Esther J. Cepeda: Will ‘sleeping giant’ wake?

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CHICAGO — With but a few weeks until Election Day, now is as good a time as any to review some recent headlines about the Latino vote.

In early September, Emmy Award-winning actress America Ferrera gave attendees at a Democratic National Convention forum a hard-core reality check.

“It is incredibly dangerous to take for granted that because Latinos are growing in number in this country this is going to equal political engagement and political resolve,” said Ferrera. “One doesn’t automatically lead to the other.”

She was speaking the truth, of course. But after a full year of breathless coverage about how this could be the year Latinos determine the outcome of the presidential election — who can forget Time magazine’s first-ever Spanish-language cover “Yo Decido” (“I decide”) last March? — some folks are just plain freaked out.

Naturally, then, when Mitt Romney joked at a fundraiser that he’d have an easier time getting the Latino vote if he were Hispanic — and I dare anyone to pretend this is not true — people were upset.

Shortly after, President Obama was grilled by news anchors at the Spanish-language channel Univision and, in a fit of Hispandering, declared that not passing comprehensive immigration reform was the biggest failure of his first term.

Really? It wasn’t his administration’s failure to make job creation and economic recovery the top priority from Day One in office? The only real surprise was that Obama didn’t get pilloried in the mainstream press for such outrageous remarks, but I guess what gets said on Spanish-language TV stays on Spanish-language TV.

Nearing the end of September, a civil rights group called the Advancement Project put out a report that said changes in voting rules could deter 10 million Hispanics from exercising their franchise.

The report was right in the wheelhouse of those who have been pushing the idea that Republicans have entered into a national conspiracy to deny minorities the right to vote, but more sober Hispanic vote-watchers wasted no time in weighing in.

“I think the number is a little bit exaggerated,” Arturo Vargas of the National Association of Elected and Appointed Officials told a reporter for Voxxi, a Hispanic news website. Angelo Falcon, president of the National Institute for Latino Policy, said that lacking any viable projection for measuring Latino turnout, the numbers are speculative at best.

What you probably will find surprising is that the Pew Hispanic Center says that as many as 71 percent of Latino registered voters support laws that require voters to show photo identification to cast a ballot, a number tacking pretty closely to the 77 percent of all registered voters who support such measures.

A whopping 97 percent of Latinos surveyed said they are confident they have the ID needed to vote in their state and 95 percent said so in the 11 states where the ID laws are already in place. But you won’t hear much about this because it doesn’t play into the victim narrative I see so manyorganizations promoting.

Then there’s Hispanic voter enthusiasm — various polls say there isn’t much of it. A recent Impremedia/Latino Decisions survey implied that this may be related to Hispanic registered voters not being very familiar with Latino elected officials.

Thirty-six percent of respondents had never heard of Antonio Villaraigosa, Los Angeles mayor and chairman of the Democratic National Convention Committee. Fifty percent had not heard of New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, one of the top speakers at the Republican National Convention, and 38 percent had not heard of Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who goaded Obama into action on DREAM Act-eligible students.

This spurred the talking heads to comment that the candidates needed to do more to shore up Hispanic support.

Please. The candidates have just spent Hispanic Heritage Month pleading for Latino support. Hispanics who don’t know who their top U.S. political leaders are just haven’t been paying attention. They’ll be to blame if 24 million voting-eligible Latinos don’t make election history this November and instead keep the “sleeping giant” comfortably tucked in bed.

ESTHER J. CEPEDA is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group.


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