Your Voice 2016

Sí, se puede

The forgotten history of how Latinos earned the right to vote

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The decision that changed everything about modern voting rights was barely made by a majority. The 5-4 Supreme Court decision, 2013’s Shelby County v. Holder, partially dismantled the Voting Rights Act, first passed in 1965 and born out of our country’s inability to equally provide access to the ballot box.

Up for argument that February day was the issue of preclearance, or the Section 5 requirement that 15 states (mostly Southern, because of their bigoted response to abolition) must submit changes to their electoral policies to the federal government for oversight. The oversight succeeded in tamping down myriad discriminatory practices by state and local officials, like voter ID laws and gerrymandering. But in his majority opinion, Chief Justice John C. Roberts declared that “the country has changed” and while we do still have voter discrimination, the Voting Rights Act had overstepped for our current era.

In the two years since, Texas, North Carolina and Wisconsin have passed some of the strictest voter ID laws in history (although they were all successfully challenged). Meanwhile, the nominee for a major political party began his campaign by calling Mexicans “rapists” and “drug dealers.” Minority voters have become paramount to the elections because of their growing numbers. As some states scramble to make it harder to vote, it’s more important than ever to preserve the right to vote for people of color.

Historically, most of the discussion about voting rights has been centered on African Americans. But in the Era of Trump™ and his supporters, who openly insult Hispanics and cheer a deportation force, it’s important to remember that Latinos fought hard for the right to vote, too—and that African Americans worked in tandem to get us those rights.

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So many of these stories start in Texas. Since the days of a shifting Southern border in 1845 and the oil boom and bust of the 1980s, Latinos have been the most populous minority group in the Lone Star state. (Nowadays, Texas has the second-largest Hispanic population in the country, about 39%.) As a result, white anxiety about Latinos, particularly Mexican Americans, rocketed upwards at the same time black Americans were being disenfranchised after slavery.

In 1923, Texas codified all-white primaries within the Democratic Party, treating them as a private entity. This meant that non-whites weren’t allowed to participate in the party’s primary elections, which effectively decided the general elections’ outcomes because of the Democratic Party’s dominance. While the law outright banned African Americans from voting, Mexican Americans in south Texas weren’t exactly welcomed into the voting booth. They weren’t black, but they certainly weren’t white.

The fight for voting rights for all minorities is tied up in the fight for access to all parts of civic life, and Latinos are no different.

Ari Berman, author of Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America, told me that tactics like poll taxes were an almost universal hindrance to minority voters. “I think these things were mostly targeted at black voters, but they impacted other minorities,” Berman said. “Poll taxes prevented Latinos from participating. And English-only ballots acted like literacy tests.”

If you weren’t a native English speaker or didn’t have a strong command of the language, how were you supposed to pass an English-language literacy test or even fill out the forms to vote? You could kiss your access to the voting booth goodbye. Language barriers weren’t included in the first version of the Voting Rights Act so a generation of Latino voters, particularly in the southwest, was left behind.

The all-white primary system wasn’t completely overturned until a Supreme Court case in 1944, Smith v. Allright, the fourth Supreme Court case about Texas’s all-white primaries, deemed it unconstitutional. And yet, the Voting Rights Act wouldn’t come for another 20 years to protect disenfranchised citizens—and the extension that cemented that right for Latinos would take even longer.

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The fight for voting rights for all minorities is tied up in the fight for access to all parts of civic life—a jury of one’s peers, access to an adequate defense, representatives who look like you—and Latinos are no different. Thomas A. Saenz, the president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said Texas was rife with examples of excluding Mexican Americans from basic civil liberties. Take Hernandez v. Texas in 1954, one of the first civil rights cases involving Mexican Americans to make it to the Supreme Court.

In Hernandez v. Texas, the lawyer for the defense sought to quash a murder indictment because an all-white jury had convicted Pete Hernandez, who was Mexican American. No Mexican American had been called for jury service in more than two decades; they were technically classified as white by law, but not in practice. The state attempted to argue that this was mere coincidence, not a pattern of discrimination. But in the very court house the case was argued in, there were separate bathroom facilities for whites and African Americans. And under the sign for the black facilities, it read “HOMBRES AQUÍ”—“men here.”

The Warren court unanimously ruled in 1954 that the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause, including access to a jury of one’s peers, went beyond simply white and black citizens to include other nationalities. In Texas, Saenz told me, it took time for civil rights reforms for black Americans to include Latinx. (A majority of litigation about Latinx voting rights were centered on Mexican-American citizens. The language used here isn’t meant to substitute the experience of Mexican-Americans for all Latinos, but to serve as a reminder that a certain part of our population was used to secure the civil rights for the rest of us.)

By the early 1970s, Latinx people were allowed to serve on juries. If you could speak English and were above the age of 18, voting was easier to accomplish than ever before. There were fewer obstacles as a person of color in this country and the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice was monitoring elections closely for VRA violations. But despite this new normal, language was still a significant barrier and the Voting Rights Act was set to expire in August 1975.

There was no way of knowing how changes in the electoral system would be received by Southern lawmakers—or voters.

As a part of the hearings to reauthorize and possibly amend the Voting Rights Act in February 1975, a man named Modesto Rodriguez testified before Congress. Rodriguez was a farmer in Pearsall, Texas who grew watermelon, maize, corn, and other crops on his ranch. In Berman’s book, one lawmaker described Rodriguez as an “everyman” to politicians, the man who talked to Congress about the country’s “forgotten minority.” In his testimony, Modesto recounted financial retribution, like how his loan for his farm was denied once he got into politics, and physical intimidation, like how he was beat outside of a bar when trying to recruit fellow Latinos to testify before Congress.

All of this kept Latinos fearful of even registering to vote. “There has been a great failure on the part of the state of Texas to protect the voting rights of the Chicano electorate,” Modesto said, so Chicanos were turning to Congress for help.

Despite the Act’s success, the civil rights community was still worried it was a tenuous victory. Though the testimony of Modesto and other Latinx was effective in presenting the facts from the ground, activists and lawmakers were anxious about amending the law too much. There was no way of knowing how changes in the electoral system would be received by Southern lawmakers—or voters.

Barbara Jordan understood that the language barrier was Mexican Americans’ version of African Americans’ literacy tests.

But not every civil rights leader felt that way. Since there weren’t any Latino elected officials, Berman told me, Latinos needed allies—“people like Barbara Jordan and [civil rights icon] John Lewis, who brought the clout of the civil rights movement to the table.” Jordan was a black congresswoman from Texas who helped people see the link between the black Americans’ voting rights struggles and Latinx.

When I talked to Jordan’s biographer, Mary Beth Rogers, she pointed out that Jordan’s exposure to Latinos in her native Texas were what compelled her to widen those protected by the Voting Rights Act. “She was in tune, before she went to Congress, to the needs of Mexican Americans in Texas,” Rogers said. “That made her open [to the bill] when her staff members brought her the possibility” of updating the VRA. Jordan, who would become known as “the black LBJ,” understood that the language barrier was Mexican Americans’ version of African Americans’ literacy tests.

Jordan believed voting was “the greatest civil right,” Rogers told me, “because she saw that the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and those Supreme Court decisions for redistricting made her journey into politics possible.”

The 1975 extension was passed with strong majorities and signed into law that August. The result was wherever there was 5% of the voting population was language-minority, voting materials had to be offered in that language. That meant Chicanos in Texas, Arizona, and California would be covered as well as Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Asian Americans, Alaskans, and Hawaiians.

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There are 27.3 million potential Hispanic voters eligible this year. But minority voter outreach is expensive, and the New York Times Magazine reported that borderline voters need more than a dozen “touches” or contacts from activists or campaign staffers before they’ll turn out to vote. And yet, a report by the Washington Post from late September found that neither the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee employed Hispanic outreach coordinators.

Although Latinx voter registration is spiking—likely because of Donald Trump’s candidacy—it’s estimated that only 13.1 million will vote in November of that potential 27.3 million. If Latinos can get to the voting booth, they’ll have the power to stop Donald Trump. And don’t worry: We can still keep the taco trucks on every corner.