The Latinx Factor: The Death of the Monolith and Other New Media Narratives
2020’s moment of racial reckoning has created a new and different kind of visibility of Latinx in the media, yet in many ways has muddled things further, conflating any layered analysis about what our issues are into an unwanted Biden-Trump binary. The silencing of the Bernie Sanders program has reduced analysis of US Latinx politics to whether they embrace Biden’s moderate defense of fracking and rejection of “socialism” or Trump’s toxic anti-communist masculinity. If there’s an upside to this oversimplified polarization, it’s that the mainstream media has suddenly (and finally) woken up to the diverse, regional spectrum of Latinx political positions; one can wonder whether the succession of unifying labels – Hispanic/Latin@/x will continue to make much sense at all as we enter the 2020s.
Each presidential election cycle brings a new frame to the perennial discussion of the ‘Latinx factor’ in determining who lands in the White House. Four years ago, a key narrative centered on the particularities of the Spanish-language media landscape, where Univision, in contrast to the balkanization of the English-language media world, concentrated considerable viewer attention. Its owner at the time, Haim Saban, maintained close ties to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and pushed accordingly an indignation-driven news narrative to galvanize a fragmented U.S. Latinx constituency. Univision’s recent sale to a private equity firm lead by ex-CEO of Viacom Wade Davis has led to contraction and uncertainty at the network, reducing its news division. With less independent resources to marshal, they’ve often had to follow the English media’s lead. The slack has been picked up by some younger US-born Latinx reporters in the New York Times, LA Times, the Atlantic, Newsweek and Washington Post, who have been busily busting established narratives of the Latinx “Sleeping Giant” by questioning the inevitability of uncritical support for mainstream Democrats, a case that was buoyed by the distance between Bernie and Biden’s respective performance during the primaries.
The myth-busting has opened a healthy dialogue among commentators across the board. But as the campaign wore on, the ideological framework ossified around Biden’s coalition of loyal centrist Democrats and disloyal Lincoln Project Republicans and the conversation has reverted to its usual tropes. Where there was once excitement over the Chuck Rocha-led insurgency in Nevada and California, where militant unionism and a drive for universal healthcare seemed to become core Latinx issues, a quick retrenchment to DNC boilerplate quickly squashed that notion. Despite the fact that Alexandria Ocasio Cortez had become the most visible and dynamic Latinx politician in the nation and spearheaded the Green New Deal, the Democrats quickly closed ranks around an aging brand of pragmatism.
Veteran Latino centrists like Luis Miranda, head of the powerful Latino Victory Fund and the subject of a recent HBO documentary that suggests he is an inspiration for the Broadway play Hamilton, announced the LVF’s endorsement of Joe Biden on February 20th, and DNC chair Tom Pérez (whose ancestry is from the Dominican Republic) was quick to embrace Biden as a unifier when the dust cleared on Sanders’s defeat. Once the battle was set between Biden and Trump, media narratives moved away from what happened out West – where Latinx voters pushed Sanders’ political revolution to its most impressive victories – and began a new process of introspection.
“Latinos Are Not a Monolith” became the mantra, and of course this is true. But instead of examining closely how younger generations of Latinx had been embracing more progressive politics alongside their millennial peers in the West and beyond, or the increasing diversity of Latinx groups in the Northeast, Midwest, and South and how that affected politics, the “difference” between Latinx was narrowed to a binary allegiance to either Biden or Trump. Gerald Cadava’s book The Hispanic Republican, which I reviewed for The Nation, helped drive a conversation among media pundits who long assumed that Latinx, like African-Americans, were universally against Trump, when in fact around 25-30 percent supported him. Who were Latinx after all, they wondered? How could, after all the immigrant-bashing and casual racism and the El Paso massacre, in which the shooter’s rhetoric nearly matched the president’s, Latinos actually go for him? How could it be that the head of the Proud Boys was an Afro-Cuban named Enrique Tarrio? Does it all comes down to an unironic rebirth of macho, or a adherence to entrepreneurialism and religious conservatism, “values” Trump cynically embraces?
Although the “not a monolith” framing forced a much-needed rethink of how Latinx voters are taken for granted – and thereby erased – in mainstream politics, it has become increasingly used as a way to insist that Latinx are Republicans, too, that the ‘bloc’ may be transforming in a conservative direction the way that pundits on the right have been hoping for decades. In reality, most polls show that the hardest core of Latinx Trump support is overwhelmingly in Florida, home to Cuban and Venezuelan exiles who champion anyone willing to talk about overthrowing Castro and Maduro. While there has always been a consistent group of Hispanic voters that leaning in the direction of Republicans, it only flourished beyond the Floridian boundary during Reagan and Bush presidencies. That both executives intentionally used inclusive language and appointed numerous Hispanics to cabinet posts seems critical to their success.
The biggest failure in media analysis of US Latinx in politics has been an inability to grasp how Latinx racial diversity is perhaps a stronger factor than its regional diversity. Latinx Trump supporters are distributed throughout the country, because in every state there is a subset that aspire to whiteness, those willing to embrace the politics of white supremacy as a means to enter cross-class compact of racial privilege; it’s this barbed offering of racial solidarity that best explains their Republicanism, not an exclusive yearning for a 21st century Bay of Pigs. While mainstream commentators fumbled their way to understanding the difference between Mexicans, Caribbean Latinx, and South Americans, Afro-Latinx constituencies demanded visibility from a Latinx mainstream that had a troubling tendency to “other” them.
During the height of the BLM protests, a fissure in the notion of a unified Latinx constituency bust wide open. In The Washington Post, young Afro-Latinx pointed out that a trending hashtag, #LatinosforBlackLivesMatter followed a long-established pattern of erasure. The attempt by “Latinos” to “reach out” to BLM for them implied a lack of recognition of black Latinx, a long-standing issue. The calls to cancel Latinidad as a vehicle for present-day colonialism grew louder and louder, throwing into doubt what the Latinx political constituency even consists of. Perhaps we are entering a bold new BIPOC era, or at least, wholly new imagining of Latinx centering blacks and indigenous folk.
Whatever we call ourselves, there’s a lot of work to be done, even if a Biden victory ultimately forces the neo-fascists to into a temporary retreat. The DNC compromise with the Lincoln Project Republicans seems committed to pack the cabinet with captains of Wall Street; Latinx identity politics, and its attendant media narratives, will not be enough to break that grip.