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Views of the Latino Electorate

Enrique Dávila, PhD Candidate, Department of History, BA Preceptor in Latin American Studies 

What is the Latino Vote? This was the question posed to a panel of experts sitting in front of an audience at the University of Chicago’s Quadrangle Club on October 6, 2016 (1). The panel moderator, History Professor Emilio Kourí, wasted no time getting to the point when he asked:

How good is the category [Latino] at putting together collective political behavior? Is there a Latino voting bloc? Or is that an aspiration?

Each of the three panelists—Cook County Commissioner, Jesus “Chuy” García, Professor of Sociology, G. Cristina Mora, and Professor of History, Geraldo L. Cadava—offered different perspectives on the existence of, and possibilities for, a Latino vote. Below, I will describe three perspectives, or lenses, that they prompted me to adopt when thinking about the future of the Latino vote.

A Generational Lens

How did I become Chicano if I was born in Mexico?”- Cook County Commissioner, Jesus “Chuy” García

First I realized the importance of a generational lens capable of panning across time to see the gradual differentiations between Latinos over a given period. Currently, the average eligible Latino voter is 28 years old (2). This voter came of age in a world with a much different relationship to ethnic and racial categories than previous generations. This generational difference was made apparent when Commissioner García recounted to the audience his first encounter with US racial and ethnic categories. In the late sixties, García moved from Durango, Mexico to Chicago. Upon his arrival, he was encouraged to identify, first, as Mexican-American, then later, as Chicano. In response, García asked his friends and family, “How did I become Chicano if I was born in Mexico? How can I be Chicano if my passport and birth-certificate say Mexicano?” His stance changed over time, in part due to his activism. As an activist, García’s categorical affiliations became more flexible and he found value in searching for “a sense of common purpose” amongst Latinos (3).

“Younger Latinos have grown up in a society where the terms ‘Latino’ and ‘Hispanic’ are ubiquitous.” -G. Cristina Mora, Professor of Sociology, University of California, Berkeley

Commissioner Garcia’s first encounter with ethnic and racial categories compared tellingly with the way in which Latinos interact with these categories today. Professor Mora pointed out that younger Latinos have grown up in a society where the terms “‘Latino’ and ‘Hispanic’ are ubiquitous.” These younger Latinos have grown up using these categories on college applications, census forms, and have seen them attached to the names of their after-school clubs and organizations. And while García grew up using Latino as a category to help politically mobilize his peers, Mora explained that the current generation thinks of politics as just one aspect of their Latinidad existing alongside music, art, and other “cultural [and] emotional expressions of solidarity.” A generational lens allows one to see the subtle differences in how Latinos from different age groups engage with the Latino category.

A Particularity/Similarity Lens

The issue of Latino and Hispanic political categories “relates to questions about similarities and particularities.”- Geraldo L. Cadava, Professor of History, Northwestern University

In addition to a generational lens, I realized we need a lens that can zoom in and out of the category to see the particularities and similarities of the Latino community. Professor Cadava explained how a zoomed-out historical perspective revealed that Latinos, as a whole, have had similar experiences with “issues of race, immigration, empire, and[/or] labor.” Conversely, a zooming in brings into focus the particular issues that have affected the Latino subgroups more directly, e.g. Mexican-Americans and the border, Puerto Ricans and statehood, and Cuban-Americans and their relationship to Cuba and Fidel Castro. Only by understanding when differences matter—as obstacles to collective political action—and when they can be replaced by larger identities and shared interests, will we be able to imagine the possibilities for a unified Latino vote.

“Hoy marchamos, mañana votamos”

While the panelists offered different perspectives with which to view the Latino electorate, they all seemed to agree that political and electoral engagement had yet to produce positive national results for the Latino community. For García, the 2006 national immigration marches should have led to higher Latino political participation. “Hoy marchamos, mañana votamos,” he said, echoing the chant marchers used in 2006. But while many marched, far less voted. Latino voter participation remained largely unchanged in the 2006 midterm elections (4).

An Emotional Lens

“Well-earned cynicism”

The lack of political participation (and representation) explains the need for a third lens—sensitive to the full emotional spectrum that might influence the Latino electorate. Mora explained that, “as much as we talk about hope and optimism when elections come around, I think we should also, really, seriously talk about cynicism.” For Mora, Latinos may be expressing some “well-earned cynicism,” an understandable response for a group that has been heralded as the future of the country since the 2000s (and earlier), yet still remains underrepresented in institutions of higher learning and politics (5). Hope, cynicism, and apathy affect politics as much as “harder” economic and legal factors. Only by accounting for such emotions can we understand the limits and possibilities of the Latino vote.

Conclusion: A Case for Multiple Viewpoints

Only by adopting the different lenses proposed in this seminar can we begin to think about how Latinos will shape the upcoming election: one lens that can see the subtle differences between the generational experiences of Latinos; another lens that can zoom in and out to see the similarities and capture the particularities of the different Latino subgroups; and finally, a lens that recognizes the full spectrum of emotions that can influence Latino voting patterns.

Undoubtedly, the future of Latino politics will rest upon decisions made by Latino millennials. As each of the panelists stated, millennials are the future of the Latino vote. But will future scholars be able to detect how this young and dynamic constituency is affecting electoral politics? If the Latino vote exists, will we have the multiple lenses needed to view it? Perhaps the 2016 presidential election will provide insight. For now, we’ll just have to wait and see.



(1) The seminar was sponsored by the University of Chicago’s Katz Center for Mexican Studies, Institute of Politics, and Center for Latin American Studies.

(2) Eileen Patten, “The Nation’s Latino Population is Defined by Its Youth,” Pew Research Center (April 20, 2016). October 16, 2016).

(3) Commissioner García’s ideas became so flexible that he even admitted to later identifying as Chicano in certain settings.

(4) “The Latino Electorate: An Analysis of the 2006 Election,” (July 24, 2007) October 16, 2016).

(5) For more recent statistics on representation see “Latino Victory Project Releases First Interactive Mapping Tool Illustrating Latino Demographics and Political Representation Following 2014 Elections” (July 28, 2015) (accessed October 16, 2016).

The contents of this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Latin American Studies or the University of Chicago.