The summer senatorial run-off election in Texas tells all you need to know about the importance of the Latino vote. Tea Party Republican Ted Cruz and GOP Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst have agreed to five public debates — one of them in Spanish.
Cruz is a second-generation Cuban American. Dewhurst is a former CIA agent who learned Spanish before going on assignment to Bolivia. They reflect in many ways the intersection of American politics with our Latin American neighbors — abroad and at home. The 2010 Census reveals 15.5 percent of the U.S. population is Latino. It is projected to grow to 25 percent by 2050.
Both major political parties actively court Latino voters, even though there is evidence the recession and the absence of any real progress on immigration reform may have shrunken the ranks of Latinos registered to vote. There are an estimated 31.8 million Latinos of voting age, but only about half are registered voters. The Latino population in Texas grew by 2.8 million in the past decade, but registered Latino voters actually declined by 100,000 between 2008 and 2010.
Like most other groups, Latinos are not homogenous. They come from diverse places such as Cuba and Costa Rica. Brazilians speak Portuguese. Hispanic food suppliers sell more black beans in Florida and kidney beans in Michigan. And, of course, Latinos aren't of one mind on politics.
CNN ran a report recently noting that one overlooked difference among Latinos is generational.
"First generation Latinos have experienced life outside the United States, have gone through the immigration experience and to different degrees have embraced or become acquainted with living in America," Gabriel Sanchez, an associated professor of political science at the University of New Mexico, told CNN.
'Second generation Latinos encounter a mixed experience, being born and growing up in the United States, but brought up by immigrants and thus heavily exposed and influenced by their parents' culture," Sanchez continued.
"Latinos who are third generation and beyond are the sons and daughters of U.S.-born parents," he said. "They are very much influenced by the general market, but still connect to their roots through the values, traditions and culture passed on by their parents and grandparents."
Political operatives are trying to find ways to attract Latino voters and voter registration. Some experts say state laws viewed as anti-immigrant have created fear among Latinos who doubt their votes will make a difference.
Other experts insist Latinos have similar issue concerns as everyone else — a job, education for their children and health care. From the vantage point of Latinos still stuck on the lower rungs of the economic ladder, American politicians from both political parties may not seem all that different.
It may ultimately take a Latino politician to capture the imagination of Latino voters in the United States. Henry Cisneros, the former San Antonio mayor and Clinton Cabinet officer, predicts the first Latino president already has been born. Until then, you will have to tune in to the Cruz-Dewhurst debate in Spanish.