How can there be talk of a singular Latinx vote without recognizing the differentiated racial experiences among Latinxs?
During the 2020 primary elections, a New York Times headline, “The Latino Vote,” caught my eye. This reference to the Latinx vote is not unusual. Journalists and political pundits direct a homogenizing gaze toward Latinxs every election season. The article parsed Latinx political differences, but did so in reference to Latinxs as a “nonwhite ethnic voting bloc” (Medina and Fernandez 2020). Nonwhite? Tell that to Latinxs who are white or seen as white in places like Latin America. It can be a surprise for some to learn in the United States that they are viewed as “nonwhite.” How then can there be talk of a singular Latinx vote without recognizing the differentiated racial experiences among Latinxs?
During fieldwork in 2006 to 2016 with Orlando Puerto Ricans working to form a political community in Florida, I met Latinxs with long experience in the United States who knew that no matter what their phenotype and no matter how fluent and accent-free their English, they were “nonwhite” in the gaze of white Orlandoans. But others insisted on their whiteness, although they acknowledged having experienced discrimination because of their accented English (Simone Delerme 2020). In Puerto Rico and many Latin American spaces, there exists a racial continuum rather than the racial binary that prevails in the United States. Still, individuals are teased about “bad hair,” and multiple racial identifiers—with a preference for European features—place people closer to or further from whiteness and Blackness (Llorens 2018). In what follows, I pose a question to which I do not yet have a data-driven answer: When this racial continuum favoring distance from Blackness interacts with the US white/Black binary, do individual Latinx racial identifications impact political choices? And I wonder whether we may begin to find some answers in the 2020 political moment.
An anecdote from 2016 serves to open the discussion. As I was driving through Orlando with the radio playing a Spanish-language talk-radio station, the host responded to a pro-Trump caller saying, “Voting for Trump isn’t going to make you white, you know.” The radio host rejected the caller’s embrace of a candidate whose rhetoric lays bare the historical intertwining of anti-Blackness and anti-immigrant discourses. He was making a clear statement that the caller’s political choices were not going to change his nonwhite racial assignment in the United States. Was this caller looking for whiteness or trying to get as far from Blackness as possible or both?
During my fieldwork, I saw a push from Latinxs in Orlando and elsewhere for adopting a political Latinidad as a separate cultural, racial-ethnic category. Among my interlocutors, even those working hard for racial and economic justice, this was sometimes accompanied by an objection to being “brown” or “a person of color,” with a seeming lack of awareness that this stance threatens to usher Latinx Blackness into “an invisibilized minority within a minority” (García-Peña 2020). Muted expressions of Latinx anti-Blackness include an embrace of the “successful immigrant” narrative, which belies an undercurrent about “becoming white” (Liu 2014). Whether as clear anti-Blackness or as a class strategy for achieving the so-called American Dream, aspiration to whiteness separates out indigenous and Afro-Latinxs who do not have that path available to them (Dávila 2008).
When confronted by categories in the United States Census Bureau surveys, Latinxs can choose a “Hispanic or Latino” ethnicity and subsequently identify with one of several racial categories: white alone, Black or African American alone, two or more races, some other race, etc. The differing responses from Latinxs in different parts of the country seem to confirm that “race happens in a place” (Pearson 2015). Keeping in mind that both the caller and the radio host above were speaking from the Orlando area, it is worth noting that in 2018 the percentage of Orlando Latinxs selecting “white alone” on the American Community Survey was a full 10 points higher than the 66 percent of US Latinxs as a whole making that same selection (US Census Bureau 2018). This suggests that as we ask about racial identification and political choices, we might also question whether different places of settlement will produce different Latinx responses to the local racial and political worlds in which they find themselves.
For instance, during a 2008 oral history, Jaime Padilla (pseudonym) spoke about registering to vote in Central Florida in the 1990s and being forced to choose between white and Black. According to his retelling, his internal monologue was, “I don’t feel like being Black today.” When he described himself as “mixed,” he got nowhere and finally said, “Put me Black.” The resistance to being Black-identified, and the effort to instead be “mixed,” references the importance of a “not-Black” racial identification in Puerto Rico and elsewhere in Latin America (Godreau 2015). Rumbaut (2009) argues that increased Latinx identification with whiteness in southern spaces is related to the more rigid practices that emerged in former Confederate states. Florida’s Confederate history is not often recognized, but it is there in historically embedded Black-white legal and political structures such as the one Jaime encountered.
Jaime’s experience points to a racial binary imposed on a public record of political affiliation. By the time of my fieldwork, one of my interlocutors suggested a racial code in regards to Florida political affiliation as he told me that Democrats “have” African Americans and Republicans “have” Cubans. Although this person was a longtime member of the Democratic Party, his comment suggested a racial-colonial relationship between voters and the party to which they belong. Does this account in part for the large number of Latinxs who are not registered with any political party? And might this nonaffiliated tendency be more pronounced in southern spaces?
Data supporting the idea that nonaffiliated Latinx voters are likely to vote for a Latinx candidate regardless of party support the argument that non-affiliation is a strategy for Latinx relevance in the bifurcated US political spheres (Beltrán 2010). But that does not explain differences in local outcomes. Or does it? In 2012 for instance, 5 percent of Puerto Rican voters nationally were nonaffiliated, while in Florida it was 28 percent (Latino Decisions). In 2020 in Orange County, where Orlando is located, 38 percent of Latinx voters are nonaffiliated (ocfelections). It may be that the more bifurcated the local political landscape, the more Latinxs choose nonaffiliation.
Where Latinx voters see themselves in contemporary racial politics remains an open and important question. While national Latinx voter registrations in 2018 came close to the percentage of Latinx voting-eligible population for the first time, the distribution of their vote (split 69/29 between Democratic and Republican) fell somewhere between Black and white voters. How much more so when the place of settlement is embedded in a local racial-political history written in Black and white? In Florida’s hotly contested 2018 gubernatorial and senate races—the latter of which helped give the Senate to Republicans—the gap in favor of Democratic candidates was reduced to 10 points (Krogstad et al. 2018).
Perhaps we can find answers in Latinx involvement in Black Lives Matter. This was the topic of another New York Times article that again labeled Latinxs a nonwhite voting bloc but focused on the “searching conversations among Latinos about race” (Medina 2020). Reportedly, Latinx participation percentages in protests are in line with Black voters; younger Latinxs are engaging their families in examining anti-Blackness. The article cites Joaquín Castro’s assertion that there is “a kinship of experience as a community” among Latinxs and Black Americans. I argue that the recognition of any such kinship can only be so if Black Latinxs are at the center of a project that acknowledges the different histories of Black and “not Black” Latinxs in both Latin America and the United States. And I wonder if this project of kinship building were achieved, could Latinx political choices connect to differentiated experiences in a nonetheless all-encompassing racial-colonial-capitalist system, in which anti-Blackness and anti-immigrant discourses are historically intertwined?
Puerto Rico’s history makes explicit the linked—but differently lived—oppressions of that system, in which class and race are each used as a foil for the other. The same dynamic is evident in collective Latinx experience as the race-class intersection obscures colonial legacies and contributes to the reproduction of white supremacy through the whitewashing of the project of Latinidad (García-Peña 2020). The question remains about whether efforts to build a kinship that acknowledges the different histories brought to that relationship can pull harder than centuries of whitewashing embedded in Latinx histories. My research suggests that the intersections of race and place in the lives of Orlando-area Latinx, and especially Puerto Rican, voters are pieces of the puzzle, and that it will not be possible to talk about the Latinx vote before there exists a Latinidad that is fully inclusive of all Latinxs.
Patricia Silver is a socio-cultural anthropologist affiliated with the National Coalition of Independent Scholars. She holds a PhD from American University in Washington, DC. Her book Sunbelt Diaspora: Race, Class, and Latino Politics in Puerto Rican Orlando was published in April 2020.
Cite as: Silver, Patricia. 2020. “Race, Place, and Latinx Political Choices.” Anthropology News website, November 9, 2020. DOI: 10.14506/AN.1531