Latino in Chief

By: Sergio A. Galeano

Que mal hombre. “What a bad man,” remarked my mother many weeks ago as we watched the news on Telemundo documenting Trump’s callous and hardline approach to the border situation. I responded, with only a hint of sarcasm, that Obama had done the same in 2010, and so did Bush in 2006.

“Don’t say that about Obama.” For my mother, Obama was everything. She was enamored with his charm, his gait, his background, and his message. And so were many other Latinos. Of the 11 million Latinos who voted in the 2008 elections, 67 percent of them casted their vote for him.

Today, Julian Castro is running to be the first Latino president. He certainly isn’t the first Latino hopeful. Republican Ben Fernandez ran for the nation’s top office in 1980. Democrat Bill Richardson, then governor of New Mexico, ran in 2008. In 2016, Marco Rubio traveled around the country to win the Republican nomination. But never has a Latino candidate had such a promising start.

Several decades ago, the thought of a Latino president would have seemed farfetched. Today, it’s more than plausible. Obama’s 2008 victory and subsequent two terms solidified in the American mind the reality and normalcy of having a black and nonwhite president. In addition to an American openness to having a minority president, a confluence of factors lends itself well to making 2020 the best shot a Latino has ever had to run for president.

The 2018 mid-term elections ushered in the youngest and most diverse congress in American history. The result of a more inclusive and progressive agenda, it was reflected both in American mainstream culture and the Democratic Party. Further, if Trump’s election was in fact a wildly conservative rejoinder to America’s first black president, as many have stipulated, Castro’s campaign could very well attempt to capture and represent the progressive comeback against racism, misogyny, xenophobia and every anti that comprises Trump’s crude lexicon and agenda.

In Trump, Castro can find the perfect villain. The president’s racist and ethnically insensitive views have fired up Hispanic voters. The Pew Research Center finds that more than at any other time before, Latinos have serious concerns about their place in America under Trump, with many fearing that they or someone they know could be deported.

A progressive wave in the American electorate, further fueled by the racist and white nationalist undercurrent that Trump represents, have presented an opportune time for a Latino presidential hopeful to claim the liberal mandate, and appeal to Latinos and the country at large.

Castro has a lot going  for him. He was raised in a Spanish-speaking home by Mexican parents, one of which was a Chicana political activist. He was educated at Stanford and Harvard, and in San Antonio was the city’s youngest council member, and later, its youngest mayor-elect in history. Additionally, he  served a comfortable stint on Obama’s cabinet.  It also doesn’t hurt that his family namesake no longer spearheads an old Cold War rival nation in the Caribbean.

But the vote won’t come easy to Castro. Latinos are not a homogenous group. Many identify with their country rather than with all Latinos. Aside from language and colonialism, they do not share a common narrative that a candidate can appeal to. Their relationship with the United States is also different across the region. Mexicans were on US soil before it was won over by the gringos in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848.  Cubans started coming over after World War II, and especially after the revolution in 1959. Central Americans started coming in large numbers in the 1980s. Throughout the nation, there are Latinos whose identities span across countries in the western hemisphere.

Oh, and nearly a quarter of Latinos in this country are Republicans, including the majority of the population in Texas, Castro’s home ground, a state that Democrats haven’t won since 1976.

The Latino electorate has historically trailed other ethnic groups at the ballot box. Yet it is projected that by 2020, there will be 32 million eligible Latino voters, making it the largest nonwhite share of voters in American history. Although immigration played a role in the 2016 election, then candidate Marco Rubio was never able to emphasize his race or play it to his advantage. While many Republican strategists hoped that Rubio would galvanize the Latino vote, his party’s platform stifled his comfort and ability to do so. But the times have changed. And more significantly, Castro isn’t limited by his party’s platform. Coming from a republican dominated state, a traditional Latino background and riding on a progressive wave against the Trump administration, Castro has a strong strategic chance of mobilizing the Latino vote in the 2020 election. 

Castro’s competition is fierce, and every candidate vying for the Democratic nomination will have plenty of ammunition to use against Trump. Appealing to Latinos as a Latino candidate is one thing. Appealing to the nation at large as a strong candidate who happens to be Latino is another.

But 2020 is certainly the best shot a Latino has ever had to run.