By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 16, 2008
Jackie Kennedy looks into our eyes and speaks perfect French-accented Spanish, politely soliciting votes for her husband in a 1960 campaign commercial.
It was the first time a presidential campaign paid such attention to Latino voters, and it was good for the Democrats. To this day, some Mexican restaurants have pictures of JFK posted next to images of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
The competition for those votes has gotten only more sophisticated and bipartisan. Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain have deployed rival Hispanic outreach teams in a parallel universe of dueling Spanish-language campaigns in battleground states.
One of the best things about the new PBS documentary "Latinos '08" (10:30 tonight on Maryland Public Television) is that it challenges a premise of such efforts -- the assumption that the Latino vote is a monolithic bloc that can be appealed to and delivered as one. The film commits an even more refreshing heresy: It questions whether the Latino vote really is as critical as everyone says it is.
"There is an industry promoting how important the Latino vote is," says Rodolfo de la Garza, a professor at Columbia University, one of many analysts interviewed. "It is one of the most overstated, self-congratulatory exercises in American politics today."
Yet credit the higher truth-telling of this brisk, brief (one-hour) political, demographic and cultural tour that it also resists taking refuge in easy contrarianism, which is as overly simple as the conventional wisdom. Rather than present us with a neat package of the Latino influence as either-or, this-or-that, it unwraps the package and reveals something with more to it than many presume.
Director Phillip Rodriguez knows his way around this territory of ironies and pieties layered upon an undeniably real demographic bedrock. Last year he made "Brown Is the New Green: George Lopez and the American Dream," about how efforts to profit from the ballooning Latino market are shaping perceptions of the Latino identity.
In Rodriguez's account, Kennedy's outreach put the Latino vote in the pocket of the Democrats, who proceeded to take it for granted. Along came Ronald Reagan and President Bush, former Western governors who showed that the Latino political identity is not so predictable. Bush won more than 40 percent of the Latino vote in 2004, a GOP record.
Rodriguez lets his parade of analysts consider the rival appeals of McCain and Obama. Has McCain backslid on his commitment to immigration reform? Is Obama's race a problem for some Latinos? (A weakness of the film is its reliance on these talking heads, as eloquent and unpredictable as they are.) Some polls show Latinos supporting Obama over McCain nearly 3 to 1.
But what about cultural identity, and how does that inform decisions made inside the voting booth?
De la Garza describes a bar in Houston. Mexicans go Friday nights, Chicanos on Saturday nights. The crowds rarely mix: Immigrants and descendants of immigrants have a lot not in common.
Latinos also lack a common national story, hailing from more than a dozen countries. Some are born citizens (Puerto Ricans); some are welcomed as soon as they touch American soil (Cubans). Latinos in the West display more of a self-assured swagger than Latinos in some parts of the East, where they are newly arrived and under siege.
"The Latino community, depending on where you are, is the only one where if you say 'salsa,' half of them start dancing and half of them start eating," de la Garza says.
And yet, seeming disunity and diversity aren't the whole story. The common threat of immigrant-bashing created a pan-Latino identity that appeared strongest in 2006, when hundreds of thousands marched for immigration reform.
"God bless the racists, they managed to unite us," says columnist Ruben Navarrette Jr.
The tough-on- illeg al-immigration crowd doesn't understand why many legal residents and citizens take its rhetoric personally. It's another nuance of Latino identity: Vast numbers of illegal immigrants have children, spouses or other family members who are legal residents.
"You start going after them and you are disrupting American families," de la Garza says. "That won't play."
Since rhetoric against illegal immigrants is a staple of more Republican campaigns than Democratic ones, the GOP might want to think about this: Roughly half a million Latinos become eligible voters each year just by turning 18.
"If you are attacking us, we will remember," says the Rev. Luis Cortés Jr., president of a powerful federation of evangelical churches. "That means you will never have a Republican president in the future."
But translating demographic power into political power is no sure thing. Rates of Latino voter eligibility and turnout among eligible voters both lag behind those of whites and blacks.
Obama's newest Spanish-language TV and radio spots subtly acknowledge the target audience's diversity: The narrator in Florida has a Caribbean-Spanish accent, whereas the narrator in the other states sounds more Mexican.
Maybe we've learned something since Jackie Kennedy's day.
But looking into the future, his camera sentimentally panning the classic American monuments of Washington -- a bit of heavy-handed symbolism -- Rodriguez leaves open the ultimate political meaning of this expanding minority with its hard-to-figure identity.
"Over time, there's going to be so many Latinos that they can be a national elections player," de la Garza says. "But will they be Latinos when you get that many?"
Cortés says, "My concern is that we will still maintain a grain of identity that says, 'I am Latino.' "
De la Garza has the film's last word, one that seems honest and real: "What will it mean to be a Latino? I don't know."
Latinos '08 (one hour) airs tonight at 10:30 on Maryland Public Television.