On September 17, 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed Proclamation 3869, establishing National Hispanic Heritage Week. The proclamation held that Hispanic traditions and actions had made this country what it was: that, indeed, there would have been no America without them. At a time when just one in every twenty-five people in the country was Hispanic, this was not a widely accepted truth.

In fact, President Ronald Reagan had to try to sell more or less the same idea two decades later, on September 13, 1988, when he extended the commemorative week to a month, from September 15th to October 15th. Hispanic heritage, he said in a speech sprinkled with Spanish words, was “the heritage of every American.” By then, one in every fifteen Americans was Hispanic, and, even if things didn’t look that great for them, there was a sense that assimilation would eventually integrate them into the mainstream, as it had other immigrant groups.

Yet, as the country honors its Hispanic heritage for the fifty-second time this year, and one in every five Americans is now Latinx, those expectations are yet to be fulfilled. Latinx people are still fighting for equality, are still largely invisible to power structures and state bureaucracies, and are still seen as foreign by the political parties and a good number of their compatriots. Just weeks ahead of a Presidential election, they remain painfully sidelined.

Despite progress in critical areas, such as education, the inequality remains wide and deep. In 1980, when the census first fully counted the Hispanic population, the group’s median household income was about twelve thousand dollars lower than the national median; last year, it was about twelve thousand six hundred dollars lower. During the Obama years, U.S.-born people of Latinx heritage didn’t fully recover from the income losses of the 2007-09 recession: in 2017, they were still earning six per cent less than in 2007, while, over all, American workers were making three per cent more. In the same period, the over-all national poverty level dropped from thirteen per cent to 10.5 per cent; it dropped for Latinxs, too, but it started higher, at 23.1 percent, and only fell to 15.7 percent. Similar gaps can be found in home ownership and in access to health care.

This was the state of the Latinx population before the coronavirus pandemic, which has hit the group harder than almost any other demographic in the country. Latinx people are overrepresented among “essential workers” and, consequently, they account for about a third of all COVID-19 cases and more than eighteen per cent of the deaths. At a recent Hispanic Congressional Caucus panel, Peter Hotez, a dean at the Baylor College of Medicine, noted that the pandemic has brought about a “historic decimation” of the Hispanic community.

A Pew poll conducted this August showed that Latinxs have taken pay cuts or lost their jobs at a higher rate than any other group. “People have been living paycheck by paycheck,” Matt Barreto, a co-founder of the polling firm Latino Decisions and a pollster for the Biden campaign, told me. About half of Latinx families, he pointed out, had just five hundred dollars or less saved for an emergency at the beginning of the pandemic. Also in August, a national survey from Somos Community Care and Latino Decisions found that nearly two-thirds of Latinxs were worried that they would lose their savings or retirement funds, or wouldn’t be able to pay for basic expenses, like food, utilities, rent, or mortgages. Latinx small-business owners applied for federal relief funds, but only a handful received them.

More than half a century of celebrating Latinx heritage has not provided America with a better understanding of who Latinxs are. For example, even though available data suggest that they are incarcerated at about twice the rate of non-Latinx whites, we don’t know precisely how many are arrested, incarcerated, on probation, or on parole, because most states don’t have a category to classify people entering or exiting the system as Latinx. Most count people as Black or white, and mark most Latinxs as the latter, thus hiding the disproportionate impact of arrests and incarceration on their communities. The recent protests against police brutality renewed decades-old calls for awareness of the disproportionate number of Latinx people killed in encounters with the police. Juan Cartagena, the president of the civil-rights group Latino Justice, told me that the presentation of racial disparities as a Black-white binary erases Latinx people from the picture. To the American mainstream, Cartagena said, police brutality is an issue that mainly affects Black people, while Latinxs are “seen as exclusively impacted by immigration.”

Marcia Rincon-Gallardo, the executive director of Alianza for Youth Justice, which just released a report on the Latinx data gap in the juvenile-justice system, points out that “policy is driven by data.” That is partly why the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, a police-reform bill that Democrats in the House of Representatives drafted earlier this year, includes a mandate to create a national system for data collection with a breakdown by race and ethnicity. Without that data, Rincon-Gallardo said, “How do we justify that there is even a problem? Or how severe is it? Where do the disproportionality and disparities for Latinx lie and what are the best solutions?”

Latinxs also tend to be invisible to the political establishment, which should push for reforms to correct the disadvantages. In this Presidential election, they will comprise the second-largest electoral group, outnumbering Black voters for the first time. About thirty-two million Latinx Americans are eligible to vote, and more become eligible every day, every hour, every minute, even quicker: a Latinx person reaches voting age every thirty seconds. A majority of Latinxs in this country are U.S.-born and young, and have progressive leanings; they have the potential to reshape the political landscape.

Yet a recent Latino Decisions national poll revealed that sixty per cent have not been contacted by any political group this year concerning the election. This is not exceptional. According to a report by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), Presidential campaigns tend to focus on battleground states, ignoring those “with sizable Latino electorates such as Arizona, California, New York, and Texas where campaigns assume the outcome of statewide Presidential contests.” More than half of all Latinx citizens of voting age live in those four states. Meanwhile, a study in Texas last month showed that many Latinxs don’t vote because they aren’t sought by campaigns, and that campaigns don’t seek them because they don’t vote.

Parties and candidates also seem to ignore the internal migration patterns of Latinx communities. The Latinx population is growing in states where mainstream America doesn’t generally imagine it to even have a presence, such as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan, Minnesota, and Maine. “We’re everywhere now,” Julián Castro, the only Latinx candidate in the Democratic primaries, said at a recent virtual panel organized by the Boston Globe. He joked that, on a campaign trip to Wyoming, he tried Wyo-Mex food: It “wasn’t quite as good as Tex-Mex, but it’s good.” A map of Latino media created by the bilingual masters program at CUNY’s Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, where I work, shows a robust Spanish-language news ecosystem in North Carolina: twenty-three publications serving the more than nine hundred thousand Latinxs in the state. Certainly, as a 2007 study corroborated, Latinxs are more likely to vote if there is a Latinx candidate on the ballot. But only a very small percentage of Latinx people run for public office, and they make up barely one per cent of elected officials.

Another indicator of Latinx invisibility is the recurrent “discovery” of the conservative Latinx vote. Many commentators were stunned that twenty-eight per cent of Latinxs voted for Donald Trump in 2016. But the “surprise” of the conservative Latinx vote has been reënacted every two years since Florida’s conservative Latinx communities entered the news cycle. And, as Geraldo Cadava, a professor of history at Northwestern University, writes in a new book, “The Hispanic Republican: The Shaping of an American Political Identity, from Nixon to Trump,” ever since Richard Nixon’s reëlection, in 1972, between twenty-five and thirty per cent of Latinx voters have chosen the Republican Presidential candidate.



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