When considering debates about political formulations as nebulous yet as desperately crucial as “the Latinx vote,” it can be vexing to consider those Latinx who vote Republican. In the age of Covid-19, Black Lives Matter protests, and radical right Trumpism, how could they exist? What common ground could Latinx voters possibly find with the Republican Party and its current fusion of fascistic nativism and deadly bottom-line billionaire capitalism? After all, are Latinx not, in the eyes of the Trump faithful, the living embodiment of the dire threat that Samuel P. Huntington saw to “the distinct Anglo-Protestant culture of the founding settlers”?
Viewed from New York City, the center of the Northeast left-liberal bubble, where Latinx politics has long been driven by Puerto Rican Democrats, it can be easy to forget that going back to the 1960s, a substantial number of Latinx voters nationwide have consistently voted for Republican presidential candidates. And while Hispanic Republican support peaked at 40 percent for George W. Bush in 2004, the sobering reality is that Trump’s Latinx support was somewhere between 20 and 30 percent in 2016. This hasn’t waned considerably, even after three years of incessant immigrant bashing: In a poll conducted by Latino Decisions and published in late April, in the middle of the coronavirus crisis, 23 percent of Latinx voters said they were either voting for Trump or leaning toward doing so.
Geraldo Cadava tries to shed light on this thorny subject in The Hispanic Republican: The Shaping of an American Identity, From Nixon to Trump, which, along with Benjamin Francis-Fallon’s The Rise of the Latino Vote: A History, illustrates just how complicated this story is. Starting their narratives in the early 20th century, when most Latinx voters (like their African American counterparts) shifted away from the Republican Party during its rightward turn, both books discuss how the Democrats and Republicans alike sought to organize disparate national and ethnic groups living in different regions into one “Latino” constituency by appealing to them through class interests—as workers/activists or as businessmen/property owners—as well as through their views (often stereotyped) on family unity and Christian morality. Situating the story of these voters in the context of a broader history of Latinx in the United States, both books offer important additions to this history’s growing canon, which is beginning to chip away at long-standing narratives by giving a fuller account of the ambiguous yet undeniable historical reality of Latinx as a political constituency.
At the heart of any argument about “Latino” or “Hispanic” politics, of course, is also a discussion about those labels themselves, especially since political strategists and advocates and marketing consultants have played such a big role in creating the notion of a monolithic Latinidad. By carefully examining archives from underutilized sources like the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center and the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, along with the archives of Hispanic Republicans like Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Manuel Luján, Cadava and Francis-Fallon show that Latinx voters in both parties embraced the idea that Latinx should envision themselves as a national constituency in order to wield more power than individual groups could. Both books also show what was lost by creating one constituency out of many and offer new historical insight into the evolution of terms like “Hispanic” and “Latino,” which remain contested in local communities and the mass media.