What’s in a name? The label “Latino” is often used to describe a monolithic interest group or voting bloc. And while criticized as inaccurate because of Latinos’ diverse national, ethnic, and racial manifestations, as an organizing principal the label still conveys significant meaning—a narrative of shared experience—in both Latin America and the United States. Although Mexican Americans on the West Coast may have sharp differences with Puerto Rican migrants in New York and with Cuban Americans in Miami, what Latina/os have in common, besides a shared language and parallel cultures, is a history marked by U.S. intervention. It’s the result of that intervention that has for the most part driven immigration northward. While the hemisphere’s future will be determined by the continuously evolving political relationship between the United States and Latin America, the question is, what role will U.S. Latina/os play in that future?
In the 1960s and 1970s, the term “Latino” was embraced by a growing constituency of U.S.-born Latina/os who identified with the civil rights and national liberation movements of the era. They saw the term as an alternative to the Nixon administration’s use of “Hispanic,” a European-identified term with assimilationist connotations. But over the years, the “Latino” activist charge has waned; largely as a result of a perception created by corporate media and consumer marketers, Latina/os are now often cast as recent arrivals, imperfect English speakers, and “others” from el otro lado. This contradiction is reflected by the changing nature of U.S. Latina/o politics, in which crucial concerns around immigration policy have eclipsed, at least in public perception, the other class-based concerns of working people that historically have occupied a larger role in the left Latina/o agenda.
While free-trade policies aim to diminish borders to accommodate the flow of capital, the post-9/11 obsession with “national security” has refocused our attention on borders—whether it involves remilitarizing the one with Mexico or reasserting the class and race barriers that enforce segregation in our cities. Just as U.S. military intervention beginning in the early-twentieth century created migration flows to the north, so too as investment capital flows south, displaced populations move across the physical border, escaping, still, political persecution or economic devastation primarily caused by U.S. economic policy or U.S. support for anti-democratic governments.
The traditional view of U.S. Latina/o politics holds that the three dominant groups that wield political power are Mexicans, much of whose country was absorbed after the U.S.-Mexico war in 1848, and Puerto Ricans and Cubans, whose countries were ceded to the United States after the Spanish-American War in 1898 (with Puerto Rico still a U.S. territory). In the twentieth century, the political and cultural power and awareness of these groups matured, staking out three distinct regions of influence. Mexican descendants, who make up almost two-thirds of the U.S. Latina/o population, are concentrated in the West and Southwest; Puerto Ricans, who are born U.S. citizens and are therefore not technically immigrants, are concentrated in the Northeast; and Cuban-Americans are concentrated in South Florida.
In terms of political orientation, Mexican Americans are probably the most diverse. Although their political history has been anchored by citizenship and civil rights struggles and has produced a considerable left intelligentsia, the long-term experience of Mexican descendants in the United States has resulted in a slight uptick of conservative or libertarian tendency among class-ascendant Mexican Americans in various parts of the country. Puerto Ricans—because of factors ranging from their rejection of their colonial status, to their exposure to harsh discrimination in northern cities, to relatively low levels of educational and economic achievement—are mostly liberal-left. And Cuban exiles in South Florida, propped up by government entitlements for individuals and small businesses since their mass arrival in the early 1960s, form a bastion of right-leaning Latina/os that have been crucial to the electoral victories enjoyed by Ronald Reagan and both Bushes.
Yet these paradigms are shifting, along with Latina/os’ changing fortunes in the global economy.
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