Latinos have long been touted as an up-and-coming political force which could change the nature of American politics, much as the African-American community has over the last four decades.
In 2006, as a debate over immigration reform was raging in the US, the country’s Latino voters played a major role in helping the Democratic Party regain control of the US Congress.
And, in recent months, Latinos have also played a pivotal role in helping the Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton stay in the race against her rival Barack Obama, contributing to her impressive victory in California on Super Tuesday and playing a major role in her victory a month later in Texas.
In both cases, Latinos voted in much higher numbers than expected in the Democratic primaries, with two-thirds of them voting for Mrs Clinton.
For Janet Murguia, the President of the National Council of La Raza, NCLR, the most powerful Latino political pressure group in Washington, it’s the record turnout by Latinos during this year’s primaries that demonstrates that the so-called “sleeping giant” in American politics has awoken.
As the nation’s fastest-growing and largest minority group of more than 47m people – more than 15% of the total US population – Latinos have long been touted as an up-and-coming political force which could change the nature of American politics, much as the African-American community has over the last four decades.
“It’s not just a feeling any longer. It’s actually happening,” says Ms Murguia during a recent interview at the NCLR’s headquarters in Washington, before pointing to the impressive statistics on Latino turnout during the recent Democratic primaries.
A look at those statistics is all it takes to understand what she means.
In California alone, for example, more than 1.2 million Latinos who voted in the Super Tuesday primary – a close to 300% increase on the same number who voted in the last Democratic primaries in 2004.
The increase in Latino turn-out and new registered voters was equally impressive in several other states with large Hispanic populations like Florida, New York and Texas.
Ms Murguia says it’s no surprise to her that Hillary Clinton has been able to garner the kind of loyal support from Latinos that she has, in her bid to become the country’s first woman president.
“She has been a name that has been recognised in the Latino community for decades in large part because of her own record as someone with deep roots in the community and also because of her husband – Bill Clinton – who was incredibly popular with Latinos during his presidency,” says Ms Murguia.
Those deep roots, which date back to the early 1970’s when a young Hillary Clinton spent several weeks in Texas registering Latino voters, helped her gain the backing of key Latino political figures in Texas ahead of the contest there in March.
As for the inability of Senator Obama to generate the same kind of support among Latinos, Ms Murguia says that it’s all down to the fact that most Latino voters simply didn’t know him or have the kind of deep-rooted connections with him that they had with Mrs Clinton.
“In politics it all comes down to name recognition and the brand you convey,” she says before adding that despite his deficit in that area with Latinos against Mrs Clinton that Mr Obama has made great strides in recent months.
That, she says “should help him garner significant Latino support” in the November presidential election if he were to become the party’s nominee.
No ‘black-brown’ rupture
One thing Ms Murguia is adamant about is that the lack of support for Mr Obama during the primary season should not be seen to have anything to do – as has been stated by some media pundits in the US – by a possible growing rupture between Latinos and African Americans – referred to by the media here as the “black-brown divide”.
Janet Murguia: Latino and African-American leaders need to talk more.*
“The reality is that for Senator Barack Obama his lack of support has very little to do with the issue of race,” Ms Murguia states emphatically.
However, she does believe that there’s reason for concern over a possible growing tension between the two largest American minority groups.
The NCLR leader says that the worsening economic conditions in the US have led Latinos and African Americans, who tend to be on the lower end of the economic ladder, to a fight over a shrinking “share of the pie” for jobs.
“There’s a false sense of competition. We should be working together to grow the pie, to make the pie bigger rather than fighting over the crumbs,” she says.
Achieving that, she thinks, requires an improved flow of communication between Latino and African American leaders, something which she says would make it clear to both sides that they have a great deal in common.
“The fact is there’s a great deal more that unites us than divides us,” she concludes. “And that’s what we should be focusing on.”
The “great deal that they have in common” is the fact that a) they are non-white, and b) both groups have a vested in interest in unseating the European-American majority in terms of politics and sheer numbers. A Latino-black alliance or coalition would be devastating for European-American interests. However, the black population will not want to give up their position as America’s main minority, even though they are already on the verge of being dwarfed by the burgeoning Latino population.