Monday, October 01, 2012

The emerging Latino voting bloc: up from deep foundations

Over the weekend the New York Times took up a theme that I have mused upon: how the emerging Latino electorate is changing New Mexico. There were some important observations:

New Mexico Democrats are intensifying their efforts to increase Hispanic voter turnout, a perennial quest here and across the country for a rapidly growing ethnic group that tends to vote in significantly lower percentages than other groups. The results are being closely watched by national party leaders. The theory is that, with the Hispanic population growing in many states, the way New Mexico looks today is the way many states will look in elections down the road.

… When the Obama campaign first planted a flag here five years ago, the landscape presented both challenge and opportunity. Outreach strategies of proven value in other states — like Spanish-language advertising, or even the notion of advertising in the Spanish-language news media — seemed to have minimal impact on New Mexico’s Hispanics, who are more likely to speak English.

Voter-registration efforts were not as crucial; Hispanics, who are 47 percent of the state’s population, make up nearly 40 percent of its electorate, the highest rate in the country. Get-out-the-vote efforts could not be discarded, but had to be tweaked: Hispanics still lagged in participation, but had deep political roots, influence and familiarity with the electoral process.

“We’re well beyond the ‘we’re happy to be here’ stage, well beyond ‘Sí se puede,’ ” Hector Balderas, the state auditor and a Democrat, said over a breakfast of beans and scrambled eggs in Albuquerque, referring to the Latino rallying cry “Yes, we can” during immigration law protests.

Folks in New Mexico might debate that assurance, but it is certainly true that many Latinos across the country are moving beyond being satisfied by a few token gestures to their language and customs from politicians who are never to be seen except in election season.
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On Saturday I had the privilege of attending a celebration of the history of one of Latino organizations that got the ball rolling on moving communities into the political arena. The Community Service Organization was founded in 1947 in San Jose; this grassroots project worked to "empower a generation of Mexican-Americans and change the course of history for their children." It laid the ground work for both the emergence of the United Farm Workers labor organization in the 1960s as well as the Chicano movement.

… thousands of men and women … learned to hold house meetings, conduct voter registration drives, protest police brutality, and bring evening citizenship classes to neighborhood schools.

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When I train community organizations about empowering their constituencies through becoming involved in voting, I stress something I think of as the "one election in three principle."

It works this way: most people are not political junkies. They participate in the work of elections -- phoning, canvassing, talking with strangers -- reluctantly, only when they feel vitally moved to do so. They'd rather not do politics, but they will if they feel their lives depend on it. It is too much to ask to keep people in a hyped-up state that drives them to electoral participation all the time. A community demonstrates broad-based electoral power when each of its members need only work hard on something like one in three elections, because such a broad swath of people have acquired, though experience, an understanding that they can and must work on some elections.

CSO was doing this work in California barrios throughout the decade of the 1950s and into the '60s. That generation of leaders, despite openly racist opposition, did the hard work of mobilizing the communities to take up the cudgels offered by democracy. Today's Latino leaders -- such people as Los Angles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, the Sanchez sisters in the U.S. Congress and Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis -- won their prominence on the foundation laid by the hard community organizing of an earlier generation. That's usually how it works.
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The CSO's first President Herman Gallegos with current students at National Hispanic University on Saturday.
It was pleasant to spend a day with people so intent on passing hard earned experience on to new generation …

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