EDITOR’S NOTE: The opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Latino USA.
Donald Trump launched his presidential bid in June of 2015 by calling Mexicans “rapists” and throughout his campaign, evoked countless other negative stereotypes as the justification for his border wall and restrictive immigration policies. Since Trump has taken office last January, U.S. policies toward the Latino community has oscillated between cruel indifference and vilification.
On Monday, President Trump ended the Temporary Protection Status program granting provisional residency to El Salvadorans after previously ending the same special visa program for Haitians and Nicaraguans in November 2017. Last September, the Trump administration revoked President Obama’s executive order on DACA and attempted to end Obamacare, which insures a record-breaking 6.2 million Latinos. Trump also pardoned Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, after his conviction for racially profiling the state’s Latino residents, paving the way for Arpaio to announce his candidacy for U.S. Senator on earlier this week. And when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, Trump bragged about a low death count that could possibly be over 1,000 people.
When it comes to Puerto Rico, the administration added insult to injury by: 1) refusing an initial waiver of the Jones Act (and in so doing, impeding the flow of aid) and once granted, allowing the waiver to expire after 10 days; 2) giving Puerto Rico virtually nothing of a $44 billion disaster relief bill; and 3) signing a bill loaning, rather than granting, the already debt-riddled island $4.9 billion. Each of these indignities took place alongside President Trump’s continued insinuations that Puerto Ricans are lazy. The Trump administration’s behavior towards Puerto Rico highlights the differential treatment of Latino Americans at a time when hate-incidents, nativism, and Nazism are on the rise.
Though in 2016 many were dismayed by a perceived lack of turnout among Latino voters, Latino voter registration outpaced that of other demographic groups. Stories painting Latino Americans as disengaged and politically apathetic disregard the nearly 400 voting restrictions passed across the U.S. since 2011 that intentionally make it more difficult for people of color to vote. Despite the challenges we face in terms of voter suppression, Latino Americans are demonstrating our activation and unity in other ways.
For example, in 2017 we invested in our own stories. Studies show when populations experience inequitable modes of cultural and political belonging, we purchase goods to assert our sense of cultural citizenship and demonstrate our affiliations to one another. Mandalit del Barco, an arts correspondent for NPR, suggested the current political climate’s hostility toward Latino people may be one factor driving the success of Coco, Pixar’s latest animated film rich with allusions to families separated by borders, customs officials, and immigration laws.
Like del Barco, I believe consumer trends should be viewed with attention paid to the social and cultural conditions surrounding them. The commercialization of cultural symbols often coincides with laws dictating who belongs and who is excluded from citizenship. It’s no wonder, then, that an enduring symbol of Latino resistance, Frida Kahlo, experienced commercial peaks at times corresponding with spikes in American nativism and, having experienced a commercial resurgence, is currently ubiquitous in Latino pop-culture.
Fridamania took off in the 1980’s with the beginnings of the “English Only” movement. A play about Kahlo’s life and art was scheduled to tour Puerto Rico October through November of 2017, prior to the hurricanes. Just as the iconography of Kahlo traveled across the Atlantic to surge in Puerto Rico, so too have Latinos across the mainland supported Puerto Rico in a post-Maria landscape. These cross-cultural supports signify an understanding that Latino Americans —despite oceans, borders, and cultural differences— are proud to stand together.
Some argue the idea of a “pan-ethnic” Latino identity over-emphasizes our shared language, colonial histories, and histories of immigration at the expense of homogenizing the diverse and painting us as a monolith. I believe the ways Latinos are supporting our art and stories during this hike in nativism speaks to a growing sense of unity among us—a unity that if harnessed as political cohesion can become an immeasurable tool for good. Our voices are needed now more than ever—with Congress passing a short-term budget measure that did not include funding for Puerto Rican relief, nor an extension for DACA, it’s clear that issues affecting Latino Americans are not a priority for our Congress.
Puerto Rico’s residents do not have a voting member of Congress and cannot vote during the presidential elections, but with many of us flocking to the U.S. mainland (over 200,000 of us have arrived in Florida, alone, since Hurricane Maria), we can become an equally important political force. In other words, don’t discount Latino pride: if the relationships between nativism, Latino American consumer support, and Latino political cohesiveness hold true, come 2018 we can demonstrate our strength through unity.
Lauren Lluveras is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis, housed at the University of Texas at Austin and is a Public Voices Fellow with the Op Ed Project.