Democrats Still Have a Latinx Blind Spot: Understanding Far-Right Republican Mayra Flores’ recent Congressional Victory
A thoughtful piece by Xochitl Gonzalez writing in this week’s Atlantic, helps illustrate how race and ethnicity are social constructions. That is, these are historically produced in the context of, and in response to, social, political, economic, and cultural forces, resulting in a high level of complexity in relation to identity that Gonzalez identifies as problematic in the context of South Texas’ conservative, far-right Republican Mayra Flores‘ recent election to Congress.
Gonzalez raises the question of whether a “Latinx” or “Latino” electorate actually exists—even to the point of suggesting that there may be no “Latino vote,” much less a “Latinx vote” in light of not only our diversity as a Latino community writ large, but also by a potentially false centering of it in places like South Texas where the electoral dynamics don’t align.
My short answer to this question of whether a “Latino electorate” exists is that it does and it doesn’t.
It does to the extent that being “Latino,” “Hispanic,” “Latina,” or “Latinx” correlates to such things as consumer and political behavior, as well as to language and cultural practices. A shared experience of subordination also promotes a sense of “we-ness.”
It doesn’t in the sense that ethnicity is also “situational,” meaning that how one describes oneself varies by context. In spaces like a college campus or highly diverse urban contexts, it’s easy to adopt pan-ethnic labels like “Latino,” “Hispanic,” “Latina,” or “Latinx.” It’s further encouraged when one is in an ethnically mixed group of “Latinas” or “Latinos,” consisting of Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Cubans, Salvadoreans, and so on. However fraught (e.g., “Latinx”), pan-ethnic labels are inclusive terms that can easily straddle political party identification and views.
To be sure, pan-ethnic labels and identities can be different from how one regularly identifies or how one experiences or “feels” one’s identity, including in instances like South Texas where race and ethnicity may be less salient than say, class, gender, sexual orientation, or generational status (immigrant or non-immigrant)—that can themselves also function intersectionally, or in tandem, while shifting in salience—at different times depending on context.
Many are quick to decry overarching labels and even question their validity, but for those situationally choosing such labels, this can facilitate navigating across diverse contexts and promote inter-ethnic solidarity. Without a doubt, these constructions are so powerful that they do have implications for how our multiple identities get formed and evolve over time.
But what about contexts like South Texas that are more homogeneous—in this case, “Mexican” or “Mexican American?” Clearly, ethnicity is experienced differently. The “other,” isn’t a white person, but rather an immigrant, foreigner, or outsider who may be viewed either in a competitive manner or with disdain, as Congresswoman Flores’ winning rhetoric displays (e.g., read this New York Times piece titled, “The G.O.P.’s ‘Wildest Dream.”)
Moreover, when everybody around you in South Texas is “Mexican,” including all the candidates running for office, Gonzalez is correct to conclude that given the uniqueness of this context, a “blanket Latinx Outreach Strategy isn’t going to win over the Hispanic voter.” Instead, an approach that is more situated in the lived experiences of the community holds much greater promise.
I don’t think most South Texans are anti-immigrant, but many can be manipulated to be so with schools that don’t teach that we didn’t cross the border, but that the border crossed us instead. It’s perhaps more probable that it’s mostly not taught. Errors of omission in curriculum and pedagogy leave wide, gaping holes in knowledge and interpretation. And this is exactly what we’re seeing—a filling in of that conceptual gap with a pernicious and harmful ideology.
For those with ill will, it’s so convenient. The anti-immigrant, white supremacist trope of the “invading immigrant” who is “taking our jobs” maps onto fears about the economy, giving folks in South Texas and beyond a false sense of entitlement that translates into the scapegoating of so-called “immigrants” whose ancestors inhabited this continent before there ever was a border or a place called “Texas” or the “United States.”
This leaves the question of how to address Congresswoman Myra Flores’ conservative views toward immigrants and immigration—especially considering that she herself is a Mexican immigrant? Clearly, she was either not educated or miseducated about the history of the border and her own people in San Benito High School that she attended upon migrating across the border to the U.S. What happened—or what didn’t happen—when she thereafter went to South Texas College? Probably the exact same thing since our higher education institutions are also assimilationist and Eurocentric.
It’s amazing that any of us hold on to our languages and cultural integrity. And yet many of us do. In defense of our own humanity, we resist in the service of social justice.
This is not at all an insult but rather a statement of the status quo of our assimilationist education system that does not want us as Mexicans or Latinos to hold onto our identities. However, if we do manage to do so, the “next best thing” is for us to think negatively about them, where we unknowingly internalize and accept as truth the dominant views held toward minority (or minoritized) people, ourselves included.
All told, it’s positive to have an expansive, open view of race and ethnicity precisely because this fosters an awareness of, and appreciation for, difference that welcomes curiosity, acceptance, and peaceful relationships. How can we be open to others if we are not first open to our own identities and selves?
Yes, Democrats absolutely do have a “Latinx Blind Spot.” The first step in fixing this is to acknowledge how they, too, have been complicit in the creation of a system—especially an educational system—that engineered this from the get-go. This is exactly why we struggle for Ethnic Studies, including Mexican American Studies, alongside culturally relevant and sustaining curriculum and pedagogy in our schools.
We have a human right to our ethnicity. All people do.
Without such grounding, vacuums in identity exist that can and do get exploited—in this case, by the Republican party that’s winning big on an ongoing political project of invisiblizing and eviscerating Latino culture and identity. Not that this project is ever fully realized, but rather that we are always positioned in vexed relation to the dominant culture that pushing this. In short, this is actually not a “minority people’s problem,” but rather, a “white people’s problem.”
This project has definitely been a force in our history as Latina/o/x peoples, making many in our community vulnerable to rhetoric and ideologies that betray their origins and resonate with their fears—when there really is nothing to fear at all except fear itself, as John F. Kennedy once said.
Let’s support the teaching of Ethnic Studies in our schools. Let’s also continue challenging the attack on Critical Race Theory and our teaching of the truth of history. Let’s widen the circle of citizenship so that all can benefit from the wealth and riches of our communities and country.
Let’s also vote this extremist Republican leadership out of power—and get reconciled to one another and the planet so that our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren not only heal from the historic trauma of assimilation, but most importantly, love themselves. This will help them to also love the socially constructed “other,” nurturing ways of knowing and being in the world where no one is scapegoated, “othered,” or treated as “less than.”
Love is the answer. It always has been and will always be. It begins with us loving ourselves so that instead of hostility and division, we can engineer peace and prosperity.
Sí se puede! Yes we can!
Copyright 2022 by Angela Valenzuela. A version of this article was previously published in Angela Valenzuela’s blog Educational Equity, Politics and Policy in Texas on July 15, 2022. Images of crowd street scene, student and Chicano mural copyrighted by Barrio Dog Productions, Inc. All other images in this blog are in the public domain.