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LALSA conference keynote Reyes: Latino constituency overlooked, not a sleeping giant

February 02, 2012

By Jenny Chung C’12


Members of the Penn Law community convened this month for the Latin American Law Students Association’s (LALSA) annual conference, titled “Beyond the 2010 Census: Harnessing the Power of the Latino Community.” Inspired by the national dialogue in the wake of the 2010 census on the influence and potential of the growing Latino population, this year’s conference examined how the expansion of the Hispanic community can be converted into a political and economic force. 

IMG_0111.jpgThe keynote address was delivered by Raul A. Reyes, an attorney and columnist who writes on issues relevant to the Latino community. A third-generation Mexican-American, Reyes’ work has explored—among countless other topics—how the question of racial and ethnic identity has impacted Latinos in the U.S. and the harsh realities faced by Latino youth. 

Reyes opened by extending his condolences to Thomas A. Saenz, President and General Counsel of the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who was unable to deliver the keynote due to a death in the family. “Saenz is a role model of mine—he was involved in some of the most important civil rights legislation over the years and numerous cases in immigrants’ rights, education, employment and voting rights,” Reyes said, naming Saenz a “true Hispanic hero.”

He proceeded to enumerate and evaluate the challenges Latinos continue to confront within the current political system. “Due to demographics and the digital age, the Latino electorate have matured faster than the parties and candidates realize,” Reyes said. “But they’re still using moves from old playbooks because they don’t get us.”

According to Reyes, the prevailing conception of the Latino constituency as a “sleeping giant” is wildly inaccurate. “Pundits would wonder when we were going to ‘wake up’…my parents have been voting all their lives,” Reyes observed. He added that one of the “first” and “proudest” acts performed by recent immigrants is that of registering to vote. “We’ve never been ‘sleeping’—just overlooked until the numbers finally made that impossible.”

Due to the relative youth of the Latino population and its inclusion of a body of undocumented residents, Reyes said, many would-be members of the Latino electorate are ineligible to vote. Nevertheless, he maintained, demographics have heightened the importance of Latino voters in each successive election.

According to Reyes, twelve million Latinos will vote in the 2012 election, marking a twenty-five percent increase since 2008. Further, because swing states often have sizeable Latino populations, he said, “Latino voters could well determine who is the next occupant of the White House.”

In spite of such incentives to engage Hispanic voters, however, politicians have not yet begun to practice effective methods of “Hispanic outreach.” Such attempts, Reyes said, currently entail little more than translating campaign websites into Spanish—“overlooking the fact that Latinos are statistically the least likely group to have a home computer”—and airing commercials on Univision and Telemundo. Because the core viewers of both channels tend to be recent immigrants who cannot vote, he explained, the advertisements are unsuccessful.

Reyes emphasized the necessity for politicians to acknowledge the existence of two distinct Hispanic communities: the immigrant community, consisting of new arrivals and first-generation Americans, and the “more assimilated” community. “The latter group is the target for political parties, but they’re sending messages and resources to the immigrant market,” he said. “Until this distinction is recognized they’re going to continue to struggle to reach Latino voters.”

In Reyes’ view, it is likewise imperative that politicians cease to view illegal immigration as the issue of foremost concern to Latino voters, who—like other Americans—are most invested in jobs, the economy and education.

“What concerns Latinos most is our 11 percent unemployment rate, higher than the national average,” Reyes said. “Latinos were disproportionately affected by the foreclosure crisis, hardest hit in the recession and slowest to recover, and have dropout rates triple those of whites and double those of African-Americans…but the major political parties still think a major Latino issue is immigration.”

He also pointed out that, contrary to beliefs held by the political establishment, Latinos are no longer ethnic voters who invariably gravitate toward Latino candidates.

Reyes named Latina magazine as a compelling model of how best to engage a broad cross-section of the Latino community. With three million subscribers to its print edition and over one million monthly page views, Reyes said, Latina offers “a case study political parties should examine because it shows it is indeed possible to address and engage with Hispanics on a national level.”

 

He further identified social media as a necessary but as yet absent component of the Latino community’s relation to the political structure and an optimal way to reach young Latino voters. “Only when we’ve made voting an integral part of our civic lives—that’s when we’re truly going to advance,” Reyes said, concluding the keynote by challenging his audience to register non-voters.

IMG_0049.jpgThe first of the day’s two panels, Growing Tomorrow’s Economy: Understanding the Latino Impact on the Marketplace, featured authorities in fields ranging from commerce to consumer advocacy. The next panel, 2012: Capturing the Latino Vote, followed with a discussion between experts in marketing, politics and political science concerning potential approaches by which the influence of the Latino constituency can be mobilized in the upcoming presidential election.