A lot of people are confused – and disappointed – by the so-called ‘Latino vote’. Especially by the so-called ‘Latino vote’ in Florida, more than half of which, according to CNN, went to Trump (compared to 35 per cent in 2016). Trump has called Mexicans rapists, ran for office on building a border wall with Mexico, and puts Latino children in cages. Why, you might wonder, would so many Latinos want him in charge?
If you search for ‘white passing latinos’ on Twitter, you’ll see the phrase being given as both cause and explanation for why some Latinos voted for Trump. The logic seems to be that, while ‘Latinos’ are a non-white racial group, some Latinos can ‘pass’ for white, and this access to whiteness – with all its power and privileges – tempts these Latinos to forgo solidarity with their fellow Latinos, and vote for Trump.
This is a bad take. ‘Latino’ is not a race. Latino just means from Latin America, and if you go to Latin America, you’ll see it’s full of white people and black people and brown people, like the US. Think about Bolsonaro, and now think of Pelé – they are both ‘Latino’. White Latinos aren’t ‘white-passing’; they’re just white. (‘White passing’ is a term with a very specific US history: it’s when Black people with light enough skin live as white. This is not what white Latinos in the US are doing.)
Latin America came into being in much the same way as the United States: settler colonialism. Across the Americas and the Carribean, through the 1500s and beyond, white Europeans invaded, settled, killed most of the indigenous population, and forcibly transported more than 10 million enslaved people from Africa to the New World. Just as in the US, race has been at work in Latin America for centuries, in order to enrich the ruling classes. And just as in the US, Latin America is now populated by the descendants of white settlers, enslaved people and indigenous people. There has been more mixing and less segregation in Latin America than the US, but their foundational racial hierarchies remain broadly the same.
The history of the 20th century matters too, especially when it comes to Florida. During the Cold War, US-backed coups installed rightwing dictatorships across Latin America. These coups relied on, and were administered by, enthusiastic right-wing ‘Latinos’, who hated ‘socialism’ and ‘communists’ as much as their North American backers did. This ruling class is alive and well among Latin Americans at home and in the diaspora: Bolsonaro, for example, frequently and openly praises the Brazilian dictatorship; his son, Eduardo, apparently cried when he saw Biden’s lead in the electoral college.
The US of course didn’t manage to install rightwing dictatorships everywhere in Latin America during the Cold War, the most notable exception being Cuba. Many Latino voters in Florida are Cuban-Americans: exiles, who fled or were kicked out after the revolution. Unsurprisingly, they tend to be militantly anti-socialist and anti-communist. And for many, rich and white, socialism directly threatens their class interests. This is not to say their experience wasn’t traumatic or their fear isn’t sincerely held – simply that it makes sense right-wing candidates appeal to them, and they can be mobilised by the threat of socialism.
Latinos are as complex a voting block – and from as complicated a continent – as North Americans. Some Latinos are Guatemalans of indigenous descent without papers or access to the formal economy or education; they might cross the Mexico-US border illegally. Some Latinos are black; they might come on a plane from Brazil with a temporary visa. Some Latinos are rich businessmen who can trace their European ancestry, US citizens whose maids and drivers are black or brown Latinos without papers. These white Latinos are more likely to look Italian than Irish, but at home they are the white oppressors. In some ways, they are the most natural Trump supporters of all.