From Cesar Chavez to the Denver Debate: Mexican-American Voters Finally Have Their Say

Fifty years to the week after Chicano activist Cesar Chavez put Mexican Americans on the political map, their long-overdue electoral clout will be felt at Wednesday night's presidential debate

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Arthur Schatz / Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images

Legendary Chicano civil rights activist Cesar Chavez in 1968

Last year, when Cuban Americans observed the 50th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs invasion against Fidel Castro’s regime, the rest of the U.S. was in on it. Over the past half-century, in fact, the Cuban community has been remarkably successful at keeping its anticommunist struggle in the American imagination. That, and the fact that it produces high voter turnout in the critical swing state of Florida — whatever your opinion of Cuban exiles, they take their civic duty seriously — have conferred inordinate political clout on Little Havana.

By contrast, few people in the U.S. know that an important Mexican-American milestone was observed on Sunday: the 50th anniversary of the founding of the National Farm Workers Association in California by the legendary Chicano civil rights activist Cesar Chavez. Like the bravery displayed at the Bay of Pigs, the heroism involved in the creation of the NFWA ought to resonate especially loudly today, since immigration and the low-wage agricultural labor it’s often associated with, most of it from Mexico, have become a focal point of America’s political debate. But you’d be hard-pressed to find many people inside the Beltway who were even aware of the anniversary of Chavez’s union (which has since been folded into the United Farm Workers), let alone commemorated it. Compared with the Cuban-American lobby, Mexican-American voters often seem as invisible to Washington as a Oaxaca migrant scampering over the nighttime desert.

(PHOTOSHarvesting Labor Rights: Chavez’s UFW At 50)

That finally looks set to change in November. For once, as TIME’s Michael Scherer forecast earlier this year, Mexican Americans — who account for two-thirds of the Latino community, the U.S.’s largest minority group, and are gravely concerned about immigration reform — may prove a more important voting bloc than Cuban Americans. The key factor won’t just be their sheer numbers, although they’re enormous: while Cuban Americans represent less than 5% of the Latino electorate, Mexican Americans, who also refer to themselves as Chicanos, represent about 60% of it. But what makes the difference this year is that Mexican Americans are carrying that weight in battleground states, particularly western turf like Colorado and Nevada, that could be just as, if not more, swingin’ than Florida.

It’s appropriate, then, that the first presidential debate, on Wednesday night, will be held at the University of Denver. Latino voters are projected to make up a tenth of the Nov. 6 vote, and it’s no secret that Republican candidate Mitt Romney is in a hole with them that’s as deep as the U.S.-Mexico border is wide. Last week’s ImpreMedia/Latino Decisions tracking poll showed President Obama with a near 3-to-1 advantage among Hispanics, 69% vs. Romney’s 24%. Much of Romney’s abysmal showing has to do with the hard-line immigration stance he adopted to get nominated (not that Obama has done much for immigration reform, either), and the Denver debate will be a reminder of it. Latinos make up 13% of Colorado’s electorate, and 75% of the state’s Latino population is Mexican American. That’s a big reason 87% of Colorado Latinos said during the 2010 mid-term elections that immigration was the most or one of the most important issues.

It was also the deciding factor that year when incumbent Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, a Democrat, confounded many pundits by fending off a strong Tea Party challenge — and it was hefty help to Obama in 2008, when he got 61% of the Colorado Latino vote and won the state. In Nevada, where Obama and Romney are in a neck-and-neck race, 15% of the electorate is Latino and 78% of the Latino population is Chicano. Obama has a 62%-to-36% lead there among Latinos that could ultimately spell the difference in a state whose economy has been one of the nation’s hardest hit.

(MORE: Obama and Romney Finally Court Latinos – and Latin America)

Even in the GOP bastion of Arizona — where Mexican Americans led the drive for statehood in the early 20th century before conservative whites came to dominate its politics — Obama is within surprising striking distance of Romney, thanks to the fact that 30% of the population is Latino, as are 18% of the voters. Arizona’s Latino bloc is overwhelmingly Mexican American — and the state’s draconian new immigration laws, as well as a legislative campaign to boot Chicano studies from schools, have pushed it just as overwhelmingly into Obama’s camp.

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The caveat for both parties, of course, is registration and turnout, the historical banes of the Mexican-American vote. In New Mexico, for example, Latinos, just about all of whom are of Mexican origin, represent almost half the state’s population but accounted for less than a third of its voter turnout in 2010. Still, as the New York Times noted on Sunday, that situation could improve significantly in 2012. (The state is considered a lock for Obama.)

All of which points to a breakthrough for Chicanos this year, especially if Obama, their preferred candidate, wins. But either way, the new clout is vindication for a community too long disregarded in this country (which, in fairness, is also due to historically ineffectual Mexican-American political leadership, Chavez being an exception). After chafing under labels like illegal aliens and wetbacks, Chicanos have finally emerged as swing voters as influential as Cubanos. That was underscored last month when two Mexican Americans — María Elena Salinas and Jorge Ramos, co-anchors at the Spanish-language Univision network and two of the U.S.’s best journalists in any language — grilled Obama and Romney on America’s immigration debacle, and when Democratic San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro became the first Chicano to deliver the keynote address to a national political convention.

Just as significant were remarks made this year by Cuban-American Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican once touted as a Vice President pick for Romney. Rubio likened the humanitarian plight of undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to that of Cuban refugees fleeing Castro. For Chicanos, who have long resented the preferential immigration treatment that Washington accords Cubans, it was a watershed acknowledgment — the kind that Cesar Chavez, for all his influence, could only have dreamed of 50 years ago.

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