According to some segments of American society, there is a distinct racial grouping known as Latinos. It has become conventional wisdom that 52 million of our fellow Americans share a unique identity and culture and that, for better or worse, they are going to drastically change our society and politics.
But there are over 20 Latin American countries, comprising almost 700 million people. Each has a unique history. They do not comprise a single racial or ethnic category. In some Mexican states, such as Oaxaca, almost 30 percent of people have African ancestry. Other progenitors of Mexican people brought over by colonists include people from the Philippines, Indonesia and China. This is also true of Colombia, Brazil and Peru. The term Latinos also subsumes the thousands of indigenous groups that made Latin America their home before the Europeans arrived. Indigenous blood courses through most Latinos’ veins, along with that of Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and British conquistadores, adventurers, missionaries and settlers.
Latin American nations later experienced waves of immigration from all over the map. While Brazil has the world’s biggest population of people of Japanese heritage outside the Land of the Rising Sun, it also became home to newcomers from Italy, Germany and Eastern Europe during the nineteenth century. Chile welcomed many migrants from Germany and England, while Argentina drew émigrés from Italy. Jews fleeing first the pogroms and later the Holocaust settled in Mexico, Venezuela, Argentina and Uruguay. The Lebanese diaspora has made important contributions to the politics and economies of various Latin American countries. Mexico’s first democratically elected president, Vicente Fox, was the son of German and Spanish immigrants; Argentine president Carlos Menem’s parents were from Syria; Alberto Fujimori, former president of Peru, is of Japanese ancestry.
But what do Latinos who come to the United States want? For one, they don’t want to return to the problems they are fleeing from. In Mexico, criminal gangs and drug lords predate on the less fortunate—such as the avocado farmers in Michoacán, who have been forced to leave their land fallow and flee to the US—they kidnap and maim children; they rape, murder and steal. They kill journalists with impunity. This is also happening in Central America and parts of South America. It is one of the reasons behind the major migrations to the United States that took place in 2018–19. Since the onset of the pandemic, gang violence has worsened in Mexico and elsewhere and living conditions for average people south of the border have deteriorated.
Recent Latin American immigrants are aware of the chaos and violence that bedevil their home countries and many yearn for stability, peace and prosperity. They don’t look to identity politics and revolutionary change as answers to their problems; they seek pragmatic solutions and a better life for themselves and their children, centered on hard work and education. Many Latinos fled oppression and poverty—or their parents did—and they are keenly aware of what has happened in Venezuela, where a repressive self-styled socialist dictatorship has destroyed the economy and caused widespread starvation, transforming one of the most prosperous countries in Latin America into a basket case. Millions of Venezuelans of all social classes have fled, including tens of thousands who decamped to Southern Florida. Phenotypically, they run the gamut from dark to pale skinned, as do those of Southern Florida’s Cuban diaspora. Both groups are understandably scared of political and cultural revolutions.
Then there are people of Mexican descent who have been living in the US for generations. They are not Latinos in their own eyes, but Americans. From Laredo, Texas to Santa Fe, New Mexico, there are hundreds of thousands of Hispano people who descended from settlers from New Spain, an empire that stretched into Washington State before there was a country known as Mexico—or one known as the United States, for that matter. They are not members of some undifferentiated mass or voting bloc. In the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas, President Elect Biden performed substantially worse than Hillary Clinton. These folks are not into woke cultural politics. They don’t want to defund the police or reinvent society. A lot of them work for the Border Patrol. They tend to favor only the legal variety of immigration. They want to put food on their tables. That does not mean that they are hidebound conservatives—they will eagerly vote for Democrats when that party’s message agrees with their values and interests.
I cannot speak for all Latinos, but my hunch is that most want to be treated as unique, complex individuals—as all human beings do. We are all different. Some of us voted for Trump because his message resonated with us as citizens or Americans. Some of us have been outspoken critics of his administration. We aren’t victims, heroes or saints. We just want to be treated like everybody else. What the lack of a unified Latino vote in the 2020 elections showed is that we will not let well-meaning white liberals reduce us to a newfangled category that is convenient to them and condescendingly tell us that we are now Latinx and should think and vote in the way they dictate.