But there is a silver lining: The diversity of Latino America has long encouraged political creativity, which the Democratic Party needs right now. Democratic candidates who are pledging to reform the national economy and at the same time to provide an alternative to the Trump administration’s exclusionary, racialized nationalism might find that those are not necessarily separate propositions. The quest to make the American economy more just and secure for all and the quest for Latino empowerment can reinforce each other in powerful ways.
The city in which Democrats will debate one another Thursday night is arguably the birthplace of the “Latino vote.” In August 1960, Los Angeles played host to the Democratic National Convention that nominated John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson to lead the party ticket. Among the handful of Mexican American convention delegates in attendance that summer was L.A. City Councilman Edward R. Roybal. Eager to shine a spotlight on Mexican Americans and their issues, he and two other delegates proposed what became the “Viva Kennedy” campaign. As historian Ignacio García has shown, Roybal and a network of activists and elected officials convinced Kennedy that a coordinated Mexican American vote could boost the fortunes of the Democratic Party. Hitting the campaign trail, they highlighted the connections between their constituencies and Kennedy’s concern for the poor and his interest in Latin America.
Viva Kennedy expanded when the coalition brought in Puerto Ricans, who had migrated in large numbers to places like New York, then the largest electoral college state. When Kennedy won both Texas and New York that November, the president-elect had “Latin American” political activists to credit for his victory. Kennedy did little to encourage Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans to cement their political bonds, however, and the two communities largely returned to their separate political worlds after the election.
Roybal soon joined Kennedy in Washington as a congressman. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1962 with the president’s backing. Over the next three decades, Roybal, a steadfast liberal, worked to convince Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans that neither party would take their votes seriously unless these two ethnic minorities built an enduring alliance.
While Viva Kennedy lasted just a few months, Roybal tried to forge a permanent national-bloc vote that he called the “Spanish-Speaking Coalition.” He later founded and chaired the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the National Association of Latino Elected Officials and sponsored legislation that extended the Voting Rights Act to people of “Spanish heritage.”
At a time of rising anti-immigrant sentiment, this new national Latino political presence helped crystallize some Americans’ fears that the county was undergoing a Hispanic “invasion.” By the late 1970s, then, the idea of a “Hispanic” or “Latino” vote had become accepted fact. The task was to marshal it.
While most Puerto Ricans and Mexican Americans came from very different places, Roybal worked to unify them around a fusion of culture and class, identifying common traditions and values and associating them with policies that delivered economic security to both groups.
In 1972, for example, he led the Democrats’ “Latino Caucus” in demanding that the party support a range of labor-centric ethnic demands, including farmworker unionization, bilingual job training and improved access to union membership for Spanish speakers, as well as affirmative action in public employment. And in 1976, he called upon Latinos and Democrats more generally to support massive government programs aimed at alleviating unemployment and establishing “full comprehensive national health insurance,” doing so on the basis that these universal economic policies would buttress the “strong and vibrant family structure” that he claimed was one of the “core values” of Latino Americans. For Roybal, there was no conflict between promoting a multicultural Democratic Party and holding the party to its historical commitment to economic justice.
Roybal’s initiatives challenged and reinvigorated the party. The creation of a self-conscious national Latino constituency forced some Democrats to abandon their longtime hope that Hispanic Americans would assimilate politically into white America.
This change in turn provided African Americans with further evidence that Latinos could be meaningful partners in the struggle for racial and economic justice, as when both communities joined forces to renew the Voting Rights Act and to support massive programs of aid to poor and working-class Americans of all colors.
The collaboration of Latino Democrats also fostered progressive changes within Latino political communities themselves. Forcing Democrats to appeal to Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans as one bloc invested Puerto Rican leaders with new responsibilities to speak out against injustice in the immigration system, despite Puerto Ricans’ possessing U.S. citizenship from birth.
It also created another vital space in which women’s, gay and lesbian rights activists (and more recently trans activists) could make claims on the party. By arguing that their issues were also “Hispanic issues,” they strengthened the case that their concerns were “Democratic issues,” and thereby national issues as well. And Roybal and his allies devised ways to make a liberal economic program for the nation as a whole resonate among groups with deeply held ethnic identities. These new coalitions no doubt complicated matters for some Democrats. But they also helped prepare the party to face up to some of the most urgent social and political tests of our times.
Democrats in Los Angeles will be speaking to the Latino (or Latinx) vote as a collective, while looking to bolster their strength among the particular components of that electorate they believe will make the difference for them in the primaries. Whoever emerges victorious will, however, face an opponent intent upon dividing the country, including Latinos. Democrats would therefore do well to consider Edward Roybal’s legacy. The candidate who can weave together the strands of cultural and economic inclusion to unify Latino constituencies in service of a better country for all Americans is the one who would have had a powerful supporter in the architect of the Latino vote.