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Hispanics for Jorge
Another immigrant group wanders off the Democratic plantation.

Monday, November 8, 2004 12:01 a.m.

Democrats are rubbing their eyes in disbelief not just at President Bush's success across America, but also about the fact that a major group they thought would stay on the liberal plantation forever is making a getaway. As they escape out the back door, members of this group are saying "hasta la vista, baby."

This was the election when Hispanics came of age. Two were famously elected into the Senate, providing a powerful symbol of their political advent. To Ken Salazar in Colorado, and to my fellow Cuban-American Mel Martinez in Florida, I send congratulations. But to my mind, much more important are the following numbers from pollsters: 72, 62 and 54. These are, respectively, the percentage of Hispanics that voted for Clinton in 1996, Gore in 2000 and Kerry last week. Two more figures, 50% and 40 million, are, respectively, the increase in Hispanic voters in 2004 over 2000, and the number of Hispanics now in the U.S., a country of 280 million.

Two more stats are really important (and then I'll stop). The first is that 22% of Hispanics told pollsters they were voting for the first time. Of these, the party split was even. This might be the most ominous number for Democrats, since party loyalties are cemented early.

But for the Republicans this is unadulterated good news. It vindicates "Jorge" Bush's hunch that aggressively pursuing the Hispanic vote would pay off. His familiarity with Mexican-Americans in Texas formed in him an instinct. Here was a people who believed in family members looking after each other, who shook their heads in disbelief at the thought of homosexual marriage, and who saw flying the flag as noble. As they owned homes and became middle class, the lure of affirmative action dimmed. And they were still voting Democratic?

Conversely, the emergence of the Hispanic Republican disproves apocalyptic warnings that it could never happen from nativists like Pat Buchanan. It is yet one more sad reminder of the wreck Pete Wilson left behind him in California. Maybe Arnie, with his pro-immigrant ethos, can fix this, too.

The Hispanic entry into Republican ranks comes, for many, at an earlier phase in their American journey than for other immigrant groups. Just think of the Irish, Italians and Jews, who generations after arrival on these shores can still reflexively pull the Democratic lever. Their vestigial loyalty is the result of what has been the Democratic Party's strategy for over a century. The bargain back in the days of Tammany Hall was: We give you the fire and police departments, you give us your vote. Later, patronage changed to goodies like preferences and quotas.

The Hispanic rejection of affirmative action is all the more strange because it cuts against the grain of everything we have been told. Self-appointed black leaders simply took it for granted that the Hispanics would grow their base, and had some success in New York. This is how the seeds of the problems for Democrats were sown, however. The party behaved as though Hispanics were a monolithic group, and that all uniformly saw themselves as a "people of color" or a grievances-plagued "minority." This is not how many recent arrivals--and some other folks who have been here since the 1500s--regard themselves.

That this is the case can be clearly gleaned from the fact that in the 2000 census around 48% of Hispanics identified themselves as white. The label "Hispanic" has always been misleading anyway, since it isn't descriptive of anything racial or ethnic, and basically boils down to having a Spanish surname.

Census officials are envisaging simplifying matters from 2010 by encouraging "Hispanics" to choose one of the traditional racial categories recognized by anthropologists. It is indeed a mystery why actress Cameron Diaz, Yankee hurler Orlando Hernandez, or union activist Cesar Chavez should all be lumped into one group. Of course, the activists at the Puerto Rican and Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Funds, see something sinister about the proposed change.

John Kerry fell for the monolithic myth, too, and paid for it. For example, he targeted the Hispanic audience in Colorado by spending on Spanish-language radio, against the advice of local politicians, who urged the Kerry campaign to buy airtime in English-language media.

A more comic example of miscast pandering came--surprise, surprise!--from his wife Teresa. At a rally in Albuquerque in July she suddenly chilled a formerly cheering crowd by grabbing the mike and gushing, "I'm an immigrant too." A Kerry supporter at the rally, Erlindo Castillo, told the New York Times, "You know what the problem is with this state? Too many Mexicans."

The differences in the groups are wide, and are reflected in our two new senators. Mr. Martinez was born in Cuba and in 1962 was sent here to live with a foster family by parents who couldn't leave Castro's totalitarian hell. Mr. Salazar is the product of a very different story. His ancestors left northern Spain and settled in what is today Santa Fe in 1582. Then, nearly three centuries later, before Colorado was even a state, they set up a ranch in the San Luis Valley that is still in Mr. Salazar's family. He is representative of the 42% of New Mexico's population that is "Hispanic," but thinks of itself as European (and definitely not immigrant).

This is the richness of the Hispanic story. They include Isleños (from the Canaries) who set up in Louisiana in the 1700s, and the descendants of Cubans and Spaniards who've been in the Tampa area since the 1880s, and who now see themselves more as Southerners than anything else. Recent additions include the Colombians, who though little talked about are growing in numbers and influence, and who are proud and don't need the hand-outs, thank you. These realities are often little recognized by our fellow Americans. Indeed, despite reams of copy on the subject, outside the Southwest (and especially in Mr. Kerry's Northeast), Hispanics seem to be entering the national slipstream almost unperceived.

The Bushies seem to get it (and get ready for the next George Bush. The nephew, George P., is actually Hispanic himself, through his mother, and has political aspirations). But for the Democrats--to borrow a famous phrase--this may all have been too nuanced.
Mr. González is editor of The Asian Wall Street Journal's editorial page.

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