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The Recall Campaign

Latino Voters Can't Be Treated as a Bloc

Two key recall questions are how much of their support is up for grabs, how many will turn out.

October 01, 2003|Alan Zarembo | Times Staff Writer

Over a plate of barbecued ribs, chicken sausages and red beans at a family reunion in Rosemead last month, Carlos Cabrera, a Republican turned libertarian, is tangling with his brother Jorge, a strident Democrat.

Carlos thinks gubernatorial hopeful Cruz Bustamante is a revolutionary based on his membership in a leftist student group in the 1970s. Jorge, a former member of that organization himself, scoffs at the suggestion.

At the same table, another Cabrera sibling, Patricia Wright, a Republican from Texas, takes offense at her sister Alicia's criticism of President Bush and his handling of the war in Iraq.

"This country is too gross," said Alicia Ayerbe, a 1960s radical.

"That hurts," Patricia replied, dismayed by what she saw as her sister's lack of patriotism.

Meet the Cabreras.

They are three brothers and four sisters, all born in Mexico. Though their family arrived in the United States in 1958 and they all grew up under the same roof in East Los Angeles, it is difficult to find much common thread among their political views.

So it is, to some degree, with Latino voters in general -- despite a popular perception of them as a monolithic voting bloc. Though 70% or so of Latino voters routinely support Democrats, their allegiance is weaker than that of the party's most reliable supporters: blacks and Jews.

With a Latino population growing so rapidly that it has the potential to sway elections, political strategists in the recall election and beyond face two important questions:

How much of the Latino vote is up for grabs?

And more fundamentally, how many Latinos will vote?

The conventional wisdom has been that Latinos are staunch Democrats and will continue to swell the party ranks. In the 1990s, Republicans reinforced that view by supporting ballot measures that many perceived as anti-immigrant.

Republican strategists, though, think they see an opening -- nationally and even in GOP-wary California. As Latino voters move up the economic ladder, these strategists reason, old concerns will likely be overtaken by the desire for upward mobility, a strong Republican theme.

Because of the star power of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the leading Republican, and widespread dismay with Gov. Gray Davis, the recall election result could set "a high-water mark for what Republicans can hope to achieve in California" in the foreseeable future, said Daron Shaw, a political scientist at the University of Texas who consulted for the Bush presidential campaign in 2000.

The latest Times survey suggests he may be right: Of likely Latino voters, about half support the effort to oust Davis, a Democrat.

And although on the second half of the ballot, 54% back Democrat Bustamante, 37% said they plan to vote for one of the top two Republican candidates, Schwarzenegger and Tom McClintock.

That is a greater share of the Latino vote than any Republican has won in California since 1988.

Democrats say the numbers represent nothing more than a peculiar moment in history.

But they have another worry: Latinos tend to vote in relatively low numbers. With less than a week until Tuesday's election, polls suggest that Bustamante has no chance of winning without a high Latino turnout.

"If Latinos don't come out and vote, I will no longer defend my community," said Art Torres, the veteran Latino politician who chairs the Democratic Party in California. "Shame on them for not getting off their sofas and going to the polls."

American Experience

The story of the Cabreras offers one view of the complexity of Latino voters. Their U.S. experiences, rather than their Mexican roots, seem to define how they vote, or whether they vote at all.

In the late 1950s, their father, who had been in California working as a printer, moved his wife and children from their home in Leon to Tijuana. There they waited for visas and worried about how they would fare in the United States. One sister, Connie Soto, remembers Carlos shielding her from camera-toting Americans, telling her, "Get down, the tourists are taking our pictures. They are going to make fun of us when they get back."

But after the family moved, eventually settling on Eastern Avenue in East Los Angeles, the children meshed into the neighborhood. They attended Roman Catholic schools. Some adopted English names. Jorge became George, Concepcion changed to Connie, and Alicia went to Alice.

Their father, Jesus, joined a union. Even before he became a citizen, in the 1960s, he declared his allegiance to the Democratic Party, like the vast majority of blue-collar immigrants.

But it was the era of civil rights and Vietnam, more than the influence of their father, that shaped the children's views. Like many Latinos of their generation, the Cabreras were taught that fitting in meant shedding their Mexican ties and embracing U.S. icons.

"John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King were our heroes," recalled Jorge Cabrera.

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