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Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Tea Party and Latinos: A Lesson in Political Diversity

The loose confederation of disaffected voters known as the Tea Party movement has emerged as a force in U.S. politics. The Tea Party's connection with Latinos illustrates the widespread stereotypes about the nation's largest minority group: a Hispanic is the Tea Party's presumptive leader -- even as a recent poll suggests many Latinos don't even know the movement exists.

"The First Senator from the Tea Party?" asked a New York Times Magazine cover story in January. The article featured Marco Rubio, the U.S.-born son of Cuban exiles and a former Florida state legislator who many have anointed the heir apparent of the Tea Party movement. Rubio's conservative ideology, a staple of Miami's Cuban exile community, has fired the imagination of Tea Party supporters. Rubio's Hispanic heritage has not hurt him either. In a movement whose rallies reflect all the diversity of a NASCAR event, the Tea Party faithful seem eager to endorse someone who adds some color to their monochrome faction (although most Americans would be hard pressed to identify Rubio as a Latino based on his appearance). It's even possible some on the right harbor the hope of a Barrack Obama-type emergence from obscure minority politician to national leader. An A-List of conservative luminaries has already joined Rubio's fan club including Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, Michelle Malkin and George Will. Parlaying this support, Rubio is mounting a challenge against a well-heeled fellow Republican for his party's nomination to one of Florida's U.S. Senate seats, Governor Charlie Crist.

Marco Rubio's meteoric rise brings into question one of the favorite political stereotypes about Latinos: most pundits portray Latinos as a monolithic bloc solidly in the Democratic camp. Ironically, it now appears the most prominent Hispanic politician of the century's second decade may turn out to be a far-right Republican. Is Rubio's rise in right wing circles an indication of a tectonic shift in the U.S. political landscape? Don't bet on it.

A recent survey by The Field Poll reported only 41percent of Latinos in California had ever heard of the Tea Party and only 5 percent of Hispanics identify with the movement. In contrast, 72 percent of the Non-Hispanic Whites polled were aware of the Tea Party movement and 35 percent of them identified at least somewhat with its issues. Of course, were this poll taken in Florida where Marco Rubio enjoys wide support, the results would likely be vastly different. The take-away here is that Hispanic communities differ widely across the nation -- a fact seemingly lost on many political "experts."

What does all this prove? The Latino connection with the Tea Party phenomenon illuminates the pitfalls of equating political affiliation with ethnicity -- especially for Latinos. Polls for Non-Hispanic Whites are often subdivided by income, education and geography. However, pollsters, politicians and the media routinely treat Hispanic voters as a monolithic bloc. What would the poll results be if Hispanic voters were segregated demographically the way Non-Hispanic Whites are? No one knows -- and therein lays the problem. Until we recognize the diversity within all minority groups, we will continue to discriminate against them -- even by well-meaning institutions and individuals.

The contrast between Marco Rubio's ascendancy in the Tea Party and the movement's lack of awareness among California's Latinos is just the latest installment in a long-running story the U.S. media continues to miss.

Raul Ramos y Sanchez