‘Latino identities in the American political world’ by Angel Saavedra Cisneros
'Latino identities in the American political world' by Angel Saavedra Cisneros
The 2012 presidential election yet again reaffirmed the enormous gap that exists between America’s non-Hispanic whites and the rest of the population. African Americans, Latinos and even Asian Americans supported Obama’s 2012 bid by at least 70%. While pundits have scrambled to attempt to explain why it is that Democrats enjoy such a lead when it comes to minority voters, political science research has established that group identity (Conover, 1984), consciousness (Sanchez 2007), linked fate (Dawson, 1995) and acculturation (Branton, 2007) are all forces that shape minority and immigrant group attitudes and partisanship. How these social identities are translated into political ones has been the subject of much academic work (See Political Psychology’s 2001 symposium on Political Identity), nonetheless one of the failures of even recent research on minority and diversity politics has been to acknowledge the existence of multiple and fluid identities within individuals that coexist and change in political salience.
The concept of multiple identities is not new and raises the importance of context when exploring the impact of groups and identities on politics. Nonetheless, the literature on immigration, race and acculturation has tended to focus on a dichotomy that ignores multiculturalism and assumes the result of the “American melting pot” of ethnicities and culture must always be a standard hot dog flavor.
Possibly one of the greatest disservices to newcomers to the study of Latino political identities is to expose them to Sam Huntington’s “Who are we? The challenges to America’s national identities.” From this point of view, there is only one way to become a true American, by speaking English, cooking Turkey with stuffing and gravy and topping it with cranberry sauce on Thanksgiving and by praying to a Judeo-Christian god. This idea of a single-culture America no longer makes sense in a world that is increasingly interconnected, where transnationalism is an emerging phenomena and where speaking more than one language is seen as indispensable for success in many professions.
Latinos are often talked about as an issue public, focusing on issues such as immigration and bilingual education. To some, it might be surprising that support for bilingual education is a contentious issue based more on identity and ideology than on the promise of creating a multi-lingual environment for children in American schools. Students of Latino politics easily recognize the issue-public approach as a misconception since Latinos are as American as all the other people living in this country when it comes to economic concerns, war, or natural disasters. Latinos however are still the face of immigration debate in the United States, showing how Latinos can shift from group-based to individual concerns depending on the context.
Less recognizable is the importance of multiple identities for Latinos living in this country. Earlier this year, an interesting event occurred in the London 2012 Olympics. Leonel Manzano raced from the back of the pack to claim a silver medal in the 1,500m race. After the race, his ran around the track carrying the red white and blue flag that matched the USA on his running bib, but he also carried a red white and green with an eagle devouring a snake in the middle (see the image here). This gesture went mostly unnoticed by the mainstream but was commented about in Latino circles and by Latino commentators. Was it a good or a bad thing that Manzano had celebrated with two flags when he was running for the USA and is a US citizen? Considering how he arrived illegally at age 4 to the US, it might make sense that he is a symbol of a culturally diverse America. But does carrying a Mexican flag make him a traitor or make him ungrateful to his adoptive country? In the view of some it did; in the view of Latino politics it exemplifies the growing importance of understanding the multiple identities from which Americans can draw from.
The Latino National Survey 2006 (Fraga et al. 2006) asked respondents to report the strength of their identity in reference to three concepts: (1) American identity,(2) Pan-ethnicity (feeling Latin/Hispanic) and (3) Home country identity (National Identity). The following graph shows how Latino identification strength varies along immigrant generation.
[Source: Figure 1 in Saavedra Cisneros (2012) "From Social to Political Identity: Latino Identity, Issue Attitudes and Partisanship" Paper presented at the 2012 meeting of the International Society of Political Psychology using data from the LNS 2006 (Fraga et al. 2006).]
While the graph most likely generates more questions than it does answers, it is clear that increases in one identity are not at the expense of the other identities. As expected, American identity is quite low in foreign-born Latinos, but by the second generation, most Latinos strongly identify as American, Latin, and also with their compatriots. Interestingly, along with a decrease in home country identity comes a decrease in American identity in 3rd+ generation Latinos.
Latinos are not to be seen as outliers in the study of race, ethnicity, and politics from a political psychological perspective. In fact, Asian Americans might display even more contrasting identities that do not conflict with each other in many American political contexts (Espiritu 1993). Less is known about the political forces that might be able to link a specific identity to a political attitude or political party. Can political messages prime a given identity that can serve as a source of ambivalence or a wedge in minority voting behavior?
Furthermore, with all the contemporary changes in the American demographic landscape researchers face the challenge in defining crucial concepts such as acculturation, socialization, and incorporation. As researchers, it appears necessary to reformulate our understanding of identities in American politics. The nature of identities, their contextual salience, and even what counts as a socio-political identity is poised to become a major theme in political psychological research in American politics in the coming years.
*Angel Saavedra Cisneros is an Assistant Professor at The University of Texas-Pan American. His work focuses on political behavior and Latino politics. His main areas of focus are Mexican electoral politics and the origin of Latino political attitudes and behavior in the United States. More recently he has started to explore the usefulness of latent value dimensions in non-white populations in predicting ideology and partisanship in the U.S.