Latino vote increasingly influential in U.S. election
Hispanic voters do not align themselves with one party
by Nate Gowdy
Indiana Daily Student
The United States is witnessing a demographic transformation, as Latino Americans have become the second largest minority in the country.
An estimated 37.4 million Latinos lived in the United States as of March 1, 2002, and the group comprises 13.3 percent of the national population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The Latino population is growing fast, said Professor Jorge Chapa, founding director of Latino studies at IU and member of a National Research Council panel reviewing Census procedures.
"The number of Latinos grew by nearly 60 percent nationally during the 1990s," Chapa said. "It has grown by another 10 percent since 2000, while the non-Latino population has grown less than 1 percent."
John Nieto-Phillips, associate professor of Latino studies, specializes in the history of Latinos, their politics, self-government and the way they participate in society -- including elections. He stressed that this demographic group cannot afford to be complacent because so much is at stake in this election.
"There are many Latinos who are not voting -- either they are not U.S. citizens or are too young," Nieto-Phillips said. "There are more than 9.3 million undocumented immigrants, and one-third of the total Hispanic population is under 18. The demographics are such that every vote cast is actually representative and on behalf of many more Latinos."
Chapa said it's hard for candidates to categorize Latinos because there's as much diversity among Latinos as the overall population.
"I think both political parties still tend to peg all Latinos into a square box," Chapa said. "Latinos span a spectrum of political values, and this leads candidates to throw their hands up and assume they are too diverse to categorize as more than one group."
Hannia Burke-Aguero, director of Bloomington's Latino Ministries at the First United Methodist Church, noted that Latinos are interested in many of the same issues affecting the population in general.
"They share the same wants and needs as the rest of the U.S., and they, too, pay taxes and want the same social services," she said.
In fact, the Latino community has many voices.
"I don't think people realize there isn't just one voice in the Latino community -- this is a constant frustration for others," said Lillian Casillas, director of IU's Latino Cultural Center, La Casa. "It's getting harder to categorize Latinos as one voting bloc because the group as a whole can't seem to differentiate on the issues."
Even if Latinos cannot be typecast as voting one way or another, Nieto-Phillips suggested Latinos tend to support Kerry.
"Kerry represents more of a commitment to education," Nieto-Phillips said. "This election will in large part determine the role of the federal government in shaping (Latino) children's futures."
About 30 percent of Latinos work for employers who do not offer health insurance, compared to 13 percent of whites, Nieto-Phillips said.
"Latinos also have higher poverty and drop-out rates," he said. "The statistics are striking -- they show there is a crisis. There is a lot riding on this election, so Latinos have to take interest in it."
Nieto-Phillips added that Indiana is only now experiencing significant growth in the Latino population, while many parts of the country have already had to adjust.
"(Latinos) are moving to places where there has never been a Hispanic population before," Nieto-Phillips said. And because of this movement, voter awareness is a top priority among Latino activists. The Southwest Voter Registration Education Project is a nonpartisan mobilization aimed at raising the Latino vote to 20 million in 2004, Chapa said.
"Latinos vote in the highest numbers in New Mexico, California, Florida, Arizona and Colorado," Chapa said, "and in the last three presidential elections, Latinos have voted roughly 2-1 for Democrats."
Antonio de la Cova, Latino studies assistant professor, pointed out that in Florida, the 2000 election's key swing-state, Cuban Americans will play a crucial role in determining the outcome of the Nov. 2 election. Three and a half percent of the U.S. Latino population are Cuban Americans, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
"Eighty percent of Florida's 450,000 Cubans voted in 2000 -- a very high proportion," de la Cova said. "They are denied the right to vote in Cuba, so when they get the opportunity, they do so passionately."
He said the 2000 presidential race was decided by 537 Florida votes, and Bush won 81 percent of the Cuban vote -- after Clinton had earned 40 percent of their vote in 1996.
"Clinton's decision to return Elian Gonzalez in 2000 to his father in Cuba may have cost Al Gore the presidential election in 2000," de la Cova said.
De la Cova added that more conservative Latinos, such as Cuban Americans, will side with Bush because he embodies what they perceive as family values. Also, for single-issue voters, Bush represents the candidate of choice because he will tow a harder line with Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
Locally, in Monroe County the 2000 U.S. Census listed 1,250 Hispanics, but that number is misleading.
"The Monroe County (Latino) population is larger than 3,000," Burke-Aguero said. "There are those enrolled at the University and undocumented (immigrants) who don't register for fear they will be sent back."
Because of the high numbers of Latinos in the state, there might be increasing interest in trying to understand issues related to population movement, Nieto-Phillips said.
"I think language policies in the schools will become more important," Nieto-Phillips said, "and it'll be increasingly important to have multilingual staff in such crucial positions as police, emergency medical technicians and as translators at hospitals."
-- Contact staff writer Nate Gowdy at firstname.lastname@example.org.