The elusive political power of Mexican Americans
Mexican Americans make up the nation's largest Latino group, yet they remain politically outshined by more recently arrived Cuban Americans.
Why it matters: The disparities in political power between Mexican Americans and Cuban Americans reflect the racial, historical, geographical and economic differences within Latino cultures in the U.S.
- For the first time in U.S. history, the Senate includes three Mexican Americans — Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), and Alex Padilla, (D-Calif.). — as the Mexican American population overall nears 37 million people.
- Cuban Americans, who number just 2 million, are also represented by three Cuban American senators: Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.).
Between the lines: Today, the majority of Mexican Americans reside either in deep-blue California or in reliably red Texas. Neither state attracts many presidential candidates campaigning for the general election.
- The political core of Cuban Americans live in swing-state Florida, making them more attractive to presidential candidates who often visit and play to the anti-communist passions of Cubans and Venezuelans.
- The two groups helped deliver Florida and its 29 electoral votes for President Trump in the 2020 election.
How it works: Mexican Americans' concentration in non-swing states and weak political fundraising put them at a disadvantage to gain the political power that reflects their numbers, said Las Vegas-based Mexican American political consultant Eli Magaña.
- The Democratic Party also hasn't invested in training Mexican American candidates or developing a pipeline for elected office, New Mexico political consultant Sisto Abeyta said.
- The Koch-funded Libre Initiative trains Latinos to be activists on tax and immigration issues but doesn't train candidates to run for office.
- Once-promising Mexican American political stars, like former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, former California lieutenant governor Cruz Bustamante and former Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros, flamed out amid scandal, clearing the bench of potential national figures, wrote Los Angeles Times columnist Gustavo Arellano.
People of Mexican ancestry have been here since before the U.S.' founding and today represent 60 percent of the 61 million Latinos. But their political power is limited.
- Nearly one-third of Mexican Americans are under 18 and can't vote, according to Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.
- One in four adults of Mexican descent in the U.S. is not a citizen, Vargas said.
- Most Mexican-American elected officials come from poor, majority Mexican-American districts because of racial segregation and gerrymandering.
Flashback: President John F. Kennedy galvanized Mexican-American voters during his 1960 presidential run through "Viva Kennedy!" clubs, in the first massive effort by a presidential candidate to reach out to Latino voters.
- The Congressional Hispanic Caucus credits that 1960 outreach as the impetus that got Mexican Americans involved in politics. Since then, more Hispanics, mostly Mexican-American Democrats, have been elected to Congress than in the previous 140 years, according to the Caucus.
- A generation later, Texas Republican Gov. George W. Bush courted Mexican Americans during his gubernatorial and presidential races, and drew record numbers of Republican votes from Latinos.
By contrast, large numbers of Cubans, many from elite, mostly white wealthy families, started arriving in the 1960s after Fidel Castro overthrew dictator Fulgencio Batista.
- Unlike Mexican Americans, Cold War Cuban refugees were given clear and quick paths to U.S. citizenship, including voting privileges, said University of Houston political science professor Jeronimo Cortina.
- Anti-communist Cuban Americans joined the Republican Party following the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, and formed coalitions with some Republicans and conservative Democrats against civil rights and anti-poverty initiatives.
- Some Mexican Americans embraced the struggles of African Americans while some Cuban Americans would later snub South African anti-apartheid revolutionary Nelson Mandela for his relationship with Castro.
- Those actions of Cuban Americans angered moderate-Democratic-leaning Mexican Americans and led to political tensions between the two groups that linger today.