Jessica Lavariega Monforti asked 50 people gathered in a ballroom the same question about their identity two times — and got two drastically different answers, driving home a point about harnessing the potential power of Latino politics in time for November’s presidential election.
The question: “Which of the following is closest to the way you identify?”
Audience members could pick from several options in her poll by texting a choice from their phone, watching the results pour in live from a screen: Dominican/Dominican American, Puerto Rican, Cuban/Cuban American, Mexican/Mexican American, Other country of origin (Guatemala, Ecuador, Spain, etc.), Latina/o/x or Hispanic, or Something else.
The first time Lavariega Monforti put the poll up, 18 percent of respondents opted for “Latina/o/x or Hispanic.” Twenty-five minutes later, Lavariega Monforti posed the same question — and this time, 64 percent of respondents chose “Latina/o/x or Hispanic” over identifying with their country of origin.
“I didn’t expect 100 percent, but this is pretty amazing,” Lavariega Monforti said.
But how had she convinced nearly half of the room to identify with the broader label over a more specific one?
What’s in a Name?
Lavariega Monforti, chair of the department of political science at Pace University, posed the question Wednesday night during a keynote speech at an annual forum held by the Progreso Latino Fund of the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven. The panel discussion, held in the New Haven Lawn Club ballroom, was entitled “Latino Leadership: The Latino/a Political Identity.”
The political scientist said that national data shows: Most Latinos identify themselves in more specific terms, specifying a country of origin.
“We’ve decided as a national series of communities that we are more different than we’re alike,” she said. “We are setting boundaries, and that has political consequences.”
If the United States is an ocean, then these individual groups, such as Cuban Americans and Puerto Ricans, represent creatures of the sea.
“This is what we have going on all over our country: big fish and small fish all going off together, kind of going in same direction,” she said. “But we’re not organized. We’re not unified. We’re not talking to one another. And that big fish can come for any one of us at this there at their will.”
Lavariega Monforti called for the “cosmic race” — a diverse-ranging group of people — to switch from self-identifying by country to pan-ethnic labels, such as Latino/a/x.
By forming a unified political front under such a pan-ethnic label, Latino voters could make or break the presidential election this November, she argued. After all, many Latino voters consider their top policy issues to center around immigration reform. As of last week, polls showed 72 percent of Latinos across the U.S. backing Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton over Republican Donald Trump, who has called for deporting millions of immigrants and depicted Mexcians as thugs and rapists.
These voters skew young — Lavariega Monforti reminded the audience that each month, 55,000 Latinos turn 18 in the United States.
“Why do you think they are scared of us?” she asked. “The wave isn’t coming. It’s already here. It’s important to bring those young folks along with us.”
Many of those young folks have mixed ancestry, therefore being more likely to opt for a pan-ethnic label, Lavariega Monforti noted. But the rest of the crowd can also remember that identity is situational: “Sometimes I’m Latina, sometimes I’m Cuban American, sometimes I’m just an American,” she said.
Lavariega Monforti said she herself first made a conscious decision to switch labels when she moved to south Texas and recognized that “Cuban American” wasn’t nearly as recognized as “Hispanic.” Her message resonated deeply with attendees Wednesday evening.
Samantha Quiñones, a student at Fairfield University, said that she had originally identified herself as Puerto Rican in the first poll the speaker gave. But by the time the second poll rolled around, Quiñones ran with “Latina/o/x or Hispanic.”
“Her words spoke to me,” Quiñones said. “It’s our duty to prepare the world for what’s to come.”
For other attendees, like Lauren Villanova, a recent college graduate who drove down from Hamden for the panel, the over 50,000 Latinos turning of voting age each month was a staggering statistic.
“I had no idea that was the figure,” she said. “That’s pretty wild.”
John Padilla, who founded the Progreso Latino Fund with his wife Frances, admitted he was too “hardcore” to have switched over to the “Latino/a/x” label in the second poll. He pointed to another number Lavariega Monforti had named over her talk: half of eligible Latino voters are under the age of 35.
“Her point was well taken,” Padilla said. “You really have to think of the big picture in terms of political power.”