Unpacking Latino conservatism

The Center for Latin American and Latinx Studies hosted Geraldo Cadava, author of ‘The Hispanic Republican,’ and Penn political scientist Michael Jones-Correa to help situate Latino voting trends within the longer historical perspective.

Three people sit on a stage at a table
Geraldo Cadava (center), discussed the history of Latino conservatism with political scientist Michael Jones-Correa (right), in a talk moderated by Chenoa Flippen (left).

One narrative that emerged from the 2020 presidential election cycle was how Latinos around the country voted. Donald Trump’s campaign made inroads with Latino voters despite his anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies, but at the same time grassroots efforts helped turn Arizona and Nevada blue. Now, as the midterms loom, media are once again raising the question of how Latinos will vote.

To help situate these recent trends within the longer historical perspective and to ask broader questions about the future of Latino politics, the Center for Latin American and Latinx Studies hosted a chat between Geraldo Cadava, author of “The Hispanic Republican” and professor of history and Latina and Latino Studies at Northwestern University, and Penn political scientist Michael Jones-Correa. Chenoa Flippen, professor of sociology and director of the Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity, and Immigration (CSERI), moderated the talk, held on the first day of Hispanic Heritage Month.

Co-sponsored by La Casa Latina, CSERI, and Penn Migration Initiative, the discussion looked at the history of Latino conservatism from the 1950s to the present and explored its possible future trajectories.

Latino partisanship and identity

The U.S. Latino population has more than quadrupled in the past 40 years, Flippen said in introducing the guests. “We’ve seen a sharp uptick not only in the registration rate among Latinos eligible to vote but also an increase in voter participation,” she said. “Latinos as a force in American politics are not going anywhere, something that we see every election cycle, both in the lead up and in the postmortem.”

That so many people were surprised by the 2020 results—“No one at this table, I’m sure,” Flippen said—shines a light on the fact that Latino party affiliation and how Latinos vote is far from a foregone conclusion.

Cadava told the audience he came to the topic of studying Hispanic conservatives via his grandfather, a Latino Republican from Tucson, Arizona. “I am increasingly frustrated with this idea that the only thing we need to figure out about Latinos is whether we are Republican or Democrat,” he said.

His grandfather, a Colombian-Filipino-Panamanian, loved watching Fox News, and they would have lots of discussions in the 1990s about border security, immigration, welfare, patriotism, and his grandfather’s own military service, which was particularly meaningful for him. His grandfather voted for a Republican for the first time in 1980 when he was working at an Arizona copper mine. He said Ronald Reagan was promising to put more money back into his bi-weekly paychecks in the form of tax cuts.

“Over the past 40 years he has become a loyal Republican to the extent that when I asked him how he felt about Donald Trump in 2016, he said that Donald Trump is a good guy because he’s a Republican. It wasn’t attached to any sort of policy preference,” he said. “I became interested in how one person could start voting for a Republican for a particular reason at one point and then over the years become a truly loyal Republican.”

Cadava noted that, as a historian, he wants to push the conversation to a level deeper than Latino partisanship.

Geraldo Cadava, author of The Hispanic Republican, holds a microphone and gestures as he speaks
Geraldo Cadava (center) is the author of “The Hispanic Republican.”

“It’s more about explaining what I saw to be an understudied, underappreciated facet of Latino identity, more than trying to solve a political riddle,” he said. “I wasn’t trying to figure out how to get one party over the hump to win 51% of the electorate. I was, and still am, interested in explaining Latinos broadly. If anything, there’s a kind of overemphasis on Latinos as voters, with less of an understanding of Latino history and all of the twists and turns and complications in Latino history that have led to this.”

GOP Latino recruiting efforts

Cadava went on to describe the layered and nuanced reasons Latinos have come to the Republican Party, from their own military experiences to anti-Communism movements to Richard Nixon’s outreach to Latinos via business opportunities like the National Economic Development Association.

Nixon was also the first president to make the highly symbolic move of appointing the first Mexican American woman as U.S. Treasurer of the United States. After that, it became a tradition in the 1970s and 1980s for the Republican Party to appoint Hispanic women to this role.

“It’s about inclusion. It’s about bringing Latinos not only into the Republican Party as voters but in these leadership positions,” he said.

In the 1990s the party shifted away from pro-immigration policy, with presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan pushing George H.W. Bush to the right.

“This opened up a debate among Latino Republicans, saying, ‘How can we continue to be loyal to this party that obviously is not interested in immigration?’” he said.

For much of the 1990s and early 2000s, the theory held that the best way for the Republican Party to recruit Latinos was to pass comprehensive immigration reform. That was largely why George W. Bush saw success among Latinos because he and Mexican President Vicente Fox were working together on just such a bill, allegedly the week before 9/11.

“Then 9/11 happened. That shut down all conversation about immigration reform,” Cadava said.

Historical loyalty

He’s found that older Latino conservatives wrestle more with remaining Republican today, which makes the fact that Trump expanded his support in 2020 interesting. It seems to show he activated new Republican voters and the youth.

Cadava said since that political moment he’s had the same conversation with reporters, who seemingly only want to know whether the shift in 2020 is lasting and what it means. “That is just another way of only continuing to learn about Latinos to the extent that they can shape American elections, and I think that we need to have a deeper and earlier conversation about the whole run of Latino history to understand how these various threads have come together,” he said.

Jones-Correa noted that a look at history would make everyone less surprised at something like the voting breakdown of the 2020 election. Survey data even back to the 1960s show that one-third of Latinos in the U.S. typically vote Republican. “This is not new. It’s very consistent,” he said, although it can be puzzling as to why.

Audience questions touched on everything from evangelicalism to how Latina voters are politically activated and the usefulness of the Latino designation as a political identity.

Cadava mentioned the three Mexican American women candidates in South Texas who are running as Republicans right now. Many of their constituents object to the characterization of these politicians as far right. They don’t see them as extreme but rather a reaction to the “radical” nature of today’s left. They are simply conservatives and relatable insiders.

His 2020 book got lots of media attention—attention that continues today—and he said reporters often want him declare whether Latinos are progressive or are natural Republicans.

He noted a recent interview with U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) in which she said Latino conservatives just don’t know their history.

“I think they know the history that they believe about themselves, about their families, the story that they tell about who they are, where they come from, and some are very much not in alignment with what Ocasio-Cortez believes,” he said. “Sometimes I feel like I’m trying to push back too much against Latinos on the left who are saying things like Latino conservatives are sellouts. … But to bring it back to my grandfather, he could freely admit that in the military he experienced and saw discrimination, but it didn’t shake his faith in the United States as a country where he was given all of these opportunities.”

Trying to reduce Latino voters to one easily understood soundbite is unhelpful, he said. “The story of Latino conservatives is, in many ways, just like the story of American conservatives,” he said.