Everybody loves Mexicans…
The political season is upon us, and everybody in the political world all of a sudden loves Mexicans. Republicans will pretend to take a break from demonizing us, and Democrats will pretend to stop ignoring us and brainstorm ideas of how to get the Mexicans to vote. There will be fiestas, complete with the mandatory mariachi band, where Republicans and Democrats will, with a straight face, tell us how much they love us.
In private settings, listserv dialogues, the blogosphere, etc., people are talking about voting and the upcoming presidential and local elections. A theme running through these discussions is that the “Latino vote” is important and portends to be “decisive.” A couple of parallel themes are that we need to register Latino/as to vote, especially young people, and that we need to improve what some folks characterize as a pathetically low voter turnout among Mexican Americans.
Should we boycott voting, form our own party, or just be sheep?
Anchoring one side of the spectrum of thoughts in these discussions are two notions. One is that we should boycott elections altogether and tell both parties where to go. The other is that we should break away and form our own party. Anchoring the other side of the spectrum is the argument that we should vote blindly for the Democrats because they are the “lesser of evils.” I favor an in-between option (more on this later).
Those who lament that voter turnout among Mexican Americans is historically low imply that we are apathetic and lazy. What these folks are loath to consider is that folks may stay home on voting day because often neither party offers up candidates worth voting for and because on a substantive basis nothing changes from one election to another, even when people vote in respectable numbers.
La Raza Unida Party (LRUP): a principled political force
In the early 1970s we—Chicano movement activists—organized La Raza Unida Party, which proved to be a principled political force that did much good for our community. However, there is a world of difference between the early 1970s and today with respect to the political dynamics within our community.
In 1970, the life-changing Chicano movement permeated virtually every Mexican American community in the country. There was a communal sense of purpose as we fought the concerted campaign to make us feel inferior and to treat us as foreigners in our own land. We had a tremendous sense of pride and identity and refused to hide our Chicanismo behind “polite” names imposed on us by society. A directed and disciplined anger drove us. We did not just lash out—we planned, and we organized. There was a great sense of sacrifice—many of us (myself included) interrupted our college careers to become full-time organizers for the movement. And, we did not bow down to any “sacred cows.” Realizing that people do not stop bad behavior on their own, we held administrators, bureaucrats, and elected officials—including Mexican Americans and Democrats—who were acting against the interests of our community accountable.
Although we did not enjoy many electoral victories, LRUP was immensely successful. Space limitations prohibit a full discussion of the LRIP’s legacy, but here are some highlights. I consulted—independent of each other—several LRUP veterans, and to a person, they all posited variations of the following: By forcing the political parties to consider Mexican Americans as an electoral constituency and to consider their needs, the LRUP put Mexican Americans and their issues on the national agenda. Up till then, we were perceived as a regional phenomenon. But the LRUP’s greatest effect was at the local level, conferring on the Mexican American community a great sense of political empowerment.
The LRUP provided a trusted vehicle for our community to participate in politics and incorporate our issues into the mainstream political conversation. Manifesting the self-determination plank of the Chicano movement, the LRUP rejected the notion that we had to blindly accept whomever the Democratic party leadership picked to represent us. Because the LRUP was rooted in a civil-rights movement, we brought home the point that the community’s needs take precedence over a political party’s needs or desires and over the political ambitions of individuals. It created a corps of dynamic leaders, individuals willing to step into the public arena on behalf of their people. And it forced the Democratic Party to make some fundamental changes in its practices.
(Two excellent analyses of the LRUP are “United We Win: The Rise and Fall of La Raza Unida Party,” Ignacio M. García, and “La Raza Unida Party: A Chicano Challenge to the U.S. Two-Party Dictatorship,” Armando Navarro)
We need to develop a principled, discriminating voting base…
But the dynamics that characterized the early 1970s don’t exist today. Trying to organize a Mexican American or Latino political party would be a quixotic endeavor doomed to fail as would a campaign to boycott voting altogether. But, as in the 1970s, we need to develop a principled, discriminating voting base. Republicans don’t even make a pretense about caring about our community, so whatever we do we need to do within the context of the Democratic Party.
Democrats get away with disrespecting our community by taking us for granted because not enough of us challenge them, and when we do it’s on an individual basis. After decades of trying, it’s obvious that words and empty threats have no effect on the Democratic establishment or machines. Only organized, collective action will.
Our vote is as valuable in its being withheld as it is in its being given. There’s no law that dictates that we have to vote for every Democrat on the ballot. If there are Democrats who have disrespected our community or acted against our community’s interests, we should not vote for them. Vote for the other offices except that one. Since it’s locally where we can make visible, meaningful changes, this has to be done in a collective, organized manner at the local level.
I can hear the protests already: but this may result in a Republican being elected. Granted, but so what? It’s not as if the Democrat we voted out had our interests at heart. The remedy is to do some old-fashioned organizing and run a grassroots, people’s candidate next cycle and take the seat back.
The simple, undeniable truth is that Democrats will respect us only—I repeat, ONLY—when we make it known to them that they do not own us and when they see that we utilize our votes intelligently and discriminatingly. As long as the Democrats KNOW we’ll vote for them regardless of what they do, why should they even pretend to respect us?
We don’t have to create a separate party to duplicate La Raza Unida Party’s legacy. All we have to do is organize and vote on a principled basis. c/s
Copyright 2015 by Sal Baldenegro. To contact Sal write: firstname.lastname@example.org