Identity

Latinx People in the US Are Never Going to Fit Into One Demographic

Treating "Latinx voters" as a single bloc ignores race, class, and other issues—and makes it harder to effectively represent people across identities.
November 5, 2020, 6:16pm
Latinx People in the U.S. Are Never Going to Fit Into One Demographic
Photo by SDI Productions via Getty Images

Every four years, Latinx voters are rediscovered by political pundits who attribute special powers to these voters or marvel at their seeming unpredictability. This time around, pundits seem bewildered to discover that the diversity of people of Latin American backgrounds in the U.S. that we identify as Latinx are not a monolith, and that this overarching image of Latinx people may, in fact, be a construct of the American imagination.

What this image elides is that Latinx people comprise different demographics that vary along the lines of race, class, political histories, region, and more. (Latinx identity, as imagined in this way, is also a political construct, because it is only in relation to the historical marginalization of peoples of Latin American backgrounds in the U.S. that ethnic categories and identities such as Hispanic, Latino, and, now, Latinx have had any social and political currency.) It's long past time to stop treating the "Latinx vote" as one bloc grouping together all Spanish-speaking people—a mischaracterization that ignores differences of race, class, language and other issues that are at the heart of Latinx people's identities and political beliefs. 

The facts that Latinx voters are Americans, that they are not a monolith, and are in fact a socially constructed category aren't new or novel to those of us who are Latinx, who work with Latinx communities, or who have been researching and teaching Latinx studies for decades. For us, this public Columbusing discovery of Latinx diversity is painful and embarrassing. We have been living, teaching and writing about our different multivariate identities forever.

We understand that class and citizenship status can have an impact on the political disposition of Mexican American communities. We are cognizant that Latinx is not a race, but is made up of groups who have different racial and ethnic backgrounds and have different experiences with racism. And, notwithstanding what marketing pundits tell us, Latinx identities are also not reducible to Spanish language: Not only are there many Latinx people who do not speak any Spanish, but many speak a variety of other languages, and may be even prouder of their Creole, Quechua, or Spanglish.  We know that even the “Cuban vote” that is so commonly treated as a unified bloc is made up of diverse communities with different migration statuses and racial backgrounds. And don’t even get me started on the regional aspects to this conversation! Even in New York City, Latinx communities in Queens and the Bronx display different national and racial backgrounds and histories. Similar regional factors play out in shaping different social, racial and political dispositions among Latinx groupings across the U.S. 

Latinx political historians and scholars have also teased out the racial, class and politics of different Latinx voters, including Latinx Republicans, even exploring how they may be interpolated by the politics of whiteness irrespective of their racial and class backgrounds. In the past 20 years, Latinx studies has grown and moved towards challenging the whitewashing designations that have historically erased Black Latinx and Indo-Latinxs from dominant American representations of Latinidad. Groups such as the Afro-Latino Forum and Black Latinas Know Collective have centered Afro-Latinx Studies, while vibrant conversations on Critical Latinx Indigeneity Studies have paved the way toward more inclusive definitions of Latinidad and the space to explore how our multiple identities exist in culture and politics.

But, before we begin to dismiss the political relevance of "Latinx," either as a group of people or a voting bloc, let's remember Latinx people are not any more complex or different than any other group that is consistently summoned in the American political imagination, be they “suburban voters,” “women,” or “Black voters.”  As the sociologist Michael Rodriguez warns: “Only Latinx voter heterogeneity is treated as proof that this category is wholly ‘contrived’ ‘fake,’ and ‘meaningless.” 

In other words, we must realize that the tendency to dismiss the political relevance of Latinx people rather than working more diligently to understand it is one of the ways whiteness operates to make ignorance complicit with invisibility. In fact, this is exactly what Democrats seem to conclude every four years: that these voters are too complex and just not worth it to engage with, and consequently can be ignored or pushed aside.

Hence, the last-minute "Despacito" mirage tactics that characterized Biden’s appeals to Latinx voters, relying on the Hispandering view that trotting out a hit song at a Hispanic Heritage Month event is all it takes to reach Latinx voters, or that focusing on television ads rather than community building is enough. In sum, we saw an overall lack of grassroots campaigning of the types that win souls and hearts and engage respectfully and with nuance with our diverse communities.

Latinx organizers and young people filled this void, playing key roles in reaching voters in major races where, according to Vanessa Cárdenas in a piece for Latino Rebels, “500,000 first-time Latino voters in Texas, 360,000 in Florida, [and] 110,000 in Arizona” turned up to vote. This was not due to any official party initiatives, but thanks to the activism of organizations like Mijente, LUCHA Arizona, and Poder Latinx, which have been working and building for decades to construct wider coalitions and mobilizing young voters, like those behind the possibility of turning Arizona blue. All of this foretells the new political reality of a U.S. where “minority” voters are, in fact, the new majority voters—which will be impossible to dismiss for much longer. 

It is time that every single publication, newspaper and political party—in fact, any industry that wishes to be relevant in the 21st century—takes cues from Latinx studies to combat the widespread ignorance that sustains surprise at Latinx diversity within a voting constituency or as part of larger society. This begins with hiring and following the work of diverse Latinx journalists, analysts, and political consultants, and workers representing the entire gamut and demographic of Latinx racial and social diversity.

There’s no easy “formula” for addressing Latinx voters, nor shortcuts for understanding Latinx communities. Latinx voters are everywhere—in every single state of the U.S. and in every community—and include a younger demographic that is poised to continue to have an impact in the larger social, cultural, and political life of the country. When people still marvel over the “Latinx voter,” it tells us, above all, that politics and culture in the U.S. has yet to grapple with the full complexity of Latinx people as consumers, as workers, as artists, and as regular Americans. My wish is that this is the last year Latinx voters are exoticized as one group and that, instead, political organizations start treating them with respect and nuance that is long overdue.

Arlene Dávila is the Founding Director of The Latinx Project at NYU and the author of multiple books on Latinx Studies, including her latest: Latinx Art: Artists, Markets and Politics.