What the Hell Is the 'Latino Vote,' And Is Talking About It Inherently Racist? An Expert Explains

Over the last week, as news networks have conducted voter postmortems about the 2020 election, pundits have been alternately puzzled, handwringing, and smug about the so-called “Latino vote.” Every time a white man in front of a red and blue map pointed to the state of Florida, that man suddenly became an expert on the whims of Latinos—particularly Cubans and Venezuelans, who, despite being from vastly different countries, managed to vote similarly because they were Latinos, and the media presents Latinos as a singular unified group.

It’s a recurring event that plagues the nation every election year, and it serves as a sad reminder of several truths: the dominance of white non-Latinx journalists, the ignorance Americans have toward non-white communities, and the incredible diversity of Latinos racially, ethnically, and most importantly, as an electorate. But where exactly do Latinos fall in America’s limited system of racial and ethnic categorization?

“Race isn’t in our heads because it’s ‘real,’ race is real because it’s in our heads,” writes Dr. Laura E. Gómez, a UCLA law professor, in her latest book Inventing Latinos: A New Story of American Racism. “We think of race categories as essential and immutable, as reflecting notions of blood, stock, ancestry, and DNA. But they are actually political categories, reflecting the power of one group (whites) to definer other groups as inferior to them, as less than fully human.”

In Inventing Latinos, Gómez explores the foundations and the racialization of Latinos as a homogenous group in the United States in the extreme level of context such a topic requires. Gómez, who is Mexican-American, lays bear the segregation of “Latino subgroups” at the government level which she explains works, ultimately, to uphold white supremacy and how the census has been weaponized to diminish the role and presence of Latinos in the country. Facets of history and “racial sorting” make talking about the Latino vote, if such a vote can exist on its own, more complicated than chalking it up to the age-old “Cubans are afraid of socialism” argument.

Jezebel called Gómez to discuss her book and mine her expertise on the mythical “Latino vote” and how United States Latinos became “Latinos” in the first place. Our interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

JEZEBEL: What triggered your 15-year-long journey into thinking specifically investigating the “racialization of Latinos,” as you refer to it in your book?

DR. LAURA E. GÓMEZ: I grew up in Albuquerque in the 1970s. It was a very segregated society and I found myself around an almost entirely Mexican-American population. But when I went to Harvard it was a different environment—I could see things in my own experience differently. I was, of course, engaging with these people from very different classes and different racial backgrounds, even among Latino students. That was very new to me, meeting Dominicans and meeting Puerto Ricans and even meeting just Latinos from different parts of the country. I was trying to figure out where Mexican Americans fit. And, you know, I took all these African-American studies courses because there were no courses about Mexican Americans or Latinos. So when I moved back to New Mexico [after college] I saw it in a new way.

So in 2007, I wrote Manifest Destinies, which is about the making of the Mexican-American race. It’s about New Mexico’s history, but it’s also about the larger history of the first Mexican Americans who were granted American citizenship when Mexico ceded territory in 1848, and the Treaty of Guadalupe was signed.

I became very adamant that you have to understand the very specific histories of the Latino subgroups to really see things specifically and not in a generic manner. I started thinking about Inventing Latinos not all that long after I wrote Manifest Destinies. And I was realizing that we needed a book that was about the contemporary period but put into a historic context. It’s about the broader dynamics of the racialization of Latinos, because increasingly society has seen us as all the same and to some extent we’re also seeing ourselves that way.

You write in the book that the term “Latino” really only applies within the boundaries of the United States and Latinos weren’t counted as a single group until 1980. How did we go from being nameless to being counted under a single identifier?

Hold on, I need to take a sip of coffee for this one. So I start with the assumption that the United States is is what I call a racial state, and that means that race and racism are at the heart of the United States, and that’s past and present and for what I can tell, in the foreseeable future. Once you have that notion, then it’s like a question of, OK, so how do these different racisms operate toward different groups, and how do the groups even become groups? One of the tools the state has is creating categories or classification systems. In the United States, the census serves a very important function in that it’s a very vivid example of how the state constructs race. It’s not only the way the state does it but it’s also a very tangible thing that we all interact with since we just filled out the 2020 census.

But it’s hard not to draw in the history here. You have that moment in 1848 where Mexicans—you know, mestizos—receive American citizenship. And that’s at a time when U.S. law only allowed white people to become naturalized citizens. So already from the beginning, Mexicans are in this kind of in-between status. Between 1848, when you have the first Mexican Americans, and 1920, there’s not any special category in the census for them. 

And at this time there are no other Latinos in the country. There are no Puerto Ricans yet, and if there were the numbers would be negligible. But then in the 1930 census, the government decides to add it to its classification of race, not only white, not only Black, not only Indian/Native Americans but also Mexican.

What was happening is there was a great economic threat because of the Depression, especially in the Southwest and Western states, so there was a demand for a way to identify Mexicans and to deport them. And at that time, deportation happened at the state and local level. So in the 1930s, you have California and Texas losing, I think, a third of their Mexican-American populations.

OK, so then there is there’s lobbying by Mexican-American leaders and even by the Mexican government, the Mexican consulate, and in 1940, that category goes away. So you still have you have Black, you have white, you have Indian. So remember that at this time the census is conducted by third parties. You don’t fill out your own form the way we do now. Somebody would just go to your house and they wouldn’t ask you what your race is. They would just look at you and put you into a racial category. So it’s entirely possible that Mexicans at the time were getting put into the Native American category or if they were Afro Mexican into the Black category, and so on.

At the same time, we’re also getting significant numbers of Puerto Ricans coming to the mainland. Even though the larger numbers of Puerto Ricans doesn’t happen until after World War II, you do get some significant numbers. In the first two decades of the 20th century, for example, Spanish Harlem is already Spanish Harlem by the 1920s. Which is, you know, early.

The Puerto Ricans were kind of in the same boat as the Mexican-Americans because some were very visibly phenotypically Black and some could pass for white. So we get to the 1960s and there’s not any categorical counting of Puerto Ricans or of Mexican Americans. And remember, in 1960, you would have virtually no Cuban Americans.

The other thing that happens in 1970 is that the census says, OK, we are no longer going to tell you what race you’re in. We’re going to allow you to decide what your own race is by filling out this form. And that’s self-identification, which we really take for granted right now.  

So after the 1970 census, which is the first census where people could count themselves, you see people all of a sudden say they were Native Americans. It’s kind of like that Elizabeth Warren story, right?

Well, basically, Mexican American civil rights organizations and Puerto Rican civil rights organizations are up in arms because there is no way to count us. We’re kind of invisible. But what do you think is happening at that time that’s driving us into that consciousness? The Boricua movement and the Mexican political movement were really modeling themselves on Black civil rights and the Black Power movement.

Oh, right. The Young Lords and all that jazz.

Right, so that generates a really fascinating development. Groups are saying look we’re here, we want to be counted. But that lawsuit actually failed and so that brings us to the 1980 census. There was enough going on in the years prior that the government knew it needed to have a better policy going into the 1980 census, which is where we get the “Hispanic” ethnicity question, whereas Asian-Americans get added into the race question via these different subgroups. And there’s a whole story behind that, which people can read about in the book.

But one of the central arguments I make in Inventing Latinos is that with the 1980 counting of Latinos, it begins to foster a sense of a group. We are a group, we are counted, there are X number of us—and we see how in 2020 it’s become very self-serving.

For example, Latino politicians, right? They want to say, oh, we have this group. We represent this many people, and it creates among Latinos a sense of a kind of commonality, even as we know there are questions and debates about that commonality from the beginning. But now others begin seeing us as a group and we are assumed to be just one group.

But the other thing that the 1980 and 1990 census results did was really fired up a particular kind of right-wing narrative and is best represented by in the book in the conclusion where I talk about Pat Buchanan.

Who exactly is Pat Buchanan, for those of us who don’t know?

Buchanan ran for the Republican nomination for president three times, and he worked for, I think, five different Republican presidents. He wrote these two books and the gist of his books is we’re in danger of losing who we are because there are these hordes of people coming from Mexico who are never going to assimilate. Pat Buchanan kind of presaged exactly what Trump was picking up on. Trump didn’t invent [anti-Latino rhetoric]. It was already there, especially with the conflation of “Mexican” with “illegal.” So that’s why I talk about this critical 40-year period from 1980 to 2020 where Latino becomes a racial category which is how we end up with things like non-Hispanic white and non-Hispanic Black. It’s another way of saying there is this Hispanic category and the government sees somebody that needs to fit into some category.

It’s interesting that you bring up the importance and the changes that came from people starting to be able to self-identify because when I got the census email I started filling it out and I had no idea what to pick after I checked the Latino box. I just sat there, like, shit what am I?

I know. And you know, I talked to so many people who are in exactly your position who are just like flummoxed and they hate it and they’re like, oh, God! And that’s a big part of the story I’m telling. Like my son and I, we always check “Other,” and from that original count in 1980 through 2010, there’s always been between high-30s and mid-40s of a percentage of Latinos who have always chosen “Other.”

So it’s not just me stumbling on that part of the question.

Right. So much for self-identification. When enumerators were taken out of the census everybody else was getting to self-identify—except for Latinos who weren’t really quite Black and who weren’t Native American-born, and so something the government would do is called Hot Decking. That’s when they say OK, if you’re going to put “Other,” what we’re going to do is look at what your neighbors put. So if your neighbors who were also Latino put white or Black, the government would change your answer to either one of the two categories.


Yes, and the understanding from the people who counted the census was, These Latinos are just wrong. They don’t understand the categories, what’s wrong with them? These foreigners just don’t understand race. As opposed to the fact that we were just resisting these limited categories and that’s exactly what we were doing. So what’s expected with these 2020 results? It’s expected that the second largest race in the U.S. will be “Other” this year. And it will be like 98.8 percent Latino. It’s not like other people are saying they’re other, it’s only us.

Was that a pun?

A bit, yes. But you know “Other” just makes sense because it’s not right for me to say that I’m Black, even though I know I have some African ancestry.

As do most Latinos.

Right. And it’s not right for me to say I’m Native American, even though I know I have very significant indigenous ancestry, and I know I don’t live my life as a white person even though I have white privilege in some contexts.

I guess all this sort of brings me to the question of, with all this internal turmoil as a person in the media who is also Latina, how are we supposed to be talking about the Latino vote? Is there even such a thing as a Latino vote?

I think we can talk about the Latino vote. But I think that, in particular, the media and the power structures of the parties, they’re just not doing the work that they need to do to understand what that means, right?

For example, think how far we’ve come in the last 20 years in understanding with more complexity the Black vote. I am so grateful we understand talking about how Black women vote versus Black men, right? That’s something that we didn’t do before, even in this election, we don’t do it enough. Think about all the Black youth under 40 who supported Sanders. That was a huge demographic.

I would like us to be able to talk about the Latino vote in as sophisticated a way as we talk about the white vote. We talk about college-educated whites or non-college-educated whites, whites who live in this region, or that. Whites who are this age or that age, this income of that income. What can’t we do that with groups of color? That is actually entrenched racism.

The entrenched racism is that we don’t treat nonwhite groups the way that we treat whites, and it happens in two ways. One way which is visible right now very much in the terms of the election is that we’re very sensitive to the subtleties among whites. And that’s because who are the journalists? Most of them are white. They are attentive to that because they know that whites don’t think alike. But then sometimes in other situations, it plays out differently where whites just assume that everyone is like them. Right? And that’s the kind of normal business of whiteness. You know, oh, this is just the way people are. But really, they mean white people. So sometimes we talk about, you know, whiteness in this very kind of nuanced way, and other times we don’t talk about it when it’s there.

So how do we bring that kind of nuance to this very tired conversation about the specific Florida Cuban vote as the be-all-end-all of the Latino vote as a whole? Because a lot of people will say that Cubans vote the way they do because, for the most part, they’re really white and that argument just isn’t something that sits well with me for a myriad of reasons.

Yeah, I agree with you. And I used to talk about it as the Ted Cruz problem. Like, is Ted Cruz Latino?

Ugh. No?

Technically, he is. But we have to also understand the idiosyncrasies of Ted Cruz. He has a white mother and a Cuban immigrant father. But he’s married to a white woman. He lives in a white neighborhood, and in the book I contrast that experience with Marco Rubio. 

Marco Rubio’s parents were both Cuban immigrants. They were working-class as opposed to Ted Cruz, whose parents were well-off. Marco Rubio married a Colombian American Latina and you could bifurcate these experiences in all kinds of different ways. But let me tell you this: If you look at that Florida vote, which I last saw a few days ago so it may have changed, but what I saw was that half of Cuban-Americans voted for Biden. Cubans voted for Trump more than any other Latino subgroup, yes, but they still were about where the U.S. is—in other words, they didn’t vote for Trump in the same numbers that whites, white women, and white men voted for Trump.

So what does something like that reflect?

I’m not sure. But I would guess that it reflects age. It may reflect phenotype, as you alluded to before, it may reflect class, but I’m thinking it probably reflects age and generation. The children and grandchildren of that first Cuban immigrant generation are not going to be rabidly anti-Castro. And people have been talking about the Venezuelan vote. Give me a break, that is less than one percent of the Latino population in the US.

There’s something else I wanted to go back to about the census because I think it has a lot to do with what’s happening right now.

By all means, please.

After 2010, when, again, there was this huge number of Latinos who chose “Other,” the census said, you know, we got to do something about that. We’re not going to just sweep this under the rug. We’re not going to put them in another category. We’ve got to take this seriously.

And so they did all of this research over years looking at, what if we change the question this way or that way? What happens to Puerto Ricans? How would they respond and how would Mexican Americans respond and how would Cuban-Americans respond in this city, in this state, whatever. And they did this very careful statistical analysis and they found that if they would do away with the Hispanic/Latino [ethnicity] question and instead have a Hispanic/Latino option on the race question with also that drop down that would say, national origin, all the people who had been “other” were happy to put themselves there as Latino. And so the “other” went down to almost zero.

So now you have a bunch of people who put themselves as white on the census, most of them white Latinos, move into the Latino category and the Black number—about 6 percent of total Latinos in the country self-identify as Black—didn’t change when the Latino category was added. So the white and white self-identified, I call them census white Latinos they went way down and Black Latinos stayed the same, and remember we can check as many of these boxes as we want [in this simulation] so they can say they’re Black and Latino or Native American Latino which is less than 3 percent.

And then census said OK, we’ve tested this thoroughly, this is what we want to do. Now, keep in mind that Trump never appointed a director of the Census Bureau. So the census had to go up to the commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, and say, you know, this is our proposal for 2020. And Wilbur Ross says, no, there’s not enough time to change the census questionnaire.

I think I vaguely remember when that was happening.

But then about a month later, he says, we’re adding a citizenship question. You know, so obviously it wasn’t about timing. Now, the Supreme Court stopped Trump from adding a citizenship question. And that was the summer of 2019. But the damage was done. I’m sure there are some people who did not fill out the census because of it. So now you have the rejection of the Latino race question, you have the effort to add a citizenship question, the failed effort, you have all this nonsense over the last few months in court about the timing, right, you know, first you have the census, the census bureaucrats, the statistician saying, oh, we have to add time to our count because of the pandemic.

You have all of that happening and Trump is really winning. Why is he doing that? He’s doing that so that the census results will be delivered to him in December before the inauguration. Trump [has said] he’s not going to report the number of undocumented persons. So he’s trying another end run against the Supreme Court’s decision that he couldn’t have the citizenship question. And [omitting that information] is trickling down to the state level, where states are considering not counting nonvoters. And undocumented persons, when they decide where the boundaries are of the congressional districts and the state legislative districts [not being counted], affects a state’s reapportionment process. More states will try to do that and there will be legal fights about it. And that’s why the state legislatures if they go Republican again, that’s why it’s really it has those lasting impacts for a decade.

That’s actually a really terrifying thought if things potentially turn in that direction, especially since Trump is probably going to fight the election results.

I mean, totally, totally, yes, but, you know, let’s end with the positive story. The positive story is Arizona. Arizona is now where California was like, you know, 15 years ago in the following way. So in California, we had Prop 187 in 1994. That was an anti-immigrant ballot initiative. It passed with very strong support. It was led by Pete Wilson, who was the Republican governor of the state at the time. And then what happened over time is as Latinos became naturalized citizens and as they aged into citizenship because they were born here that demographic became so significant. And it has shaped so many [voters] to be totally anti-Republican.

Many look back now and they say that was the death knell of the Republican Party in California. So we’re at a point now where you look at the data, 30 percent of Californians vote for Republicans. That’s never going to change. So in Arizona, you had oh, and by the way, Prop 187, a federal judge ruled it unconstitutional. So it never went into effect in California.

In Arizona, you have in 2010 SB 1070, the “show me your papers” bill. And that goes all the way up to the Supreme Court. But the Supreme Court basically kind of does a kind of a halfway thing. So half of it is unconstitutional and half of it isn’t. And the result is that there’s tremendous, tremendous racial profiling against Latinos. Latinos born here, Latinos who are not immigrants, and immigrants who at every stop are asked to show that they’re who they say they are, to prove their citizenship.

Well, Latinos mobilized after SB 1070, and they voted Arpaio out of office. You know, and people forget what was one of the first things Trump did when he was elected, he pardoned Arpaio because Arpaio got it right and Arpaio had been convicted of violating the civil rights of Latinos under this law. And so they voted him out of office. They raise the minimum wage in Arizona. They were organizing at the grassroots. Between 2016 and 2020 they registered more than 600,000 new voters. This is the beginning of the shift for Arizona. You know, if it goes blue, it’s not going back, because the Latinos who live there are not going anywhere.

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Interesting that the professor is from Albuquerque. Many people do not know the history of the Southwest; the professor alludes to it in the article. Before 1848 much of the area was controlled by the Spanish and elite Mexicans, who were and are white. They cut off the hands and feet of my ancestors (I am from a New Mexican Pueblo) and many still make up the elite of the state. Many of the Cubans who vote Republican in Florida are descendants of white Cuban elites who fled when Castro overthrew the US-backed government. Of course they vote Republican. Latino is an overused term that could possibly describe a caste between Anglos and Latinos, but they are not races and both ethnic groups have been colonizers.

I am not Latino so obviously I have no say as to how the term is used, but it seems to be overused, especially as a term for race. My husband’s Latino family is from New Mexico. They have ties to elites in both New Mexico and Texas; his Mexican-American grandfather was in the precursor to the CIA. He went down to Guatemala to begin the US-backed 1954 coup that lead to the genocide of indigenous peoples there. Latinos are not a monolith; painting them all as victims of racism is as unfair as assuming they are all going to vote Democratic.

I don’t want to start a fight between marginalized groups (I realize I may be). It is important to understand, however, that there are groups (indigenous, in my case) who don’t see all Latinos as marginalized. Ted Cruz is certainly Latino. He is not fucking marginalized.