On Wednesday the country woke up to the fact that a sizable portion of Latinos liked President Trump enough to help him clinch a victory in Florida. And a CNN exit poll suggested that Mr. Trump picked up more Latino voters in several other key battleground states compared to his numbers in 2016.
Many people were surprised, but they shouldn’t be. In 1984, 37 percent of Latinos voted for Ronald Reagan; 40 percent voted for George W. Bush in 2004. It would be easy to dismiss these voters as self hating, or racists. But that’s a simplistic way of viewing this wildly diverse and complex demographic.
The reason the “Latino vote” befuddles is because it doesn’t exist, nor do “Latino issues.” If we want to understand how Latinos vote, we should start by retiring the word “Latino” entirely — and maybe “Hispanic,” too, a term first used by the United States government in the 1970 census that is based solely on the language native to the European settlers who conquered the Americas. These labels have served only to reduce us to a two-dimensional caricature: poor brown immigrants who always vote Democrat.
Latinos, like all Americans, are motivated by the issues that affect them directly. Those can vary depending on factors like our religion, where we grew up, whether we are first generation or our ancestors lived in North America long before the United States existed. Many Democrats act as if Latinos care only about immigration policy. In fact, a recent survey by UnidosUS, an advocacy group, and Latino Decisions, a polling and research firm, found that Latinos are more concerned about jobs and the economy.
Journalists and pundits who have spent some time in Latin America or interviewed a few Spanish speakers (and now fancy themselves experts) have suggested that machismo, and a desire to be closer to whiteness, is what drove these voters to support the man who promised to build a wall to keep caravans of Spanish-speaking brown people out. That may be true, but it’s far from the whole story.
I’m a Cuban-American from Miami, and I’m not surprised that around 52 percent of Cuban-Americans in Florida voted for Mr. Trump. No one who was paying attention could be. In the weeks leading up to the election, Cubans in Miami composed a salsa song in support of Mr. Trump and organized Trump caravans hundreds of cars long.
It may sound ridiculous, but some of those voters are genuinely afraid of socialism, and he leaned into that. “We will never have a socialist country,” he promised. He understood that for Cubans and Venezuelans, the word is a reminder of the dysfunctional governments they left behind.
It didn’t matter as much to them that the punitive sanctions Mr. Trump imposed on Venezuela did nothing to dislodge an oppressive dictator, or that rolling back parts of President Barack Obama’s thaw on Cuba has only made things harder for families like mine back on the island. They cared that Mr. Trump delivered on his promises.
He kept his promise on the courts, too. The three conservative judges he nominated most likely mattered to evangelical Latinos in Central Florida who care deeply about issues like abortion. In return, many of these voters, like others, could overlook his questionable morals or autocratic tendencies.
Though many Cuban-Americans benefit from the Affordable Care Act, many also own or work in small businesses. They cheered the removal under Mr. Trump of the Obamacare requirement that most Americans have health insurance or pay a fine. Michael Binder, a University of North Florida pollster, noted that business owners liked Trump’s message that the coronanvirus pandemic was “rounding the turn.”
Protecting your interests is classic American individualism.
Finally, maybe part of the appeal of a leader like Mr. Trump is that he feels familiar. I was parsing the results with Ariana Diaz, a Venezuelan friend living in the United States, the day after the election. “We come from a place where there hasn’t been a working democracy in at least 20 years,” she said. She wondered if perhaps that’s why Venezuelan voters were more susceptible to his message. They’re not the only ones. Many people who lived under the brutal governments foisted upon Central America in the 1980s vote Republican, and consider Reagan a hero.
Mexican-American voters in Zapata County in Texas also helped Mr. Trump hold onto the state. But of course plenty of so-called Latinos did vote for Mr. Biden. In Wisconsin and New Mexico, they helped him win. While the votes are still being tallied, Latino activists and grass roots political organizations may also help him win Nevada and Arizona.
But Mr. Biden spent little time and resources on outreach to Latino voters. This is also not new. Most campaigns court our vote only every two or four years. They assume we all speak Spanish, look the same and vote the same. Only one Senate candidate, Ben Ray Luján, a Democrat who won his bid for the U.S. Senate in New Mexico, had a Latino campaign manager or senior consultants on staff, according to the political consultant Chuck Rocha.
This isn’t just about how politicians woo some voters while taking others for granted; it’s also about how the news media sees and reports on these groups. At a social event a few years back, a fellow journalist introduced me to a friend as someone who rose from being a custodian to a self-taught journalist and master’s degree candidate. But I’d never been a custodian. It was as if she was shocked that someone like me could do something other than clean.
The language society uses doesn’t just shape the national narrative, it ascribes an identity independent of who we are. “Audre Lorde said that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” Nathalie Nieves, the president of the New York chapter of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists told me. “One of those tools includes language and the way the media continues to refer to us as Latino or Hispanic.”
If I’m totally honest, I only learned I was a Latina in the last few years. I still don’t know what that means. Growing up, I thought of myself as Cuban, or maybe Caribbean. Eventually, I became a citizen and thus a Cuban-American. These days I think of myself as an American.
I will not fit neatly into the “Latina” box others want to put me into. While my culture may be a prism through which I view the world, it doesn’t guarantee that I will identify with or vote like other Cuban-Americans, let alone other Latinos. Mr. Trump understood that. Hopefully Democrats do now, too.
Isvett Verde (@isvettverde) is a staff editor in the Times Opinion section.
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