Voting and self-determination…
People love to complain about the government (what it does, and more often, what it doesn’t do) and the elected officials in charge of the government, conveniently forgetting that they—at least the registered voters among them—elect those who run the government. Voting turnout (number of people who actually vote vis a vis those registered to vote) statistics reveal that in virtually every community there are more non-voters than voters. In a very real sense, then, the non-voters are more responsible for the elected officials who are running the government than are the actual voters. This an affront to our community’s longtime fight for self-determination.
Low voter turnout has been a concern for decades. After every election all manner of invective is visited upon the non-voters. All to no avail, it seems.
People who study voter turnout trends (demographers, political scientists, political party officials, etc.) report a steady downward trend in voter turnout in the United States. They attribute this decline to such things as disillusionment (feelings of disappointment, betrayal), indifference (lack of interest in the dynamics of an election), or a sense of futility (the feeling that one’s vote will not make a difference).
Those of us who have been involved in the political dynamics of our respective communities can understand, at least intellectually, why people are so turned off to voting. Our community has been shamelessly lied to, manipulated and used, betrayed, taken for granted, etc., by políticos, the political establishment, and political machines. This has generated a tremendous amount of cynicism as regards politics. But understanding why people don’t vote doesn’t make the situation better.
Non-voters work against self-determination…
The ironic fact is that non-voters actually are casting a vote every time they don’t vote, particularly in primary elections. They are in effect voting for the political establishment, the very people out to keep the populace helpless and powerless, to keep power in the hands of the establishment and its chosen leaders. For, make no mistake: the political establishment (of both major parties) want a low turnout in primary elections. In those elections only the most motivated, the “regular,” party members vote, and they usually vote for the candidate favored or sponsored by the party establishment. The last thing the party establishment wants is a bunch of “new” voters who might support a challenger, someone who may upset their apple cart. In essence, the non-voters are turning their fate, their destiny, over to people whose decisions, or lack of decisions, affect them negatively. This is the antithesis of self-determination.
As a veteran of the Chicano Movement, this upsets me greatly. Our movement’s main pillar was self-determination, starting with what we called ourselves—Chicano, Chicana, a term derived from our community and our history. Our choosing our own self descriptor—one that clearly denotes our Mexican heritage—was a clarion call that no longer would we permit others to describe us, define us and assign imagined traits of character to us, or speak for us.
Self-determination was at the heart of the battles fought by the Chicano Movement. Some examples:
We took on school districts and school boards. Among other things, we demanded they stop treating us as foreigners. That they hire Mexican Americans at all levels. That they stop beating our children for speaking Spanish. That they stop suspending and expelling Mexican American students discriminatorily. That resources be distributed equitably within school districts.
Our community fought back against políticos and bureaucrats who were making decisions that negatively impacted Chicano barrios. In Tucson, AZ and San Diego, CA, for example, circa 1969-1970, the Chicano community organized massive protests against plans that negatively impacted barrios in their respective cities. They insisted that the barrio residents be meaningfully involved in decisions that affected the barrios. The result was the creation of the iconic parks, Joaquín Murrieta in Tucson and Chicano Park in San Diego.
The Chicano Movement insisted that our history be taught in schools. We wrote poetry, short stories, plays, essays and the like, telling our story from our perspective. We established a corps of Chicana and Chicano scholars that set out to accurately portray the huge impact of our community in the country’s history and the immense contributions of our community to the country’s development. We wrote curricula and installed Chicano Studies in colleges and universities throughout out the southwest. We took our history into our own hands.
We confronted the Democratic Party, which routinely took us for granted, assuming (expecting!) we would vote Democratic even as the party establishment often worked against our interests (e.g., deciding who would represent our community and outright sabotaging candidacies of independent-thinking Chicano/Chicana candidates). So, in the early 1970s we organized La Raza Unida Party. The LRUP conferred on our community a great sense of political empowerment. Manifesting the self-determination orientation of the Chicano movement, the LRUP rejected the notion that we had to blindly accept whomever the Democratic party leadership picked to represent us.
These fights, and many others, were hard fought. Many sacrifices (time away from family, loss of jobs, arrests, etc.) were made by many people in order to fight for these things. The Chicano Generation grew up in a period when there was a concerted societal campaign to make us feel inferior and treat us as interlopers. We had two choices. We could acquiesce and shuffle through life, hat in hand, picking up society’s crumbs. Or we could resist and assert our humanity. We resisted. We decided to take our destiny into our own hands.
Back to the bad ol’ days…
In these days of Trump, it seems we are being thrust backwards on many fronts. We are again perceived and treated as if we were foreigners. “Looking Mexican” was sufficient reason to be pulled over by the deputies of the racist Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio. In Arizona, teaching and learning Mexican American history was deemed illegal. People are yelled at and demonized for speaking Spanish is public.
Ethnic pride, a powerful driver of political action, was central to the Chicano Generation’s insisting on the self-descriptor Chicano/Chicana, which reflects our history. For, the terms Chicano/Chicana have been used by the Mexican people in the U.S., particularly the working class, since the early 1900s. By calling ourselves Chicanos/Chicanas we stood on the shoulders of our ancestors and asserted the power of our humanity.
But now we’re being thrust back to the “Anything but Mexican” days. “Hispanics,” Latinos/as,” and “Latinx” can’t be driven by ethnic pride, for those are generic terms, purposely bereft of any ethnic identity. The notion of being proud of being generic is oxymoronic nonsense. Ultimately, “Hispanic,” Latinos/as,” and “Latinx” comes down to never having to say you’re Mexican. [Maybe the topic of a future blog?]
As noted above, voter turnout rates are trending downward. Voter turnout in the Mexican American community has historically been low—generally about 18% lower than the white rate. Nationally, the “Latino” (which subsumes Mexican Americans) turnout rate fluctuates, but always under 50%—e.g., 47.2% in 2004, 27% in 2014, 36.9% in 2018. It is noteworthy that even in the “best” years, less than half of the eligible voters from our community actually voted. This trend is also reflected at the local level. Tucson, where I’m based, recently held elections for Mayor and City Council. The overall turnout was 35.8%,and the turnout in the two Chicano-dominant wards was 26.3% and 33.3%, respectively.
Which brings me back to my thesis: non-voters have more impact on who gets elected to office than do actual voters. This is a pathetic state of affairs in and of itself, but it is more so in light of our community’s long—virtually never-ending—struggle for self-determination. As long as a considerable portion of our community turns over its substantial potential power to the political establishment, we will never be a truly free people. c/s
Copyright 2019 by Salomon Baldenegro. To contact Sal write: firstname.lastname@example.org Ballot Box image in the public domain. All other images copyrighted by Barrio Dog Productions, Inc.