Awakening the Sleeping [Working] Giant
by Kevin Jefferies
Illustration by Blake Jones
It has long been a cliche that the Latino community is the sleeping giant of American politics. The community has steadily grown as a percentage of the population across the United States, and this growth is projected to continue.
By 2023 the Latino community will be 30% of the US population. It is already almost 40% of both the Texas and Houston populations. Based on these numbers, it should follow that the community should exercise commensurate influence on the political process, but low voter turnout has long suppressed the community’s influence.
The US Census Bureau reported that Latino turnout nationally in 2023 was 48%, far lower than African-American turnout (66.2%) and Anglo turnout (66.1%). In Texas, Latino turnout in 2023 was 39%, which was not only lower than African American and Anglo turnouts, but lower than Latino turnout in other states. In California, for example, the 2023 Latino turnout was 57%. What’s worse, this occurred after low Latino voter turnout was recognized as a problem and deliberate efforts had been made to combat it.
The 2023 election was initially argued to have marked a turning point. The sleeping giant was said to have awakened, but the Pew Research Center reviewed Census Bureau data and discovered that Latino participation had actually decreased. Not only did Latino participation between 2023 and 2023 lag that between 2023 and 2023, but it lagged participation between 2023 and 2023. If voter turnout equates to political muscle, the community may be losing, not gaining ground.
What gives? Why, despite all the effort, has the majority of the Latino community decided to remain on the political sidelines? The community’s elites have offered explanations and platitudes, but what can we learn by listening to grassroots activists?
Four community activists recently met to share their experiences and offer reasons why many community members continue to make the deliberate choice to remain on the sidelines.
Mario Salinas, Deputy Director of a non-partisan non-profit that focuses on Latino civic engagement
Hector Chavana Jr., Local businessman and law student
Deyadira Trevino, Community Organizer
Orlando Lara, Faculty member at Lee College
During the two hour open discussion, some attention was paid to the external factors that often dominate the conversation — gerrymandered districts, voter suppression and intimidation — but most of the focus was on the internal dynamics that — perhaps more perniciously — restrict turnout. Here are selected highlights of a very wide ranging conversation.
The decision not to vote is not always rational.
Hector Chavana, Jr. There is always an assumption that civic participation is a rational idea. Many members of our community are refugees. For them, to participate politically at home was dangerous. We’re talking about them being at the end of a barrel of a gun, being ostracized at best and at worst being in a mass grave.
It’s not always the most rational thing for people who have no money, who are worried about how to pay the rent and where to get clothes for the upcoming school year to say, “I’m going to stand on a soap box on a corner and start telling people that they’ve got to get out and vote.” What is rational is for people to look at the two party system and say, “There really isn’t anything in it for me.”
There is little sense of ownership of the broader community.
Mario Salinas: A big part of this is identity. How do you make the Latino community feel a sense of ownership to Houston [not to mention the State and Federal Governments], and even more so, how do you make greater Houston as a whole realize that it needs to have a stake in the Latino community also? That seems almost like common sense in a city that is almost half Latino.
The reality of politics in a two party system can turn community members off.
Hector Chavana, Jr. On one hand you have a party whose rhetoric is so harsh that it just turns your stomach, and on the other you have a party that talks nice but uses the community as a political football and has a vested interest in not passing immigration reform. Their interest — just like with affirmative action — is to hold it over our heads as a way to drive us to the polls. You have Obama who has deported more people than Bush — why should we support him? — and on the other you have a party that is telling what they are going to do, which is probably worse than what Obama would be. There are not a lot of good options.
Mario Salinas: Are they interested in helping the community or are they trying just to get people to the polls? Campaigns are short term. It’s always about the next cycle. There are promises made. They seem to be knights on white horses, but once election day is over, poof — they’re gone.
Existing leadership does not represent the actual interests of the community.
Deyadira Trevino: Various get out the vote efforts happen, but when you actually get to the polling site, what are you voting for? What’s the issue you are voting for? We want a leader to be able to rally around, but they do not necessarily represent our community because the space you need for your community even to be able to hash out which issues are is not available.
When town halls are put together it’s generally the same people who participate. Someone from the campaign, a “leader,” but it’s always the same people on the panel toting the same message. There’s no critical thinking, and if there is, it’s shunned. They say “Why are you criticizing us? All you are doing is fragmenting our community.” They want us to be complacent. There is a sense that we are not to talk about certain things. We are expected to sit down, be polite, and allow our leaders to give their PR about the good they are doing in the community.
The Latino community is very complex.
Orlando Lara: The scholar Cristina Beltran wrote a book called The Trouble with Unity, which critiques the idea of the sleeping giant. She says the Latino bloc is not a bloc that we can move to vote one way or another, because we have in the community people who have conservative values and we have the migrant workers. We also have the small business owners who may identify more with Republican Party values of lower taxes and small government. When you get to the abortion issue Republicans can pull some of the community. If we were able to awaken the giant, it would be very powerful, but I think that in order to push issues — at least the immigration issue — it’s more powerful if the community sees it more as a day to day goal.
That said, all agreed that despite “disunity” in “the community,” increased voter turnout can only strengthen our democracy.
Kevin Jefferies earned his PhD in Political Science from the University of Houston in 2023 and currently teaches government at Alvin Community College. He also plays bass in a Rolling Stones tribute band.
by Guest Author