The Power And Diversity Of Latino Voters : It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders Latinos are the second largest group of eligible voters by race or ethnicity in the United States, but they continue to be misunderstood and underappreciated by political campaigns of all parties. Sam talks to Lisa García Bedolla, a scholar of Latino politics, about how the word "Latino" encompasses diverse communities of all political stripes and life experiences, and he checks in with the former mayor of a small town in Texas who's been thinking of Latino voter outreach for a long time.

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'They've Dismissed Us': How Latino Voter Outreach Still Falls Short

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'They've Dismissed Us': How Latino Voter Outreach Still Falls Short

'They've Dismissed Us': How Latino Voter Outreach Still Falls Short

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SAM SANDERS, HOST:

Can you hear me?

VICTOR LEAL: I can.

SANDERS: OK. Thank you for your patience. First things first, tell our listeners your full name and whatever title you want to go by.

LEAL: Yeah. I'm Victor Leal. That's V-I-C-T-O-R L-E-A-L. I live in a small town in - on the South Plains called Muleshoe, Texas. And I guess I'm the owner-operator of Leal's Mexican Food Restaurants.

SANDERS: Yes, you heard that right. Victor Leal is from Muleshoe, Texas. Oh, you don't know where that is?

LEAL: You got to be kidding. I mean, I would be shocked if there's anybody out there in the United States that doesn't know where Muleshoe is.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

LEAL: But in case there are one or two people that don't know, we are on the South Plains. Muleshoe, we're about 30 miles from the New Mexico border. We're between...

SANDERS: So Victor Leal - besides running that restaurant, he is really involved in politics. He's a Republican, and he's worked a lot with the state Republican Party. He was even, for a few years, mayor of Muleshoe, Texas. The city secretary actually put him up to it.

LEAL: She had about 15 or 20 folks corner me at the restaurant and said, you know, you owe it to your hometown to do this. So they asked me to run in (ph)...

SANDERS: Wait, wait. They came to your restaurant and said, you need to run for mayor, sir?

LEAL: Yeah. I was - I was...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

Being mayor led Victor to more political work, and as a part of that work, Victor has done a lot of outreach to Latino voters in Texas. And a lot of that outreach was for the Republican Party. But outreach to Latinos, it can be tricky.

LEAL: And I think one of the biggest mistakes that we made - and I'm part of this - is I assumed, well, Latinos all think like me. I mean, we're conservative. We're pro-life. You know, we're Catholic. We're whatever. We're hardworking. We're independent. But (laughter) it's a pretty rude awakening. That's not the case at all. We're a pretty disparate group (laughter). We...

SANDERS: And Victor says that kind of political diversity in the Latino community, it exists even in his own family. And it's really clear this election.

LEAL: So my mom is a lifelong Democrat. She's excited that she's going to vote for Joe Biden. My - I have one older sister, very conservative, probably vote for Donald Trump. I have a younger sister who is excited to vote for Joe Biden. I have a younger brother who's very conservative...

SANDERS: Victor told me that diversity of opinion makes it really hard for anyone to get Latino political outreach for all Latinos right. And he says right now, the type of Latino outreach he's seen from both parties, it's pretty bad.

LEAL: They've just dismissed us. You know, they've dismissed, by and large, the Hispanic community. I think there's - we are going to be - as a group, if you put us under one big umbrella, we're going to be the second-largest voting bloc this election. And you really - so what's been egregious is that, by and large, we've essentially been ignored.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: I'm Sam Sanders. You are listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. In this episode, the power and diversity of the Latino vote and why no one, it seems, when it comes to talking to that community, gets it right. We'll hear more from Victor later on whether he's seen any effective political outreach to Latinos this election. But to start, we're going to look at the very word Latino and how this big blanket term obscures a whole bunch of different communities with different experiences and different histories, why there may be no such thing as one Latino vote. That's after the break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: Lisa Garcia Bedolla studies Latino politics for a living. She's a professor and vice provost for graduate studies at UC Berkeley, and she wrote a book that is pretty on point for this conversation. It is called "Latino Politics."

Lisa, how are you?

LISA GARCIA BEDOLLA: I'm doing well. Thanks. How are you?

SANDERS: I'm good. I'm good.

When I talked to Lisa, she told me that that word Latino, it can mean a lot of different things, especially when it comes to politics.

So, Lisa, I want to start by talking about a recent news event that reveals a lot about the way politicians successfully and unsuccessfully try to appeal to Latino voters, talking about the whole Supreme Court nomination process. Before Amy Coney Barrett was selected by President Trump, there was talk that he might appoint Barbara Lagoa, a Cuban American judge. And the thinking from the Republican Party was, well, this might help him get Latino votes. You wrote an entire Newsweek op-ed that said, probably it won't, and also, this kind of thinking is kind of offensive. Explain.

GARCIA BEDOLLA: Well, at its core is this idea that if I'm a Latina - and I should say for full disclosure, I'm a Cuban American Latina, so theoretically, the type of person that would be most excited about such a nomination - that somehow this woman's ethnic, national origin, racial identity would trump any policy preferences or policy concerns that I have. So the idea that if I disagreed with the president on health care or on education or on his immigration policy, that somehow all of that would disappear simply because this woman happens to be a co-ethnic member of my community. And that...

SANDERS: Yeah.

GARCIA BEDOLLA: ...Presumes a level of flatness - right? - and sort of noncontent to Latino political attitudes that is reductive in ways that I think are really problematic - that essentially it's just about your race and you're not going to think about anything else beyond that.

SANDERS: Yeah. And no one actually votes that way - not even white people.

GARCIA BEDOLLA: No.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: You know? Like, it doesn't happen that way.

GARCIA BEDOLLA: Nope.

SANDERS: You use a phrase that I love in your op-ed. You call it mariachi politics. Years ago, we used to call it Hispandering (ph), but it's the same kind of idea. What does it mean?

GARCIA BEDOLLA: The idea - and I should say, Democrats and Republicans have done this now for decades...

SANDERS: Yes, they do.

GARCIA BEDOLLA: ...That you're going to have a rally and you're going to have a mariachi band and that that's somehow going to tell Latino voters that you are on their side and that you understand them but, again, without any actual content. Right? So that if I hear this song - or Vicente Fernandez, you know, he played at the Republican convention when George W. was on the ballot...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VICENTE FERNANDEZ: (Singing in Spanish).

GARCIA BEDOLLA: ..That somehow that's going to make me ignore what you're actually standing for, you know, from a policy standpoint about education or about jobs or anything like that. And so it's this idea that somehow symbolic outreach is all we want. And my...

SANDERS: Mmm hmm.

GARCIA BEDOLLA: Marisa Abrajano, who teaches at UC San Diego, wrote a great book on this, and she showed that Spanish-language ads actually have less policy content from all candidates...

SANDERS: Wow.

GARCIA BEDOLLA: ...Than English-language ads - right? - so this idea that somehow all...

SANDERS: Wow.

GARCIA BEDOLLA: ...We care about is that you speak to me in Spanish; I don't actually care about the content of what you're saying. And again, it's insulting. Right? And it's really reducing us to, you know, tacos and mariachi bands...

SANDERS: Mmm hmm.

GARCIA BEDOLLA: ...And not real policy.

SANDERS: Yeah. You know, it's good to hear you say that both sides do this. I will never forget last campaign cycle when Hillary Clinton had a whole day where she was talking about how she's just like your abuela.

GARCIA BEDOLLA: (Laughter).

SANDERS: And everyone was like, no, ma'am. No, ma'am. We're not doing this.

GARCIA BEDOLLA: (Laughter) Yeah, exactly.

SANDERS: They all do it.

GARCIA BEDOLLA: Yes. Yes, they all do it. And again, it really is about this idea that we're all the same, too - right? - because not all of us listen to mariachi music. Right? Not all of us speak Spanish. And so there's that layer of it, too - that not just that all we care about is culture but that we all have the same culture.

SANDERS: Yeah. And most Latinos in the U.S. are English first, right?

GARCIA BEDOLLA: Correct, yes.

SANDERS: And so, you know, this gets to another big point that you made in your op-ed and in all of your research and writing. You know, when we talk about the quote-unquote, "Latino community" or outreach to that community, it's not just one community. It is dozens, if not hundreds of different communities. And you list some of the things that really draw distinctions within this larger group in the op-ed. You call them multiple axes of diversity. I like that. What are some of those big dividing lines?

GARCIA BEDOLLA: Thank you. Well, the first big one is national origin. While it is true that about 60% of Latinos in the United States are of Mexican origin, even among Mexicans, depending on which part of Mexico you're from, that makes a big difference, be it the north or the south. And then you also have generation. There are some people who've been here since the border moved. Right? And there are some people who just got here last year. And there's everything in between. And then there's nativity. Some are citizens; some are not citizens. And then there's geography, which is really important - that even people of the same national origin, depending on where they moved to, they have a very different set of life experiences. One concrete example is if you're Puerto Rican and you ended up in Chicago versus if you're Puerto Rican and you ended up in New York - very different relationships with other communities, very different history of political engagement. And so even within the same national origin, you have significant differences depending on where people land, how long they've been here and what the opportunity structures are in the place where they landed.

SANDERS: Yeah. Well - and then also one of the things that I find really fascinating when we talk about, like, the Latino community - I think the American assumption is that all Latinos are brown. But there are white Latinos, and there are Black Latinos, and there are Latinos who speak English and some who speak Spanish and some who speak Portuguese. Why do you think America is so hell-bent on reducing such a diverse group of people to one group? What's that about?

GARCIA BEDOLLA: Yeah. Well, I think the first thing is to just remember that Latin America is a product of colonialism. Right? And so the Spaniards and the Portuguese encountered a large Indigenous population, many of whom died off, but many of whom did not - right? - that was already there. And then they imported enslaved Africans to do work. And then after slavery, they imported Asian Americans, many Chinese, to do work. And then people, you know, trying to try their luck in the New World arrived, too. This is why Jose Vasconcelos says that we're la raza cosmica. Right? We are of every racial background.

I think the challenge is then, once we came to the United States, we came into a system that has a very sort of literally Black-and-white racial structure - right? - where...

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.

GARCIA BEDOLLA: ...Your Blackness was really about, you know, blood quantum - right? - in a very kind of biological way. And so you have folks who come in who don't - first, they're racially ambiguous because they don't fit in those, you know, boxes - right? - that were already here. And you can even have significant differences in phenotype, you know, in sort of your physical brownness or Blackness within the same family.

And for Latino families that came during Jim Crow, this was a big issue. Especially, you know, here in California, you had stories of Mexican families where, you know, pools were segregated. In California, the Mexicans could only use the pool the day before the polls were cleaned, right? And so some siblings would get to use the pool on the white days, and other siblings could only use the pools on the...

SANDERS: Wow.

GARCIA BEDOLLA: ...Mexican days depending on what they physically looked like. Right? And so...

SANDERS: My goodness.

GARCIA BEDOLLA: ...I think that ambiguity is really - doesn't fit in the U.S. context. And so they had to create a box. And so it's this brown box that doesn't really fit.

SANDERS: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: Coming up - the limits of identity politics and who is getting Latino voter outreach more or less right?

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: Back to these multiple axes of diversity within the Latino community - national origin, race, class, gender identity, nativity, geography, ideology, which of these do you think is the most predictive in terms of how someone might vote in an election for president?

GARCIA BEDOLLA: That's a really good question. I think the better way to think about it is - this is one of the reasons I don't like the whole concept of identity politics, is that it's not about...

SANDERS: Mmm hmm.

GARCIA BEDOLLA: ...Your individual identification. It's really about your social position. Like, where you sit and how where you sit, which is the combination of all those things - right? - in an intersectional kind of way, affects your life experiences and the ways in which your life experiences then - that those things are the lens through which you understand, you know, candidates and politics and what you care about.

SANDERS: Yeah.

GARCIA BEDOLLA: Right? And so you could have, you know, a Mexican and a Salvadoran living in San Francisco, working in the same industry that even though they're of different national origins, their experience of their work life and the things that came out of that, you know, structure make them think about labor or unions or economic policy in similar ways.

And so it's really about kind of where you sit in the hierarchy that then affects, you know, what it is that you think is important from a government standpoint. And it just so happens that Latinos are more likely to sit - right? - in lower rungs of that hierarchy. And that can help explain why, then, they care about social services and they care about education - because they tend to be younger and they tend to have kids. Right? And they care about immigration because they tend to know people who are affected by the immigration system. And so it's really kind of how that combination of experiences then drives how you understand what matters in politics.

SANDERS: Yeah. You know, it's easy to have a conversation about mariachi politics or Hispandering and blame the politicians for getting this wrong and being tone deaf. But there's also a media conversation to have, as well. A lot of the way that the entire country conceptualizes what it means to be Latino is because of how the media portrays this community. And one of the things I notice a lot in the discussion of this community - there's this kind of assumption in the coverage of Latinos in politics. There's an assumption that most, if not all of them, are new or recent immigrants. And the story of immigration is shown to be something that all Latinos have.

But we know that's not true. You know, my colleague Andrea, her family comes from the Southwest. They have been there for a very long time. The immigrant story that is painted about most Latinos is not Andrea's story and her family's story. How do we accommodate that? How do we speak to that - like, the narratives being placed on these communities, not just by politicians, but by media writ large?

GARCIA BEDOLLA: Yeah. I mean, it is true that a significant proportion of the community has arrived since 1970, after the change in the '65 immigration policy. So it is true that there are a lot of folks that have that experience. I think, though, that there's something almost comforting because of the ways in which Latinos don't kind of fit in the U.S. racial hierarchy. I think there's something comforting about saying that they're new. And I think it's more uncomfortable to acknowledge that long-term presence. And this reminds me - if you want to Google something way, way back when Johnny Carson was the host of "The Tonight Show" - I'm showing my age; I know - Linda Ronstadt...

SANDERS: That's OK.

GARCIA BEDOLLA: ...Was on the show.

SANDERS: Love her

GARCIA BEDOLLA: ...And she had just come out with "Canciones De Mi Padre," which was a - it's a Spanish-language mariachi album.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW")

LINDA RONSTADT: (Singing in Spanish).

GARCIA BEDOLLA: And so Johnny Carson, you know, he's - you know, they're going in their little banter. And he says, well, what made you decide to, you know, do this music? When did your family get here? And she said, we've always been here. The border moved.

SANDERS: Mmm hmm.

GARCIA BEDOLLA: Right? We were here since it was Mexico. And it's the only time I ever saw Johnny Carson just flummoxed. Right? He did not...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

GARCIA BEDOLLA: ...Know what to say because that's so contrary to the story. And so...

SANDERS: Yeah.

GARCIA BEDOLLA: ...I think there's something about conquest, right? In order to justify conquest, you have to tell a new story. And our story doesn't allow us to acknowledge that we actually took the land from people who were already here.

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah. You know, another thing that I find troubling in the way the media characterizes Latinos when it comes to politics is this general surprise every time any poll indicates that there's small but consistent Latino support for Donald Trump. You know, in some polls, Latino men, 1 out of 3 of them support Trump, you know? And there's not - there are folks all over the country who are Latino who like him, yet every time this is discussed, you can almost hear the journalists clutching their pearls.

GARCIA BEDOLLA: (Laughter).

SANDERS: Why can't folks like me wrap our heads around the fact that some Latinos actually do like Donald Trump?

GARCIA BEDOLLA: So I think the first thing, it's back to the point about being reductive about a community. It's absurd to...

SANDERS: Yeah.

GARCIA BEDOLLA: ...Think that in any group of people, you're going to have 100% agreement. You're talking about a very diverse community with different life experiences, which lead to different ideological orientations. We have people who immigrated to the United States to flee left-wing regimes - right? - who were deeply conservative in their country of origin.

SANDERS: Yeah.

GARCIA BEDOLLA: Why do we think that that would change necessarily when they get here?

The other part, though - I think the piece about the gender gap is really important and one that is not talked about enough. And this is not just true among Latinos. You have significant gender gap in terms of Trump support among all racial groups in the United States. And the difference is that the level of Trump support is higher among Latinos. But even among Blacks - right? - Black men are - they're still very unlikely to support Trump, but they're more likely than Black women. Right?

SANDERS: Mmm hmm, mmm hmm.

GARCIA BEDOLLA: And I think this is where the intersectional piece becomes really important in understanding the degree to which the toxic masculinity that is part of Trump's message appeals to men of color in the similar ways that it appeals to white men. And so to realize that if we want to address oppression, you have to address - this was what bell hooks said way back in 1990 - in 1984 is she said, you have to address everything at once because these different...

SANDERS: Yeah.

GARCIA BEDOLLA: ...Lines are how the system supports itself and sustains itself because it's not just you win, we lose, but it's, well, some of you win, and some of you lose. And it's got these other pieces that do appeal to men of all races.

SANDERS: Yeah. Machismo knows no race.

GARCIA BEDOLLA: (Laughter).

SANDERS: It's everywhere.

GARCIA BEDOLLA: That is true.

SANDERS: If you could advise the Biden and Trump campaigns about effective outreach to Latino voters, what would be the biggest piece of advice you'd give them, the missing piece in their strategies?

GARCIA BEDOLLA: I think what we've been talking about this whole time - right? - that there isn't one group and that people have real needs and real interests that need to be addressed in policy - right? - that there are - Latinos and Blacks are much more likely both to get COVID and to die of COVID. And that's because we're the essential workers, right? We're the ones that are cleaning. We're the ones that are serving and cooking and then trying to, you know, have our kids go to school when we're not there, right? Kids are trying to go to school remotely, but they don't have a parent there to help them.

And so I think just remembering that people are really - especially right now - are really suffering and they need real solutions and a real commitment to understanding that there are differences in need - right? - across communities and that you actually have to know something about that community in a meaningful way in order to address those needs - and so long as we're treated as this kind of one-note, superficial, you know, universal monolith, it's almost impossible that we will have the policy solutions we need to actually address what people are facing day to day.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE DOT SESSIONS' "VERNOUILLET")

SANDERS: Thanks again to Lisa Garcia Bedolla. If you want to hear more from her on Latino politics, she wrote a book all about it. It is called "Latino Politics."

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE DOT SESSIONS' "VERNOUILLET")

SANDERS: With all that in mind, I wanted to go back to Muleshoe, Texas. You remember Muleshoe.

LEAL: You got to be kidding. I mean, I would be shocked if there's anybody out there in the United States that doesn't know where Muleshoe is.

SANDERS: That is Victor Leal from the beginning of this episode, and he was telling me that Latino political preferences are all over the map. You'll recall his whole family is politically divided. But Victor also said there are some things that most Latinos he knows agree on.

LEAL: There are areas where we do have - it might not be, you know, 90% or 80%, but there's still a broad consensus in the Hispanic community for health care.

SANDERS: Victor says education is also a big issue for Latinos that he speaks with. The data bears this out. The Pew Research Center looks into this stuff a lot. And we should note here, in their polling, they use the term Hispanic. A recent poll of Hispanic voters from Pew last month shows that Hispanic voters rate the economy, health care, the coronavirus pandemic and racial and ethnic inequality as very important to their vote this year, more so than U.S. voters overall. But back to Victor - I wanted to know what he thought about outreach this year.

Who do you think has been doing the best in terms of outreach to the Latino community this year in 2020 - Democrats, Republicans, Trump, Biden, somebody else?

LEAL: I'm sad to say this. But in a lot of ways, I think that in Texas, I think Beto O'Rourke has - from what I'm seeing - has done a pretty phenomenal job of getting people on the grassroots. I'm getting a lot of texts. I signed up for his texts. I'm getting folks asking me almost daily to help them phone bank, to help knock on doors.

SANDERS: What does it mean to hear you say that one of the most galvanizing forces in Latino politics in Texas this year is a white guy named Beto?

LEAL: (Laughter).

SANDERS: What does that say about the community? No shade to Beto. I've interviewed him - nice guy.

LEAL: I love the way you said that. Yeah. I think that - you know, I've been saying Beto so long, I kind of feel like he's one of us. He's Hispanic.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: Victor told me the thing about Beto, the thing about all good political outreach to Latinos, to anyone - it's about working the grassroots. Victor says Beto traveled all across the state, to all 254 counties in Texas back when he ran against Ted Cruz for the Senate in 2018. Beto lost but not by much. And when he campaigned, wherever he went, Latino voter or not, he just listened. And Victor said this was the thing - he talked about real policy, real substance.

LEAL: He was able to express and articulate his positions in ways - you know, when he was on the stump, he would take any question, and he would thank the person, even if they were in opposed, even if they were there to heckle. And this was...

SANDERS: Actually having something to say and actually listening - that is good outreach for Latino voters and, well, good outreach for every other voter, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: This episode was produced by Andrea Gutierrez with help from Star McCown. It was edited by Jordana Hochman. Listeners, we are back in your feeds on Friday as always. Till next time, stay safe. Take care of yourself. I'm Sam Sanders. We will talk soon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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