Commentary: 2012, A Milestone Year for U.S. Latinos

San Antonio, Texas Mayor Julian Castro was touted as the new face of the Democratic party. (Photo: Flickr/tedxsanantonio)

2012 was the year that American Latinos went mainstream, emerging as a powerful force in the nation’s politics and the social and pop culture arenas. Grandma’s apple pie is now abuela’s flan.

The biggest news was the role Latinos played in the presidential election. Many, including both Democrats and Republicans, have acknowledged that the Latino vote was a crucial factor in the election. 71 percent of Latinos voted for Barack Obama, swinging several key states like Nevada, Colorado, and Florida. But while the Latino vote was decisive, what’s more interesting is what the trend indicates.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center by 2030 there will be 40 million Latino voters, up from 23 million today. Every year 500,000 American Latinos turn 18, making them by far the fastest growing demographic. In a few years we may see key states like Texas swing blue. The political establishment has to play catch-up after decades of largely ignoring Latinos. Both parties are going to have to up their game when it comes to appealing to Latino voters or suffer irrelevancy.

Another story that came out of the election, but was largely buried by the national media, was Puerto Rico’s non-binding referendum on statehood. In November Puerto Ricans chose between remaining a U.S. commonwealth, applying for statehood, or becoming an independent country. For the first time ever the pro-statehood votes were in the majority. Ironically, Puerto Rico’s biggest statehood advocate, governor Luis Fortuno was not re-elected, showing that the people might like your ideas but not like you.

The road to P.R. becoming the 51st state is going to be rocky. First, Congress has to look at the murky election results to see if they really do indicate that the majority of the island wishes to proceed. Then comes the long application and approval process. Even though Puerto Rico has been a U.S. protectorate for over a hundred years, it has always maintained a firm grip on its cultural heritage and history. If Puerto Rico does become a state it will be interesting to see if it becomes homogenized into American mall and big box store culture.

Puerto Rico also has high crime and poverty rates which some politicians may be apprehensive to take on given the state of the U.S. economy. Not to mention that Puerto Rico is a predominantly Spanish speaking country and over here we speak ‘Merican…er…I mean…English. You also have to wonder if Republicans in Congress will want to add a state that will more than likely go Democrat.

Part of the upsurge in Latino political clout is a new breed of Latino political rock star. On the Republican side you have the Cuban glimmer twins, Mario Rubio and Ted Cruz. The Democrats have guys like San Antonio’s heartthrob Mayor Julian Castro and LA’s Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. All four of these guys were wheeled out at their respective party’s conventions in a battle to show which party was more down with the homies. Unlike many past Latino politicians that largely stayed at the local level or only dealt with single issues such as immigration or Cuba, these guys have bigger ambitions. If there is to be a Latino in the White House in the next 20 years, it may very well be one of them.

When I was a kid in the 80’s and 90’s, the only Latinos I had to look up to on TV were Speedy Gonzalez and Zorro, neither of whom were played by Latinos. Today, Latinos seem to be everywhere on the home screen and in movies. In the 50’s everyone wanted Leave it to Beaver’s June Cleaver as their mom. Now, Modern Family’s Sofia Vergara is the mother we all wish we had. We also had a Disney princess for a week, until the overlords at Disney decided to take away her Latinoness.

We have Christina Aguilera judging on the wildly popular The Voice, a young Latino hero in the Battlestar Gallactica prequel series Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome, and a super bowl winning wide receiver in the Giant’s Victor Cruz. Even a classic character like Lieutenant Uhura in the new Star Trek movies is played by Dominican actress Zoe Saldana. And as for the previously mentioned telenovelas, they are crushing American daytime soaps in ratings.

Not all the news was good. Recently we lost superstar Jenni Rivera in a tragic airplane crash and the sporting world was shaken by the death of legendary welterweight champ Hector “Macho” Camacho. I remember gathering around the TV with my uncles to watch him fight when I was a kid.

In a lot of places that were formerly bastions of Anglo hegemony—like my hometown of Houston, TX—Latinos are now the majority. It’s hard to say what 2013 has in store for Latinos. None of us can see into the future, specially now that legendary Spanish channel psychic and sequined cape enthusiast Walter Mercado has retired from television.

Fi2W is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation and the Sirus Fund.

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