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Paint It Brown:

The Pandemic Isn't Ignoring Latinos.

Democrats Shouldn't Either.


Luisita López Torregrosa

“Paint It Black” was a dark, depressive 1966 Rolling Stones song known for splicing in the James Joyce line from Ulysses:“I have to turn my head until my darkness goes.”

The Rolling Stones stopped Trump from playing their songs at his rallies. But was their song echoing in Donald Trump’s Boomer brain when he gave the order to use black paint on his $11 billion wall on the U.S.-Mexico border? Either way, the color of mourning was appropriate: not only are Trump’s detention centers racking up a death toll of migrants trapped in close quarters; Latinos are falling to coronavirus at higher rates than any other group except for African-Americans.

And the country, as always, turns its head away. What’s surprising is that this year, Latinos are expected for the first time to be the nation's largest racial or ethnic minority. With a record 32 million eligible voters, Latinos will account for 13.3 percent of Americans eligible to vote in the next presidential election, according to the Pew Research Center.

The question is whether Latinos will get to the polls. Historically, Latino turnout has been lower than other racial or ethnic groups, but this year could be different. With the pandemic expected to last until well beyond the inaugural ceremony in January of 2021 (presumably to take place without “the biggest audience in the history of inaugural speeches”) November’s election is, quite literally, a life or death proposition for a whole lot of Americans.

We’ve seen the numbers. The elderly and their caretakers are dying in droves. Next in line: African-Americans and Latinos who make up most of the country’s nurses, grocery store clerks, bus drivers, warehouse workers, and cleaners. And meatpacking plant workers, who are disproportionately Latino, with or without papers: 700 in one South Dakota plant alone.

African-Americans are dying at disproportionately higher rates compared to all other ethnicities, but in several states, Latinos are just as hard hit, contracting the virus at three times the rate of whites. One doctor in Oregon was stunned to discover that her Latino patients were 20 times as likely as others to test positive for the virus. Neither income nor underlying health problems accounted for the difference. The key factor appears to be the kind of work a person does.

Similar statistics were coming in from places like Iowa, Utah, and New Jersey. Health officials warned they were likely to be an undercount: many Latinos weren’t seeking health care because of their immigration status.

With an administration ignoring warnings that reopening for business will ramp up the death toll and balking at providing aid to workers, you might think that Latinos are mobilizing to make sure they are represented in the next election.

You would be wrong.

The reasons for low voter turnout are partly demographic, but are also a palimpsest of the historical roots of Latinos in the U.S. First the demographics: The Latino population tends to be younger than other ethnic groups, and younger people are less likely to vote. Almost half of eligible U.S. Latino voters are 35 or younger and are often first-time voters. Among white voters, that figure is just one in five.

For immigrants, ties to the home country run deep: a large number of Latino immigrants have remained in green card status rather than naturalizing. And the so-called Latino Nation is not a monolith; Latinos in the U.S. are a collection of diverse, contrasting. and opposing nationalities, histories, ethnicities, races, backgrounds. We cannot even agree on what to call ourselves: Latinos, Hispanics, Latinx?

Those are the numbers. The roots of Latino disengagement are also a result of larger historical factors, according to Louis DeSipio, Chair of Latino/Chicano Studies at The University of California at Irvine. Although African-Americans and Latinos are often lumped together as “minorities,” DeSipio points out that, unlike African-Americans, Mexican-Americans joined the United States as citizens. Latinos rarely faced outright disenfranchisement, DeSipio writes: instead there is a long history of manipulation by corrupt machine politics.

The dilemma is partly geographic: Hispanic constituencies in states like Texas and New Mexico, where their families may have lived since the 1500s, are often rural and geographically dispersed, while newer immigrants are scattered in urban areas and come from a wide variety of regions and backgrounds. Much of the political work by national Latino groups has been focused on helping recent immigrants assimilate.

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Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) is the little boy standing in front of his father, who worked as a vaquero (cowboy) on Canelo Ranch, south of Tucson. Grijalva chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources.

Here’s what most Americans may not know: whites seem to care about immigration more than Latinos. What the majority of Latino voters care about are things that make their lives and the lives of their kids better: education, public safety, transportation, and fighting prejudice. Considering that these issues align with the traditional values of Democrats, it's not surprising that 62 percent of registered Latino voters say they identify with the Democrats, as opposed to 34 percent that tilt Republican. Yet neither party has succeeded in turning out these voters.

Back in the days when government officials wanted to bring out the vote rather than quash it, there were efforts to foster Latino participation. In 1975, Latinos were included in the Voting Rights Act. Many of the act's reforms were helpful, but the remedies used to address the problems of black voters didn't address some of the problems faced by Hispanics, wrote DeSipio in Hispanics and The Future of America, published by the National Research Council.

“The experience of Latinos is not unique in American history,” DeSipio wrote. From 1975 on, what changed was America: “political parties, which from the 1830s on, served as the engine of mass political participation in the United States” shifted their focus to “fundraising, candidate recruitment, and technical support for candidates.”

In other words, both Democrats and Republicans starved the grassroots to feed the national political apparatus. Turning out likely voters is more efficient than the long-term proposition of registering new ones. As a result, both parties are failing to mobilize new voters. Big data has replaced House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s famous dictum that “All politics is local.”

Two cheers for democracy.

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Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and Sen. Kamala Harris announce an immigrant family reunification bill they introduced in 2018.

Unlike Latinos, African-Americans have well-established networks to get out the vote. Yet increasingly, the Latino vote matters. Biden needs Latinos to win and, so far, he’s falling short. A Latino Decisions poll of 1,200 registered Latino voters conducted in early April found lower than usual support for the former vice president compared to past Democratic nominees, but showed Biden with a wide lead: 59 percent to 22 percent over Trump. Pollsters say that a Democratic presidential candidate needs more Latino support to win: in the mid-to-high 60 percent range nationwide.

With that in mind, Biden’s list of potential vice presidential candidates includes two Latinas: U.S. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada and New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham. A recent Latino Decisions poll found that 67 percent of registered Latino voters would be more likely to support him if he chooses Cortez Masto. More importantly, 72% said they would be more likely to vote.

Cortez Masto and Lujan Grisham are both powerhouses with political credentials that would put them on Biden's short list if they represented strong voting constituencies. Cortez Masto is Nevada's ranking U.S. Senator, hand-picked by former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. A former federal prosecutor, Cortez Masto doesn't have the red flags that make Harris iffy for progressives. As Nevada’s attorney general, she prosecuted banks after the 2008 housing crisis and vigorously defended same-sex marriage.

New Mexico's Lujan Grisham is just as dynamic. Lauded for her swift and efficient response to the COVID-19 pandemic, during her three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives Lujan Grisham became head of the Congressional Hispanic caucus and at one point, crashed a meeting to confront Trump on immigration. A dentist's daughter who came to politics without the advantages of wealth or position, Lujan Grisham has a record of sweeping electoral victories in her state. (“She’s doing a great job. Don’t take her away!” was the gist of comments on social media as Lujan Grisham’s name was bruited as a possible vice president.)

Despite their strengths, neither is widely known. This is true even among Latino voters. Instead, in an interesting twist, the Latino Decisions poll found that Harris, who is on everyone’s short list, was more familiar to Latino voters than either Cortez Masto or Lujan Grisham.

“The fact that no Latinas appear on the short lists for a Biden VP pick is a reminder of the gulf between Hispanics’ population numbers and their political clout,” said Roberto Suro, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

For Suro, the political math for Latinos hasn’t changed—yet. Of 32 million projected Latino voters, Suro said, about 20 million live in five states that have not been contested in more than 20 years: California, Texas, New York, Illinois, and New Jersey, and so are largely irrelevant in presidential politics. The Latino population in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan — the all-important Electoral College states, as we now term them — is relatively small. In Florida, where the Latino vote matters, the Cuban-American vote is solidly Republican.

But in a tight race, even a few thousand votes can make a difference. So can a candidate's response to the pandemic. A Latino Decisions poll showed that 94 percent of Latinos are following news of the pandemic closely; 62 percent ranked COVID-19 as the top issue they want the federal government to address.

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New Mexico's governor Michelle Lujan Grisham gets high marks for her response to COVID-19.

Geographically, wooing the Latino vote makes sense. Democrats have never chosen a presidential or vice presidential candidate from the West, where Latinos make up a large part of the population. With former astronaut Mark Kelly running a strong Senate campaign against Martha McSally, a weak candidate appointed by Arizona’s Republican governor to fill a vacant Senate seat, Arizona could decide the next election.

Long-term, the potential for the Democrats is huge: approximately every 30 seconds, a Latino in the U.S. turns 18 and becomes eligible to vote. That’s nearly 75,000 potential new voters each month and roughly 900,000 each year, according to Census Bureau data. While turnout among young people is notoriously low, research shows that first- and second-generation Latinos are more likely to vote than their parents and grandparents.

While the bootstraps rhetoric of Republican Latinos like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio appealed to older Latinos, younger voters are more likely to be galvanized by leaders like New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose district, not so coincidentally, is among the country’s hardest hit by COVID-19.

The campaign number-crunchers will decide if it makes sense for Biden to gamble on choosing a Latina as his running mate, but turnout in 2020 could hold surprises. While about 48% of Latinos voted in the 2016 presidential election, compared to the national rate of about 61%, Latino turnout soared in 2018.

More and more, Americans are searching for signs that something good can come from a pandemic that has shaken the country to its very foundations. So far, the discernible effects have reflected society’s inequality. The stock market has soared as the household economies of tens of millions of Americans reach crisis proportions. And the outbreak, which has claimed the lives of at least 75,000 Americans and infected at least 1.2 million, has laid bare truths about the nation’s long-festering racial, economic and class inequities: substandard housing and health care, poor schools, menial jobs, and the deep-red racism at the root of it all.

In response to horrific statistics and eager to “open” America even at the cost of human lives, President Trump has turned the coronavirus into a weapon against Latino immigrants, pushing his anti-immigrant campaign beyond the norm: closing the border, keeping Mexican and Central American migrants out of our country, demanding a crackdown on undocumented workers, instituting more deportations and, fittingly, ordering that the new border wall be painted black. Talk about Dreamers and immigration reform faded long before the coronavirus attack, and now seems more distant than ever.

None of this is new. We have known these truths. The coronavirus should force us to look them straight in the face. As Adam Sewer wrote in The Atlantic: “…the pandemic has introduced a new clause to the racial contract. The lives of disproportionately black and brown workers are being sacrificed to fuel the engine of a faltering economy, by a president who disdains them. This is the COVID contract.”

But if watching Trump has taught us anything, it’s that contracts are broken all the time.

Luisita López Torregrosa grew up in Puerto Rico and Mexico City. She was an editor for The New York Times and as a special correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle reported on coup attempts against President Corazon Aquino and protests in South Korea that led to the fall of authoritarian rule. A contributor to Vanity Fair, Condé Nast Traveler, and Vogue, her two books are The Noise of Infinite Longing and Before the Rain.

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Ruben Blades (w/Wynton Marsalis) : Patria