Pushing Against Latinx Narratives: “What Really Happened?”
Written by Ross Chapman
Low Library, an temple to academia so often reserved for white voices, was scheduled to host an panels carried out entirely by Latinx speakers. It shouldn’t surprise anyone, then, that the event was moved to Teachers College at the last minute.
According to the event organizers, the panel discussion, “What Really Happened? Latinos and the 2016 Elections,” was moved to the Cowin Auditorium at Teachers College (known to most CC students as the FroSci lecture hall) from the Faculty Room in Low to accommodate the large audience. Even with the move, the deconstruction of damaging and untrue narratives about Latinx voters was unable to accept every guest, instructing those who couldn’t fit to watch the event digitally.
The panel’s host, Columbia English professor and former CSER director Frances Negrόn-Muntaner, introduced the event with a series of questions. What does “Latino” mean in contemporary American politics? What assumptions do polls make, and how do those affect Latinos and perceptions of Latinos? She asserted that the most important narratives about Latinos in politics are false. The Latinx community is not a “sleeping giant” waiting to be awoken and driven to the polls – “Latinos have been active from day one,” in ways other than voting. And while the Latinx vote was celebrated as a “firewall” against Trump, the positive coverage of Latinx communities practically ceased as soon as the election ended and the Latinxs were no longer useful. The following speakers tackled the blame which Latinx voters bore, and what should be done in the future. The full event was broadcast on Facebook Live, and is available for public viewing on the Columbia University Faculty Diversity and Inclusion Facebook page.
Ali Valenzuela, an assistant professor of Politics and Latino Studies at Princeton University, focused on problematic statistics. According to widely echoed exit polls, 29% of Latinx voters supported Trump, which was 2 points higher than what exit polls showed for Mitt Romney in 2012. This, to media analysts, showed that Latinxs are not unified in their identity, and that they don’t actually mobilize to vote. Valenzuela asserted that these exit polls are rarely, if ever, conducted bilingually, or in majority Spanish neighborhoods. This results in an “oversampling of assimilated Latinos,” who are richer and more conservative. According to Latino Decision, a source which polled in English and Spanish, only about 18-19% of Latinx voters went Republican, which was a significantly lower number than Romney, McCain, or Bush. Valenzuela’s own precinct-level analysis, confirmed these numbers. He then got prescriptive, insulting Donald Trump and calling him a “minority president.” He encouraged the audience to get involved locally, support public broadcasting, and to call their representatives – “American democracy is at stake.”
Next was Daniel Contreras, a former political director for Bernie Sanders in Oregon and New Mexico, who was filling in for Arturo Carmona, another Sanders organizer. Contreras tried to bring “not an academic experience, but a lived experience.” He compared Sanders’ primary campaign to the national Democratic campaign, which failed to properly inspire people to go out and vote. Talking about Sanders’ close losses in certain states, Contreras called it a matter of branding in order to overcome the “mega force” of Hillary Clinton’s name recognition. Regardless of the actions of Latinx voters, Latinx elected officials were hesitant to take a chance on Sanders. In all, “Fear did not inspire enough of the Latino demographic to win.”
Cristina Beltrán, director of Latino Studies at New York University, pointed out the system was stacked against Latinx voters from the start. Even with 56 million Latinx people in the United States, there were only three competitive states in which Latinxs were a significantly high number of eligible voters (Arizona, Florida, and Nevada). Latinxs made up less than 5% of the voting pool in pretty much every swing state. “Trump’s horribleness,” she posited, “did not overcome the political system.” She also problematized the “public imaginary about Latinos,” which simultaneously places them as politically disappointing and politically dangerous. In opposition to the “sleeping giant” narrative, there is no singular Latinx community, and those people can be motivated to act progressively and reactively.
Finally, Maria Hinojosa, an anchor and executive producer of NPR’s Latino USA, and co-host of the In The Thick podcast, called the usual motions of Latinx progress a mambo – three steps forward, and two steps back. This election, however, was “three steps forward, 67 steps back.” As remedy, Latinxs must talk about politics “at the breakfast table, at the lunch table, and at the dinner table.” She brought up a late October anecdote about her time talking to a Trump surrogate on MSNBC, where she asserted, “Illegal is not a noun.” When it came to explaining the Latinx Trump voters, she said that many of them saw him as a good businessman, and that they had an aspirational notion towards the ideal American businessman.
She, like all of the other speakers, asserted the importance of local or individual action to create change. If as many people attended the event will also take local action, and local action in districts more right-leaning than those in Manhattan, the speakers will have a lot about which to be optimistic.
Speaker photos (not pictured: Daniel Contreras, in place of Arturo Carmona) via Columbia University Events