Op Ed: 4 Ways The Latinx Community Can Reclaim It's Power

Co-written by Michelle Herrera Mulligan

When it comes to political power, it’s been a hard few years for the Latinx community. First, liberal and conservative pundits either implied or directly blamed our community for the election of Trump, calling us “the biggest losers” of the election cycle, even though the majority of us voted against him. Then, after a series of half-baked promises and assurances, on September 5, Trump opted to end DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), swiftly sentencing 800,000 of our brothers and sisters to a life of unemployment, confusion, and fear of deportation.

If Congress decides to let Trump’s order stand, the losses won't just cost our country billions of dollars in spending power and potential economic growth: It would also be as of Washington's elite were officially writing us off, a quiet “eff you” that says "Your votes don't matter that much, and your money isn't good here."

So what should we do about it? If we ever want to be viewed as political winners, and major power players, again, we need to study how our heroes took our community from “garbage” to badasses in the first place. Just in time for Hispanic Heritage Month, here are four key moves that could capitalize our power in the next six months.

1. Embrace Our Immigrant Roots, Regardless of Documentation

Fifty years ago, the Latino community was considered marginal and “un-American.” In 1954, President Eisenhower launched “Operation Wetback” to deport all undocumented people. Within one year, more than a million Mexican immigrants were deported. The “wetback stain” didn’t just push out those here illegally. Several thousand Mexican Americans, who were then legally required to prove their identity with birth certificates, were also forced to leave. The deportations marked a period of when signs like “No dogs, or Mexicans, allowed” were the norm. But a tide of great change came on its heels.

Around the same time, labor activists César Chávez and Dolores Huerta began organizing workers toward what would formally become the United Farm Workers Union in 1962. In less than a decade, Latinos would go from being regarded as “the greatest peacetime invasion ever complacently suffered by any country” to a power block whose influence was coveted, and feared, by politicians and corporations, alike. At first, concerned with how undocumented workers could undermine unionizing efforts, César Chávez and the United Farm Workers supported stronger border restrictions and embraced nationalism in the Latino community. But by the 1970s, Chávez saw the limitations of this way of thinking, and started fighting for amnesty and a more unified community, writing in a 1974 open letter to the San Francisco Examiner, “the illegals [are] our brothers and sisters.” If activists followed these four rules from history’s playbook, the community could surge in influence.

When polled on key issues, immigration doesn’t even rank in the top three for Latinos. Most of us are U.S. citizens, and some of us even have native roots that go back well beyond the 1848 treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Too many of us want to look down, or away, from those who are struggling in the shadows. But if we don’t join the fight for these vulnerable brothers and sisters, it will cost our community for generations. At its founding in 1929, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) made the fateful decision to restrict its activities to Mexican Americans who were U.S. citizens, profoundly limiting its potential to mobilize the entire Mexican-descent population. When mass deportations of Mexicans—and Mexican Americans—occurred during the Great Depression, LULAC was ineffective in stopping these abuses precisely because it couldn’t mobilize U.S. citizens and Mexican nationals alike. In recent decades, LULAC has become a staunch defender of civil rights, uniting to oppose Trump’s unprecedented raiding of immigrant communities and scoring local political wins in the process. Recently, in partnership with other advocacy groups, the organization prevented the state of Texas from granting daycare licenses to immigrant detention centers attempting to circumvent court rulings regarding the protection of children. Fighting for immigrants’ rights together builds our strength as a community.

2. Wield Economic Power Like a Hammer

Grape boycott

Latino spending power will reach $1.7 trillion by 2020, and that includes significant spending from the undocumented community. The president’s anti-immigrant agenda has already cost the country, with retailers reporting losses in several Latino-heavy areas. We need to leverage our precious resources to shut anti-immigration legislation down.

On September 1, Senate Bill 4 was scheduled to go effect in Texas, at exactly the same time Hurricane Harvey hit. (A federal judge temporarily blocked it on August 30). The law would allow police to stop anyone they deem “looks illegal” and require them to show proof of citizenship. The bill, along with DACA and other immigration crackdown measures, could be our biggest opening yet to take action: Recent estimates of Harvey building and cleanup costs have soared past $150 billion, and the House of Representatives only signed off on $8 billion in aid on September 5. Builders will need immigrant labor, both legal and illegal, to get things done quickly. In August, a report showed that 77 percent of U.S. Builders said they had a shortage of framing crews (66 percent reported a shortage of drywall installation workers).

In these next few critical months, if activists organized labor in protest of the DACA rollback, they could shut down industry in the name of reform. In the 1960s and '70s, when Latinos were only 4.3 percent of the population, no one thought much of marginalized grape pickers in California. But only a few years after the United Farm Workers union founded in 1962, massive “Boycott Grapes” protests and the dangers of pesticide poisoning caught on nationwide, prompting celebrity hunger strikes and draining the agricultural industry. By 1970, unions won contracts and legal protections for workers with some growers. Perhaps more importantly, companies started to fear the site of Latinos organized on the street. When Mexican-Americans boycotted Coors beer in the 1970s and 1980s to fight discrimination, they decimated profits in the Southwest and prompted the corporation to fund the Hispanic Heritage Foundation. Both strikes and boycotts worked best when they targeted a specific brand or product. If organizers targeted desperately needed Latino labor, and they could hashtag their way to major impact.


3. Elect Leaders Locally and Show Political Muscle

Latinos emerged as a voting block at the national level during the presidential election of 1960, when American G.I. founder Hector P. Garcia created ¡Viva Kennedy! clubs across the country to advocate for Latinos against discrimination and gain political power. The influential clubs delivered 85% of the national Latino vote and 91% of Texas Latinos to Kennedy, helping him win by a 0.17% margin in a razor-tight race against Nixon. Since then, Democrats and Republicans made courting Latino voters a priority. (Barack Obama, who would inspire a record turnout by Latinos in 2008, even adopted, and translated, the United Farm Workers catch phrase in his campaign. Si Se Puede. Yes, we can).

But candidates and campaign slogans are not enough. If Latino leaders hope to truly advance the community’s interests, they’ll need to hold elected officials accountable in exchange for their support. When Kennedy didn’t fully deliver for the community, leaders pushed back, prompting Lyndon Johnson to make a stronger effort. In his famous 1965 address to Congress after Bloody Sunday in Selma, he cited discrimination he had witnessed against Latinos and included the community in the Voting Rights Act, along with other efforts to serve the community’s needs. Today’s civic leaders could learn something from early organizers.

After calling Trump a “buffoon” during the 2016 presidential race, U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce president Javier Palomarez joined Trump’s National Diversity Coalition in January, with nothing to show for the community, policy or advocacy wise, in return. On September 5, predictably, he resigned from the Council, writing in a New York Times op ed that it was “now clear that Mr. Trump’s assurances were a lie. The National Diversity Coalition never formally met—a stark sign of the president’s lack of interest…”


4. Leverage our cultural icons

Selena Gomez

In 1969, Carlos Santana mesmerized a crowd of 400,000 at Woodstock with his psychedelic guitar solos, unapologetically blending Latino rhythms, and causes, into his rock fusion sound. While his debut album hit # 4 on the Billboard Charts, he spent his spare time organizing benefit concerts and raising awareness for the UFW. This summer, Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito” challenged the record for longest run on #1 slot of Billboard’s Hot 100 list, in español. If Fonsi, along with other Latino megastars like Selena Gomez, Bruno Mars and Shakira, promoted specific boycotts and political actions on social media, our power would spread like wildfire.

There was a time when attacking us, and immigrant labor, had serious, specific consequences. As a comunidad unida, it’s time for us to stand up and defend our worth.

 John Morán Gonzalez is the Director of the Center for Mexican-American Studies at University of Texas-Austin, and a Public Voices Fellow for The OpEd Project.