July 18, 2008

A Quinceañera Election Party

By Vanessa Cárdenas

The political story of the moment is the Latino vote. As presidential candidates John McCain (R-AZ) and Barack Obama (D-IL) present their cases to the leading Latino advocacy groups, the message everywhere is about how pivotal the Latino vote will be this year. It almost feels like a quinceañera party for Latinos—where we will “come of age” as voters in the United States.

Sen. McCain, Sen. Obama, and the mainstream press are all embarked on a mini-Latino tour. The two candidates are issuing sound bites they think Latino communities wants to hear, and the media is eating it up. The bulk of the coverage is on what McCain and Obama say or don’t say about immigration, yet this is only one important piece of Latino politics, not the ONLY piece, as poll after poll shows.

This year’s election, when the Latino vote will be central to any candidate who wants to win the White House, was supposed to be the moment to laser in on the issues that have been at the top of the Latino concerns: education, the economy, health care, the war in Iraq. Yet the focus of mainstream media and even the blogo-sphere is about whether McCain should call us “God’s children”?

Please. Among Latinos today, unemployment is at a staggering 7.7 percent, and we hold 46 percent of all high-cost loans such as adjustable-rate mortgages or no-income documentation loans. Latinos represent 33 percent of those without insurance—the highest percentage of uninsured—and at 21 percent, the national Latino high school dropout rate is more than twice the national average.

The focus on Latinos in this election year should be on the educational, economic, and health care crises Latinos are facing, and how the candidates’ proposals will help alleviate them. There is plenty to explore: how Latinos are disproportionately affected by the economic downturn; how the digital divide is leaving Latinos behind; how Latinos’ political representation is not keeping pace with their population growth; or how the HIV crisis is affecting in the Latino community.

Or how about the fact that many Latinos who had hoped to participate in this election are in danger of being disenfranchised? Who is providing more substance on those stories? Who is asking the follow up questions?

Sadly, not many in the media are. Reporters, anchors, and pundits alike keep repeating over and over what we already know—that Latinos have the numbers and the votes to make or break a candidate in this election. Yet when it comes to reporting on the issues that matter—stories that would help shape the election debate, which after all is one of the key obligations of a free press—Latinos are clearly ill-served.

This election is important to our whole country, of course, not just Latinos. So perhaps it isn’t fair to single out mainstream media alone for the lack of awareness in the United States to the plight of many Latinos. An important political question, then, is whether Hispanics will demand better than they have had from both political parties. Now more than ever is the time for this community to firmly and unequivocally send the message that Mariachi politics and chanting “Sí se puede” will no longer be sufficient.

But for Latinos to be effective in drawing out the candidates on the issues, we can’t simply rely on the blessings of our so called “leaders” as perhaps they really are not in touch as much as we (and they) would like to think they are. We can’t solely ask our relatives for guidance because we believe they may have more insight into the political process. And as much as we love our media personalities, such as Jorge Ramos, Hispanic TV’s number one correspondent, or El Cucuy or El Piolin, the radio DJs credited with helping turn out millions during the immigration marches of 2006, we should not turn to them as our only source of political information.

This election year, Latinos must do their homework. We need to better understand the issues beyond immigration, and where the candidates stand on them—today and in the past. Otherwise, after we vote on the first Tuesday in November, we risk being “planchando,” or wallpaper flowers, in the greatest quinceañera election party Latino voters ever had.

Vanessa Cárdenas is Director of Ethnic Media at the Center for American Progress Action Fund

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