With a white mother from Spain and Black father of Dominican and Puerto Rican descent, Odalys Vargas, 23, has a unique understanding of how difficult it is to define her political identity as a Latinx American. “My mom, although she’s a liberal European, is still white — and she didn’t want to acknowledge the privilege that gave her,” Vargas tells Elite Daily. “She’d say, ‘I don’t have white privilege because I’m an immigrant,’ and I’d always say, ‘But you’re a white immigrant.’ She’s never had to deal with the struggles of existing as a Black person in America, like me and my dad have.”
Vargas’ struggle reveals the United States’ troublingly one-dimensional representation of Latinx and Hispanic Americans. While individuals hail from nearly 30 unique and culturally discrete Central, South American, and European cultures, differences are largely glossed over by U.S. political systems, which have a tendency to treat all Spanish-speaking or Latin American-descended communities as the same. The problem became glaring in the immediate aftermath of the 2020 election, when Democrats were widely criticized for taking the Hispanic and Latinx vote for granted and failing to put in the effort to either understand or invest in the diverse communities. For young Hispanic and Latinx voters, it’s a wake-up call to demand systemic change — starting now, while the lessons are fresh in leaders’ minds.
These communities deserve the same amount of attention and care as white voters.
“For a long time, I settled myself with the idea of voting for ‘the lesser of two evils’ when supporting the Democratic party,” says Dylan Villalon, 22, a first-gen Hispanic student from San Antonio, Texas. “While I’d never vote Republican, I still don’t feel like the Democratic party represents me. That needs to change,” Villalon says. He feels more Democratic leaders need to advocate for underserved communities — especially communities of color — on issues like voter suppression and police reform.
“Trump and Biden are both underserving the community I belong to,” agrees Vargas. As a Black Latina, she feels left out and jaded. “People may think I’m being bitter, but it’s hard for Black Latinxs — and Black Americans in general — to not feel bitter when a ‘return to normal’ means you’re still oppressed like you were before,” she says. “Now that Biden’s been elected, privileged liberals can return to their bubbles and ignore the struggles of people of color like always.”
As one of the fastest growing minority groups in the country, Latinx and Hispanic communities have become one of the country’s most influential voting blocs. According to projections from Pew Research, the 2020 presidential election marked the first time in U.S. history that Latinx and Hispanic populations were the largest ethnic minority in the electorate, making up over 13% of all eligible voters.
“[These] groups have proven themselves to be an extremely consequential voting bloc by showing up to the polls in increasing numbers,” says Sonja Diaz, the founding executive director of the Latino Policy and Politics Initiative at UCLA's Luskin School of Public Affairs. During the 2018 midterms, Latinx voters made up 11% of all voters nationwide, and nearly 70% of them voted Democratic. But Diaz notes that until recently, neither Democrats or Republicans have made a focused effort to engage the community. And as Gen Z voters — an estimated 20% of whom identify as Latinx or Hispanic — age into adulthood, they want more from their political leaders.
Because the majority of Latinx and Hispanic voters are between 18 and 23 years old, per Pew Research, there isn’t yet much data on them — and “because Democrats don’t have much consistent data on [Latinx and Hispanic] voting habits, they’re not willing to make a big bet on them, and that’s a false choice,” Diaz says. “The opportunity existing in Latinx and Hispanic communities now, in terms of electoral politics, can generate a huge return on investment. But it will necessitate meaningful resources now rather than later.”
Alex Birnel, a 27-year-old Panamanian-American and advocacy manager with the nonpartisan voter engagement group MOVE Texas, wants future progressive candidates to start thinking now about how to better represent the Latinx and Hispanic community’s diversity and nuance. “These groups are not monolithic in their ideological or political beliefs. Instead of showing the breakdown of the ‘Latinx’ vote, we need to see a regional breakdown of the Cuban vote, the Nicaraguan vote, the Mexican vote — the more plural we get in our analysis, the more accurate our data can be,” Birnel explains. “A lot of expectations based on a really one-dimensional analysis were dashed during the 2020 election. Now, we know these communities deserve the same amount of attention and care as white voters.”
We need to start seeing more political leaders who represent us — who look like us, talk like us, and think like us.
According to FiveThirtyEight, while Democrats still win the majority of the national Latinx vote as of 2020, Republicans have begun to close the gap in rural and conservative Hispanic and Latinx communities. In Texas, which has a Latinx or Hispanic population of nearly 40%, focused efforts from grassroots Republican organizers saw big wins, and even flips, for Republicans in the 2020 election. In Hidalgo County, which is more than 92% Hispanic or Latinx, right-wing groups like the Hidalgo County Republican Party (HCRP) and the Hidalgo County Young Republicans (HCYR) were busy canvassing potential voters in their area well before the 2020 election, registering 200 to 250 people each day during the month leading up to it. In Zapata County, conservative organizers appealed to the area’s deeply religious, socially conservative, and economically troubled populations. And it seems like their efforts paid off: Zapata County flipped from blue in 2016 to red in 2020, while Republicans in Hidalgo County tightened their race by a margin of over 13% in 2020.
Other Hispanic communities, like Cuban Americans, have also begun drifting rightward in recent years, wooed by Republican appeals to socially and economically conservative values. An Oct. 2 report from Pew Research Center found that nationally, 58% of Cuban voters said they “affiliate with” or lean Republican. In the key swing state of Florida, where more than one-quarter of the population is Hispanic or Latinx, the number of registered Republican voters increased by almost 620,000 between 2016 and 2020, per Pew.
The Latinx and Hispanic communities’ embrace of conservatism seems somewhat counterintuitive, as many prominent right-wing figures take the monolith myth to extremes by using racist dog whistles to lump these communities together, painting them as problems rather than individual people. Magoli Natalia Garcia, 18, a second-generation Bolivian- and Mexican-American, recalls experiencing Trump’s 2017 inauguration as a student at an affluent, predominantly white-populated high school in Texas. “I was sitting at my desk listening to [fellow students] refer to immigrants as rapists, murderers, drug dealers, and criminals. Basically, every word we’ve heard from Trump’s mouth, these boys echoed on repeat,” she explains. “They don’t even realize the people they’re talking about are their friends, neighbors — the people sitting right next to them,” she adds.
For some people, it’s difficult to imagine why Latinx and Hispanic voters would side with the Republican party. But for Birnel, the high Latinx/Hispanic turnout for Trump in the Texas Rio Grande Valley wasn’t exactly surprising. “Much of the work done by Democrats to engage Latinx and Hispanic voters along the Texas border during the 2020 presidential election was too little, too late,” Birnel explains. In-person canvassers from the Biden-Harris campaign were nowhere to be found in the months leading up to the election. “They invest too late, they hire staff too late, they air TV ads too late, and the community feels the blatant disregard. The lack of effort is clear.”
Vargas agrees progressive politicians still have their work cut out for them when it comes to addressing the community’s needs. “If the Democratic party doesn’t want to lose this next generation of young Latinx and Hispanic voters, then we need to start seeing more political leaders who represent us — who look like us, talk like us, and think like us,” Vargas explains. “Otherwise, the same political systems that allowed Trump to be president will continue to oppress Black and brown communities.”
Diaz says to meaningfully engage young Latinx and Hispanic communities in coming years, Democrats need to meet underserved communities where they stand, and work to actively subvert America’s deep-rooted culture of racism and xenophobia. “We need to ensure our democracy has a full spectrum of inclusion for diverse voices,” Diaz explains. She points out young people are already mobilizing in the streets to call for action on issues like climate change, anti-racism, police brutality, and gun violence. “People are engaged. Now it’s up to our systems, our parties, and our government to translate that engagement into [action].”