have discussed politics with their parents. They were also the most likely to believe that voting is ‘difficult.’
This lack of political engagement among Latinos is itself deplorable, and the grotesqueries wrought by it even more so. In addition to persistent low voter turnout — hovering around 48 percent in presidential elections, about half that in midterms — we get people like Iris Chavez, the 26-year-old Catholic DREAMer from El Salvador who told Valdes she didn’t like Trump but would vote for him if she could “based on her belief that abortion is murder.” Or Amanda Renteria, the Clinton campaign’s national political director who, due to low voter turnout, couldn’t win a Congressional race in 2014 in a California district that was 74 percent Latino. Or “Chuy” García, who, despite being of Mexican birth and having a long progressive record in Chicago politics, couldn’t beat Mayor Rahm Emanuel in a 2015 runoff; Chuy was bitten by the same bête noire that scarred Renteria the year before: low Latino voter turnout. Then there’s Valdes’s experience when she went to hear Hillary’s VP pick, Virginia senator Tim Kaine, speak at Richmond’s Huguenot High School:
“After Kaine finished his speech, as ‘Shake It Off’ blasted through the gym, several of these students joined the throng vying for an opportunity to snap a selfie with him. I asked two of them what they knew about Kaine. ‘He was mayor of Virginia,’ one said. The other added that he had lived in Honduras and was a friend of Latinos. That was all that they seemed to know.”
And that was all that they cared to know.
The Hillary campaign continues to shape and reshape her image and its message based on how little the average American voter knows. She seems to care, but only to the careless. Most of her supporters will readily tell you how much she knows her shit, but most of them don’t know theirs. Because they’re new to the States and largely left out, Latinos are perhaps the most ill-informed group when it comes to American politics and, therefore, the most at risk to be led by their noses. With less than two months till Election Day and a bloviating bigot as the Republican opponent, Hillary and the Dems fully expect to scoop up Latino votes like candy left outside on Halloween. Most Latinos will vote for Hillary because she’s a woman, because she’s a Democrat, because her running mate speaks Spanish and was a missionary in Honduras (because Latinos have forgotten the terror unleashed by people calling themselves missionaries), and because Hillary isn’t Trump.
Fear and anger are fuel the Latino vote this election season just as they fan the flames in Trump’s camp, and that scares me. Don’t believe me? Try this experiment: Approach a random Latino on the street, ask him or her if they plan on voting and for whom, and when they say Hillary, ask them why. Odds are you’ll hear plenty about Trump and the Republicans and little about Hillary and her party. The reverse ain’t happening, not this year. And what kind of precedent does the big “sleeping giant” set for itself if it’s only stirred from its slumber to ward off catastrophe? What menacing Kraken must the Democratic establishment lure into the open in 2020 in hopes of disturbing Latino voters enough into giving a damn and showing up? Should the party come to rely on this strategy, a Democrat will occupy the White House till the youngest Bernie Bro is a wrinkly old man; there are plenty of Trumps hiding under every rock and rotting log in this great land of ours. Plus this game plan will allow the Dems to keep doing what they’ve been doing: promising a somewhat progressive agenda, and then rushing to the center-right after the election.
My trademark cynicism aside, no one is more keen about my wife casting her first ballot than me. And should Ro’s first vote come amidst an historic surge in Latino turnout, with 60 or 65 percent of eligible Latino voters showing up to vote for Hillary as black voters did for Obama in 2008 and 2012, no one will be more pleased than me to see her and our fellow Latinos finally beginning to take part in this nation’s political life; I may even do a backflip. But they’ll still have voted for the wrong woman.
Featured image: Memorial Student Center Texas A&M University/Flickr