The Curious Case of the Latino Republican

Alvaro Huerta asks a good question;

In light of the GOP’s nasty attacks against Latino immigrants, how can any rational Latino vote Republican during the upcoming November 2nd elections? Worse yet, how can any Latino be a member of a political party whose national platform centers on blaming brown immigrants for most of the country’s social and economic ills?

I struggle with this question all the time. I am a product of the Reagan era, a time where despite the inadequacies of his presidency, Reagan’s visage still lives strong in my memory. He was the first to give me “hope” and for some reason he was the first to make me feel like I was the one I was waiting for. An old Irishmen brought up in the farmlands of the Midwest and who cut his teeth cutting against the grain in Hollywood, I identified with his contrarian personality. Being raised in the multicultural city of Alhambra, a city as I know it that was under constant change from migration flows from other countries and from inner city second-generation minorities escaping the barrios, I grew up with little loyalty to any party culture. Partisan loyalty and corruption seemed to be unaffiliated with any larger conspiracy against minorities. We had still not moved into the 1990’s, an era that deeply vilified Latinos for the economic woes of that early-decade recession.

I still remember the long lines at the gas stations in the 70s, a memory I associate with Jimmy Carter. On the eve of the election in 1980, I asked my Jewish neighbor who I always chatted with as he tended his garden what he thought about Reagan. His answer was it was time for a change. Hope and change. Thats what I got from that era. Its largely irrational to stay with the GOP solely for those early formative years, but the Democrats have also given me little reason to change my mind. I’m not going to leave my party because of the rightful ire that our politicians have made a mess of things. Some of that ire has manifested itself into ugliness, and the GOP leadership seems unable to resist the short term lure of riding a wave of populism in the hopes of retaking Congress. But so what? I can choose to leave the party or I can stay and fight. The country is changing, and so is the GOP. The process can be ugly, but thats no reason to leave. I have worked for GOP members from California to Michigan. Are they misguided? I think so in some areas. Are the stormtroopers in the party full of vigor and emotion? I hope so. Is some of that vigor a product of racism? Yup. Am I supposed to leave because of that? Yeah, right.

As a professor who teaches the checkered history of our immigration policies and who studies Latino political behavior, I am the first to wince at the heated rhetoric that fills our political conversation; the scapegoating of our weakest members of society. Both parties are guilty of it and the Democrats have as long if not longer history of doing it. That has changed, but who is to say it won’t change again? The free-market wing of the Republican party seems as likely to overcome the cultural purists of the GOP as the the civic liberals of the Democratic party are likely to be overcome by restrictionist union bosses. I’ll make my case, and fight the mythologies that consume the GOP. Reagan seemed unconcerned about any cultural incompatibilities with Latinos and he seemed to place his bets on the spirit of Latino entrepreneurialism. Almost naively, he envisioned a union of peoples, bound together by the promise of a better future and guided by the belief that all humans were the same, and indeed granted by their creator certain unalienable rights. This vision had borders that only needed managing, not protecting.

The immigration debate, for all its scapegoating, is the product of real problems that arise when people move from point A to point B. Resources need to be reallocated, or created, to accomodate migration flows. This creates problems. People are angry that these problems are not addressed. Rightfully so. That often manifests itself in racist demagoguery. We should fight that, but its what we get when our leaders don’t work to fix the problems. And yet, our economy is so enormous that it absorbs these people into the market; making us stronger. Bigger. Richer. With that we need to find a way to extend the benefits of this to more people. To make heath care more affordable. To make education more accessible. To give our newest members a pathway to legitimacy so they can come out of the shadows and share the fruits of their labor as they grow into future business owners. As their kids plant themselves into their new country. And it is theirs. We need to understand that. The GOP needs to understand that for the good of the country. Because as Reagan left an indelible mark on this young Latino kid that affects him to this day, so too is the vilification leaving a mark on the voters of tomorrow. I want to change that. And I can only do it if I stand right where I’m standing. Maybe someday that will change. But not yet.

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