Latinos 'On the Losing End'

It was all going so well last year. Dora the Explorer and her cousin Diego were preschoolers' favorite kids on TV. Everyone shook their hips to the music of Shakira. America rooted for America on "Ugly Betty." And beauty in this country was increasingly defined by names like Alba, Lopez, Hayek and Longoria. In the media and entertainment race, if Latinos weren't winning, few would argue with us being awarded the silver.

Since this presidential race began, however, Latinos have been on the losing end. Activists used to rail that we were underrepresented in prime-time television. Our current prominence in both immigration scare ads and overheated campaign rhetoric makes me wistful for the good ole days when we were simply invisible. I had no idea how good we had it.

Given the current climate, many Americans would be surprised to learn that a majority of U.S. Latinos are not immigrants "living in the shadows," but rather citizens who were actually born in this country. In fact, far from the shadows, most of us live in places that are only occasionally cloudy, like California and Florida. In Texas, where I'm from, we say "we didn't cross the border, the border crossed us." According to the Pew Hispanic Center, when it comes to the Latino electorate, only one quarter of Hispanic voters are naturalized citizens; three quarters of us were born here. But 100 percent of us have to listen to the immigrant-bashing and -blaming, which, frankly, sounds a lot like Latino-bashing and -blaming.

No one was surprised at his contempt (or even geographic prowess) when Republican presidential candidate Tom Tancredo referred to Miami as a "Third World country" last year. But now even former friends have turned their backs. Mike Huckabee, who had been known for his Christian compassion toward immigrants back when he was governor of Arkansas, became the first presidential candidate to sign a no-amnesty pledge that promises to rid our nation of the scourge of people willing to pick our fruit, clean our homes and construct our buildings for less than a living wage. (Can someone who doesn't believe in evolution still be called a Neanderthal?)

However, it was a Democrat who brought us the Latino low point of the campaign thus far (though it's still a long way to November). After the Nevada caucus, Hillary Clinton strategist and pollster Sergio Bendixen asserted in an interview that Hispanic voters have not shown a "willingness or affinity to support black candidates." So, in addition to being repeatedly maligned in this primary race as job-stealing, law-breaking, burdensome and generally unwanted, we can now add racist to the mix. Far worse than the comment's inaccuracy was that it was picked up and repeated over and over again by media outlets to the point that it became unchallenged dogma within a week. Sadly enough, the comment revealed the media's inability to understand the diversity of Latino voters, not to mention a lack of journalistic rigor. More tragically, though, a politically motivated comment from a campaign adviser now has the uniquely dangerous opportunity to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Certainly some Latinos are racist (after all, we're American, aren't we?). But the fact is, Latino political support has long been a part of successful African-American candidacies. For example, a majority of Latinos helped give Los Angeles, New York, Dallas and Chicago their first African-American mayors. In fact, in one of his own prior studies, Bendixen noted that large majorities of Hispanics credited "American Blacks and the civil rights movement with making life easier for them here." My own belief is that the current Latino support for Clinton has little if anything to do with the fact that she's white, or even her ability to campaign with a taco in one hand. Rather, just as retailers struggle to get Hispanic shoppers to buy store (generic) brands, Latino voters tend to default to established political brands.

In 2004, as in many earlier election cycles, the Latino vote was universally referred to as "America's sleeping giant." Four years later, the giant has been awakened only to find itself at best misunderstood and, at worst, demonized by the political process. It's understandable that many of us may be ready to go back to bed. Wake me when it's over.

Latinos 'On the Losing End' | U.S.