The Sunday Magazine

To understand Latino voters, journalist recommends exploring group's checkered history with both Dems and GOP

In the wake of news that hundreds of immigrant children are still separated from their parents years after attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, Maria Hinojosa — host of Latino USA — speaks with Piya Chattopadhyay about the long-simmering anti-immigrant sentiment on both sides of the aisle that's led to this moment, how her own story intersects with that history, and how Latino voters are being engaged in the current U.S. election.

With 32 million eligible to vote, they're the second largest voting bloc in the 2020 election

L to R: Sophia Hildalgo holds up a sign in support of Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Joe Biden in Miramar, Florida on Oct. 13, 2020. A supporter of President Donald Trump holds up a sign outside the Latinos for Trump Roundtable event in Doral, Florida, on Sep. 25, 2020. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images and Marco Bello/AFP via Getty Images)

Latino voters are projected to become the largest non-white group eligible to vote in the U.S. presidential election. A poll tracking registered Latino voters also shows that 68 per cent of respondents favour Democratic challenger Joe Biden over incumbent Donald Trump.

While Biden has promised to repeal many of the Trump administration's border policies, and polls put him in the lead among Latino voters, Maria Hinojosa is not making any definitive predictions about this election.

The Latino USA host told The Sunday Magazine host Piya Chattopadhyay that it's hard to say how well Democrats have done in winning over Latino voters "because the mainstream media does not have deep reporting in Latino and Latina communities." 

In her latest book Once I Was You, veteran journalist Maria Hinojosa shares her intimate experience growing up Mexican American on the south side of Chicago. (Kevin Abosch and Simon and Schuster)

The veteran journalist, who has covered this beat for more than three decades, delves into the historically checkered relationship between Latino voters and both political parties in her new book Once I Was You: A Memoir of Love and Hate in a Torn America.

Latino voters make up 13.3 per cent of all eligible voters. But they are by no means a monolith.

Take Mateo Gomez's family for instance. The first-time voter from Miami said he's the moderator in his family. 

"My parents lean one way, the grandparents lean another way. My friends are one way and my other friends are another way. So I try to look at both sides," he told CBC News. 

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Born in Colombia and raised in Florida since he was two, Gomez voted by mail for Biden. Unlike some parts of the U.S. where Latino voters could be counted as one group and referred to as the "Latino vote," Florida is very divided, he said.

According to CBC's Presidential Poll Tracker, as of Friday afternoon, Florida leaned 51.5 per cent in favour of the Democrats and 47.3 per cent in favour of the Republicans.

"We are so within the margin of error that just a small shift of the Cuban vote or Nicaraguan or Puerto Rican could determine the outcome. Remember, elections in Florida are generally won by under two per cent in the bars and cafes of Little Havana," said Eduardo A. Gamarra, a professor of political science at Florida International University.

"[Trump] appeals extraordinarily well to this idea that only he can liberate Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua because he is the blond caudillo [authoritarian dictator]."

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Issues that inform support for Trump

Maria Louisa Redero shed further light on this idea.

At a rally in Miami, the Cuban-American Trump supporter shared why she opposes Democratic vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris.

"I'm calling her 'Che Mala' because 'che mala' means in Spanish — how bad. She is the bad," Redero told CBC News reporter Susan Ormiston. "She is horrible. She is socialist. She is communist."

"Latino Republicans are not a new thing. Twenty-five to 30 per cent of Latinos have been a part of the Republican Party," Hinojosa told Chattopadhyay. "Very specifically, what the Trump administration is appealing to now for Latino and Latina voters is this sense of Joe Biden is going to become a socialist overnight. He is going to take your home. He's going to take your bank account … You're going to have a leftist socialist."

"That's the furthest thing from reality. But that is a pitch that is going out along with the pitch of, 'There's lawlessness. There's protests and rioting and police are getting shot. And you need Donald Trump to stop all of that,'" she added.

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Narrative fueled by disinformation

A portion of the 32 million Latinos eligible to vote in 2020 either come from or have ties to countries with socialist governments. But that isn't the only reason Biden's portrayal as a socialist resonates with some Latino voters.

According to a recent report, critical Latino voters in battleground states Texas, Florida and Arizona, have been the targets of a massive disinformation campaign using tools like Facebook and WhatsApp.

"The fear mongering and the social-labelling has worked," Miami-based Democratic strategist Evelyn Perez-Verdia told Ormiston.

Perez-Verdia, who is Colombian-American, has been helping fight off this disinformation campaign aimed at Latinos, which included a video suggesting a militia march for Trump.

"That's a message to the Latinos — 'these militiamen are helping us against the communists that you see on the streets … You escaped violent countries. Now, if you don't vote for Donald Trump, they're going to come to your house. And they're going to destroy you,'" she explained.

Another post she highlighted portrays Hillary Clinton as Satan and Trump running while holding two babies.

"Anti-abortion is one of the issues … I think mainstream media does not quite understand how deeply this is an issue for certain Latino and Latina voters," Hinojosa told Chattopadhyay.

A supporter of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden (L) argues with a supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump during a rally outside the Latinos for Trump Roundtable event in Doral, Florida, on Sep. 25, 2020. (Marco Bello/AFP via Getty Images)

A portrait propagated by the press

Hinojosa said there also needs to be a better understanding of anti-immigrant policies.

"Even though there's the image of the land of the immigrants, it's not that in terms of policy," she said. "So anti-immigrant policy — overtly restrictive on issues of race — are the essential American experience."

That's something she and her own family experienced with U.S. immigration back in the '60s when she was almost separated from her mother and siblings at the Dallas, Texas airport.

At the time, Hinojosa's father was a medical doctor and researcher at the University of Chicago. Her mother and siblings had green cards and left Mexico to join him.

But when they arrived at the Dallas airport en route to Chicago, Hinojosa said an immigration agent thought she had measles and wanted to keep her in quarantine. He told her mother that she could go ahead to Chicago with Hinijosa's siblings, she recalled. And that's when Hinojosa said her mother "just lost it."

Those memories resurfaced when a court filing revealed earlier this week that lawyers had failed to reunite 545 children with their parents. These children were among the 1,500 who were separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border beginning in 2017.

"The sadness for me is that it's not 545 children. It's so many more than that, who have already been adopted away, who have already been taken. And if this was happening to me in the 1960s, it wasn't a fluke. It's been happening, and as a country, the United States has to reckon with this," she told Chattopadhyay.

She also pointed out that while Trump has taken extreme measures against immigrants arriving through the U.S.-Mexico border, that sentiment has been around much longer than the Trump presidency. 

"The United States does not like to hear this. Barack Obama, a great president, someone who I admire. He's responsible for the deportation of at least two and a half million people," she said. "The Trump administration turned it up to 10, but it had been simmering. It went on to high flame under George W. Bush, but only because [of] laws that were signed by Bill Clinton, a Democrat."

When asked how his administration would reunite the 545 children with their parents in the final U.S. presidential debate, Trump deflected the question. He defended his administration's immigration record, touted the detention facilities used and said that the Democrats built the cages that housed children separated from their families in 2018.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden participate in their final 2020 U.S. presidential campaign debate in the Curb Event Center at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

When asked about the Obama administration's failure to deliver immigration reform and its record on deportations and family detentions at the border, in a rare instance, Biden distanced himself from the former president. 

"We made a mistake. It took too long to get it right. Too long to get it right. I'll be president of the United States, not vice-president of the United States."

While Biden has vowed to reverse Trump's anti-immigrant policies, for Hinojosa, changing the narrative that "immigrants and refugees are not who we are and instead should be kept out" will take much longer than a presidential term.

"A person who lives in the United States is going to have to deconstruct that false narrative and reconstruct in the next 50 years the truth about the immigrant refugee experience in the United States," she said.

Interview produced by Sarah-Joyce Battersby.

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