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The overlooked Latinos

Multigenerational U.S. citizens with little or no contact with Latin America are a part of the population largely overlooked by politicians.

October 20, 2012|By Hector Becerra, Los Angeles Times
  • Bertha Gallegos is one of many Latinos in states like Colorado and New Mexico who can trace their roots back hundreds of years in the American Southwest.
Bertha Gallegos is one of many Latinos in states like Colorado and New Mexico… (Hector Becerra, Los Angeles…)

PUEBLO, Colo. — Like many Latinos in Colorado, Earl Payne can trace his lineage to Spaniards who came to the New World more than 400 years ago. With his surname, light complexion and sandy brown hair now gone gray, the commercial loan officer never much felt the sting of discrimination of some of his forebears, like his brown-skinned, World War II vet father.

Like his four brothers and sisters, he graduated from college and found success, as did his children. But he also grew up poor and remembers summers picking crops with his siblings for $1.40 an hour. Those memories are one reason he can't vote Republican, he said.

"I think the Democratic party is more geared toward low-income and middle-income individuals, trying to help people get ahead the way I got ahead through education," said Payne, 59. "Romney said if you need to go to college, get a loan from your parents. That wasn't possible for us growing up. We were a very poor family."

Payne is part of a largely overshadowed swath of the Latino experience — multigenerational U.S. citizens who have little or no recent connection to Latin America.

The U.S. Latino population now exceeds 50 million, with more than 60% born in the United States. Many go back three generations or more, meaning they do not have immigrant parents or grandparents.

Politicians can't reach these Latino voters only through Spanish-language ads, appearances on Univision or Telemundo, or by sprinkling speeches with Spanish, as members of both parties did during this year's political conventions.

Census and election data suggest that those who go back at least three generations — a large proportion of Latinos in Colorado — may vote at lower rates than immigrants who became U.S. citizens and their second-generation children, said Mark Hugo Lopez, associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center.

Some experts suspect that voter-turnout efforts might disproportionally target the first two generations, which are more closely tethered to a hot-button issue like illegal immigration.

"One theory is the political conversation is not addressing the need of U.S. citizen Latinos who were born here and are multigenerational, for which immigration is not a personal issue to be resolved," said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

Leading Republicans, including Karl Rove, Jeb Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, have warned about alienating Latinos with harsh rhetoric over illegal immigration, but Colorado is a reminder that the Republicans' problem with this group goes well beyond that issue.

Latinos are a primary reason that the state remains a hotly contested battleground. President Obama is polling slightly stronger here — upward of 70% — than among Latinos nationwide.

Payne said that voting Republican, for him, would be akin to voting for cuts to education, healthcare and social programs that helped him when he was growing up.

At Christ the King Lutheran Church in suburban Denver, where she helps lead weekly meetings of the Colorado Society of Hispanic Genealogy, Bertha Gallegos put it more bluntly.

"I still don't get how Hispanics can be Republicans. The only time they're nice to us is when they want our vote," said Gallegos, 80, who describes herself as pro-life and Catholic. "Republicans work to make the rich richer. They don't care about the poor."

Resurgent Republic, a conservative think tank and polling operation, concluded from a survey in Colorado, Florida and New Mexico that Republicans had to increase their share of the Latino vote to "remain competitive in future national elections in states with significant Hispanic populations," many of which are now battlegrounds.

Romney said as much during a controversial recorded conversation at the Florida home of a donor: "If the Hispanic voting bloc becomes as committed to the Democrats as the African American voting bloc has in the past, why, we're in trouble as a party and, I think, as a nation."

William Howell, president of the Northern Colorado Hispanic Republicans, said trying to persuade Latinos to join the GOP was paramount. A retired Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy and third-generation Mexican American, Howell moved to Colorado nine years ago. Latinos share many conservative values with Republicans, he said, but changing minds won't be easy.

"Even my mom would be turning in her grave if she found out what I was doing right now. Seriously. She was a hard-core Democrat," Howell said. "The real work is going to start not before the election but after the election. One of the things I try to tell people is that regardless of what happens, we'll be there for them after."

For many Latinos whose families go back many generations, illegal immigration evokes mixed feelings, and frames broader questions about social class and the political parties.

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