Hispanic voters are portrayed as strictly Democratic, single-mindedly concerned with immigration reform and willing to vote for any candidate with a Latino-sounding name, writes Esther Cepeda. This portrait is not only imprecise, it is insulting. Latinos are truly independent.

Share story

CHICAGO — It is time to shatter the myth of the monolithic “Latino vote.”

In countless news stories, Hispanic voters are portrayed as strictly Democratic, single-mindedly concerned with immigration-law reform, and willing to vote for a candidate with a Latino-sounding name regardless of the candidate’s stance on policy issues.

This painted-with-the-broadest-possible-brush portrait is not only imprecise, it is insulting. Hispanic voters are a culturally, politically, geographically and demographically diverse group of U.S.- and foreign-born citizens who are just as concerned about the direction of this country’s leadership as other Americans are.

When I’m asked who Latinos are going to vote for, I say “which Latinos?” — there are so many different kinds. There are the naturalized citizens who are recent immigrants from Latin American countries — which have varying ranges of liberal or conservative social norms and political engagement — and those who have been in this country for 20 years or more and might either have a long history of turning out on Election Day or have cast their first vote only recently. Then there are the first- or second-generation U.S.-born Latinos and also those who can trace their ancestors back to the Mexican-American War of the mid-1840s. Their ages range from 18 to 80 and older.

Support for a particular party has gone back and forth between the two major political organizations. Many Latinos feel a natural affinity with conservative and traditional social values and vote Republican — remember George W. Bush’s 34 percent to 44 percent lock on the Latino vote between 2000 and 2004? Today, many Latinos feel Democrats are more responsive to their particular issues.

According to an early October Pew Hispanic Center report, “Latinos and the 2010 Elections,” 65 percent of the registered Latino voters surveyed planned to support the Democratic candidate in their local congressional district, compared with 22 percent for the Republican candidate. But for all we know, this could shift again. After all, “get out the vote” efforts in the Latino community have been primarily run by grass-roots Hispanic and community groups and not financed by either political party. Latinos are truly independent.

In that same report, the top four most important issues for Latinos were education, jobs, health care, and the federal budget deficit. Immigration was fifth on that list — only slightly ahead of the environment and the war in Afghanistan. Yes, as the anti-immigrant rhetoric heats up, rankings will fluctuate, but the fact remains that while immigration is important, it’s not all Latinos ever think about.

Lastly, there’s the ethnic-solidarity issue. It’s an especially hot topic in the races where a Latino candidate with a hard-line anti-illegal-immigrant stance is in the running — Florida Senate candidate Marco Rubio, Nevada gubernatorial candidate Brian Sandoval, New Mexico gubernatorial candidate Susana Martinez. I’ve even heard commentators suggest that Latinos might vote for Rahm Emanuel in the Chicago mayoral election because his name sounds Hispanic.

Martin Cerda, research director of Encuesta Inc., a Florida-based Latino marketing and opinion research company, has picked up on this, too, and told me, “Latino voters are coming of age, they’re not going to be a solid voting bloc, they’re getting wise and will think completely outside the box, picking and choosing the very best candidate for themselves.”

Ben Monterroso, executive director of Mi Familia Vota, a Southwest-based group specifically targeting hard-to-reach and infrequent Latino voters, added: “It is so patronizing how people talk about Latino voters based on a handful of polls. People think Latino voters are not smart — but we are not just going to respond to a Latino name or Spanish-language ads, it’s all about how a candidate has invited us to participate in the elections process. And if they get elected and don’t work with the community, they won’t be back.”

No one engaged in thoughtful conversations about the political passions of the fastest-growing portion of the U.S. population can rely solely on shorthand assumptions. Latino voters step into the voting booth as college kids, white-collar and blue-collar workers, senior citizens and, yes, soccer moms like everyone else.

Sure, Latino voters will always have a cultural affinity with each other, but what truly unites them is their desire to participate in the American political process.

Esther Cepeda’s column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com