A Votar: Tracing the History of Voter Suppression Against Latinos in the United States
Tanzina: This election marks the first time in US history that the number of eligible Latino voters is expected to be higher than the number of eligible Black voters and that means that there's been a renewed focus on how Latinos could shape the results in States like Florida and Texas, but to fully understand Latino voters in this election, it's important to take a step back and acknowledge the long history of voter suppression against Latinos in the United States, which date back for more than a century.
Over the past month, we've been covering some of the issues that matter most to Latino voters in this election cycle, in our series, Avotar. Through it all, we've been hearing from our Latino listeners on this.
Paula: Hi, this is Paula. I'm calling from West Palm Beach, Florida. I'm a Latina. I'm voting for all my fellow Latina and Latino people in this country who need a path to citizenship, and we'll never get it under the current administration. I'm voting for all the minorities in this country and I'm voting for democracy so that I can survive.
Speaker 1: My name is [unintelligible 00:01:00] and I'm calling from Seattle. First, my wife and I are Latinx voters and we feel very strongly that having a president that reflects our own values and those of our families is critical. Someone who believes in science, someone who believes in decency and respect.
Tanzina: I'm joined now by Michelle García, a journalist and essayist, who recently wrote about the history of Latinos and voter suppression for the Texas Observer and Palabra. Thanks for being with me, Michelle.
Michelle: It's good to be here.
Tanzina: Michelle, your piece for the Texas Observer starts on election night, 2018. Why was that the starting point?
Michelle: That night really stayed with me because I'm at an election night party watching the returns come in in Austin, across the street from the University of Texas at Austin, really interesting group of political junkies and students and organizers and I'm asking them, why are you here? What is it about elections and voting that means something to you? Everybody had a memory that they invoked, whether it was the elder who said, "I remember going to the union meetings with my parents and watching what organizing community can do to the young African-American woman at the local, historically Black college, who said, "We march to the polls today," like they did in the '60s. This is my legacy. I'm part of that history."
Meanwhile, in Dallas, you had David Villalobos who was watching the returns and whose connection was his childhood memory of block walking, knocking on doors with his mom in Laredo, Texas campaigning. I began to wonder how important was it or is it to have a memory, to have a sense that your vote connects to a larger narrative that you belong to a legacy of democracy and the fight for a vote? How significant is that to either motivating people to vote or also understanding what it means when, as you said, the Latino numbers are so historic high this year and you're seeing a historic turnout?
Tanzina: Interestingly, we often hear about voter suppression, tactics, and poll taxes and literacy tests, and threats of violence that have been used against African-American voters in this country. Tell us about how those tactics were also used against Latino voters in the 20th century.
Michelle: I think part of why we don't hear about this as much is because of geography, so much of the history of this country is told from East to West, but in New York, for example, in the 1930s, you would have a Puerto Rican woman go to the polls. I found an oral history in which she's recounting, going to the polls in Brooklyn and confronting a literacy test and was able only to vote because there was another Puerto Rican in the neighborhood, a woman, who was going around, helping people prepare for that test so that they could cast that ballot.
You had those same tests going on in Arizona. You had them going on in Texas. Arizona passed laws that required minimum education, property ownership. Texas passed a law in the early 20th century that just made it outright illegal to have interpreters, Spanish language interpreters at the polls, but it went from poll taxes and literacy tests to violence. You had the state police in Texas used to suppress the vote, where Mexican Americans who could read and write and could pay the poll tax were threatened by being sent to the penitentiary if they try to cast a ballot.
You had all sorts of intimidation for decades going on in Arizona, in Texas, in other States, New Jersey, that were keeping people from the polls. We have to consider that in Arizona, for example, there was a poll-watching campaign in the 1960s, in which Mexican Americans and Blacks were forced to recite portions of the constitution. This campaign was called Eagle Eye. If they couldn't comply, they were barred from voting.
One of the people who carried this out was William Rehnquist, who went on as we know, to become a US Supreme Court Justice and Chief Justice. This is the level of suppression that was institutional by law enforcement. It was called a spirit of terrorism, was how it was described by some lawyers. In the 1970s, Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote an opinion that Latinos faced, "a pervasive evil that was national in scope and it was aggravated by acts of physical economic and political intimidation."
You really see the range and what is so interesting and important right now is this history becomes institutionalized. It creates a chilling factor that then interrupts the tradition of voting that's necessary to have a turnout. This is what so many groups have had to overcome. The basis for this was as Jovita González wrote in the early 20th century, Mexican Americans were considered, "unfit to vote."
Now consider that in 2017, Evan Smith, who's the founder of the Texas Tribune, told the New Yorker that there was a backlash to the rising Latino political influence in Texas because they were, "seen as unworthy." This history forms the context for understanding current events, tactics, long lines we see in early voting and we will probably see today on Election Day.
Tanzina: This history is often not talked about, Michelle, and I think part of it is really a lack of understanding of what role Latinos played in their own right in the civil rights movements in this country for their own right to vote. Why is it that we don't know as much about this as we hear about other attempts at voter suppression?
Michelle: You're absolutely right. What you just said has an echo through time. In 1967, The Atlantic magazine published a story called The Minority Nobody Knows. In it, it said, when people on the East Coast, when the media elite, when the political elite, think about Latinos at all, they imagine Mexican American workers stooped in the fields. In the 1960s, in that same article, a union organizer, scholar writer, his name was Ernesto Galarza. He said, "Historically Mexican Americans have not been seen as a great constitutional and moral issue as were the Negros, nor as an ordinary immigrant group to be acculturated or simulated. They have been looked on simply as an ever-replenishing supply of cheap and docile labor."
When you have a history that is told, that does not include that moral imperative, that history of violence that was carried out in Western expansion, then you have a story of Latinos that is relegated to the perennial new arrival [crosstalk].
Tanzina: I would even argue this particular election cycle. There's been an odd fascination with Latinos conservative voters and Latinos who are anti-Black. I think that this is all a critical part of our cultural reckoning if you will, but still, a quarter of Latinos, maybe a third, but really about a quarter of them identify as conservatives and will vote that way. I think that the media's obsession with that narrative is obfuscating some of the history that you're talking about here.
Michelle: Absolutely, and the irony to that is there's so much curiosity about who are these outliers and so many theories, does it have to do with masculinity? Does it have to do with you have a large evangelical population? Abortion's a major issue, but what gets overlooked? They actually go together, is that you've had a gauntlet laid down by the Trump administration about belonging, about this is what you do to be one of us, build a wall. This is what you do to call yourself an American. When Latinos are constantly being subjected to apprehension and criticism and questioning about their citizen bona fides, it is not surprising to me that you will find some people who are essentially fed up with having their citizenship questioned and we'll just say, "Yes, this is how I'm going to prove I'm an American. He has laid out a test and I will meet that test."
Tanzina: You've spoken with members of several different Latino voting rights groups and I'd love if you could explain how their activism is inspired by this history that you're talking about.
Michelle: In addition to the curiosity about the Trump supporters, there's also the constant, what do we do about the Latinos? They're so different. You have Puerto Ricans in New York, you have Puerto Ricans in Florida and Colombians and Venezuelans, and as if people cannot wrap their minds around this diversity. What's interesting is you see that richness reflected in the organizing.
For example, I talk with people in Arizona and they really reach into that history of the Chicano Movement, that organizing in the Southwest in response to the civil rights movement in the 1960s and '70s, to learn from that, to learn how that was abandoned, how they were abandoned by the Democratic Party and to learn from that, to organize people and try the new path.
Meanwhile, I'm talking with an organizer in North Carolina who is the daughter of farmworkers. When I asked her, are you inspired by Cesar Chavez's 1960s farm worker movement in California? She says, no, actually I was the only Mexican-American kid in my school. I grew up going to an all-Black high school and really, I learned a lot and influenced by the civil rights movement of North Carolina. She has the motto of North Carolina tattooed to her wrist, but she's also influenced by the social movements in Mexico, the search of [unintelligible 00:12:32]. You really see people pulling.
Tanzina: It's almost like they're trying to patch together because our-- We did a segment here on the show recently, Michelle, about the underground railroad that helped Black slaves escape the United States, not to the North, but to Mexico and the lack of a real United States educational system framework, where for our history and our role in this country's civil rights movement has really forced us today to patch together a reality based on these bits and pieces and scholarship like what you've done here, but it's really unfortunate that this history has taken so long to come to light.
Michelle: It's true. I interviewed Frances Negrón-Muntaner at Columbia University and she said-
Tanzina: She's a friend of the show, by the way.
Michelle: Yes. She said, what Latinos have contributed to the political culture of this country is imagination. I would say that in the same way that the Puerto Rican Young Lords in New York, 20% of that group was African-American, you've had Latinos building and working in coalition for decades. You see this in North Carolina, the group they're saying outright, we are a pro-Black, pro-Latinx, LGBTQ group, or in Arizona. You see that imagination in action.
I think it's also worth mentioning that the moral issue, the moral imperative that has gone unstudied is playing out right now. I interviewed María Teresa Kumar from Voto Latino and she said, this moral, this is happening right now in the confluence of events of ongoing voter suppression. Latinos hit five COVID at just staggering rates and the potential to have major impact, particularly, in these States of North Carolina, Arizona, and Texas. You see this coalescing, that is we're in the center of historic moment. This history that we've been discussing provides the frame and the context for understanding that struggle and the meaning of all of these people turning out to vote.
Tanzina: Michelle García is a journalist and essayist currently working on a non-fiction book about the border. Thanks so much, Michelle.
Michelle: Thank you.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.