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Feature 061112 Villarreal

Monday, June 11, 2012

Conservatism in the USA vis-à-vis the 2012 Hispanic Vote

By Rosa Martha Villarreal

It seems that with every presidential cycle the question of the Hispanic vote emerges in the national consciousness.  Though the Hispanic vote has been reliably Democratic, the Republican Party finds it more urgent than ever to make some significant inroads.  The Republicans' hope centers on two premises: (1) that the economy and not immigration is the central issue for Hispanic voters; and (2) Hispanics are socially conservative.  Even a review of the recently released historical film For Greater Glory, which depicts Mexico's Cristero War, became an opportunity for the Republican-based Fox News reviewer to extrapolate some kind of political insight into the Hispanic consciousness.

A historical perspective offers some insights into these assumptions, and the logical conclusion is not one that favors any shift to the Republicans in the near term.

First, it is important to address and define what is meant by "socially conservative."  The Republican establishment assumes that their idea of social conservatism is "universal."  Today's American conservatism disdains government, especially when it comes to social engineering and the regulation of select natural liberties.  This conservatism is strongly ideological and its adherents maneuver around empirical facts that refute their worldview.  Though conservatives claim to champion freedom, they generally repudiate the notion of personal liberties when it comes to gay marriage and women's reproductive rights.  

It is true that Hispanics (here in the US and around the world) are conservative, but this conservatism is cut from a different cloth.  The Hispanic version is a "progressive" conservatism, so to speak.  Take, for example, that gay marriage is legal in places like Spain, Argentina, and Mexico City.  Argentina has recently approved a law that allows for transgender people to change their identities.  Though there is visible consternation in more religious, middle class circles, the reaction is nothing like the politically organized resistance and antagonism of American conservatives.

Historically Hispanic societies have been amendable to change so long as these changes do not annihilate previous forms and social character.  The earliest manifestation of this phenomenon is evidenced in indigenous Iberians (the forefathers of Hispanics and mixed race Latinos) after the Roman conquest of Hispania.  Solomon Klein, in his essay "The Indigenous Role in the Romanization of Hispania Following the Augustan Conquests," describes how primitive Hispanics allowed for a process of self-Romanization, adapting Roman constructs but on their own terms.  Unlike dissenting cultures (i.e., Judea), Iberian communities adapted Roman deities and political institutions to their own gods and existing traditions respectively.  This syncretistic pattern continued with Spain's conquests in the Americas, where local indigenous customs and deities were adapted into existing Hispanic traditions.  The names of the local deities were Hispanicized, such as the Aztec goddess Tonantzín as the Virgin of Guadalupe.

In the US, Hispanics, particularly those of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent, have transformed the notion of male honor and patriotism into a devotion for military service, particularly the Marines.  Hispanic conservatism, thus, is a continuous tradition of simultaneity, keeping the old while integrating the new.

In Hispanic culture, nothing, not even religious ideology, supersedes the family.  As D.H. Lawrence once said, "Born before God was love."  For Hispanics the family and blood fealty is love institutionalized a hallowed tradition.  A family member's difference in life's preference may cause discord, but it stays within the family.  And whether they reconcile those differences or not, Hispanics do not allow outsiders to disparage their family members.

More importantly, it is bad form -- our form of social conservatism -- to inject oneself into another family's internal affairs.  Though laws against homosexuality have been on the books, there has always been a recognition that especially men had sexual liberties.  Many gays accommodated the desires of their families by marrying (in a heterosexual relationship) yet engaging in their preferred sexual exploits.  Every extended family has a defiant female rebel -- a cultural archetype -- which has been lionized in folklore and literature.

On the economy, Hispanic voters agree with most Americans that this is an area of grave concern.  The recession has hurt our community as a whole, but those of us with college educations suffered significantly less.  We see education, especially post-secondary education, as crucial to the advancement of the community and prefer an aggressive government policy -- yes, more government -- to expand public educational opportunities.  However, the only educational agenda that the Republicans champion is vouchers for private schools, which is a roundabout way of funding pseudo-disciplines such as Creationism and a white-washed version of history that perpetuates the notion of Anglo-centric exceptionalism. 

This is not to say that private education, especially that of Catholic institutions, is not praiseworthy.  However, the nature of private, religiously-based education is to instill the world vision of the institution that controls it.  Public education, on the other hand, consists of a religiously neutral curriculum based on empiricism and critical thinking.  Despite the Right's assertion that secularism is morally evil, history has proven otherwise.  Secular constructs increase the quality of life and ensure more liberties than those of conservative, religiously-oriented societies.  A prominent example is the repressive theocracy of Iran.

Republicans can send a signal of seismic proportions to Hispanics by supporting the Dream Act.  The young people who would be eligible for citizenship through the Dream Act were brought into the country not of their own accord as minors.  Not all young people under this category would be eligible, only those who have completed either two years of college or served in the U.S. military.  What is troubling is not just the Republican Party's unwillingness to consider the merits of the bill. They refuse to repudiate the strident, thinly veiled racist remarks of their rank and file, despite the urging of (the few) Hispanic Republicans to be more respectful.  Republicans allegedly claim they are only against illegal immigration -- a position most Hispanics hold -- and further claim that the ideal legal immigrant should be fluent in English, educated, and assimilated in modernity.  The young people who are eligible for a path to citizenship under the Dream Act fit this description exactly.  Could it be that the Republicans are opposed to the bill because the majority of its beneficiaries would be Hispanics?

It would also be helpful if the Republicans would understand the difference between Hispanics of Mexican/Puerto Rican descent versus those of Cuban descent.  There are distinct narratives for these groups.  The former two came by way of conquests by America (1848 and 1898) and were treated with disdain and contempt until they were strong enough demographically to demand equality, whereas the later were permitted entrance and generously lavished with aid to goad Fidel Castro.  This cavalier ignorance only reinforces our perception that the Republicans are indifferent to the Hispanic narrative in American history.

The Republicans' promise of economic opportunity is an empty gesture if it comes at the cost of marginalization and scapegoating.  They need to stop regarding us as alien, hostile, and fungible laborers.  Like our forefathers in ancient Hispania, we do not seek a separate nation within a nation but a self-determined integration.  Our preference for cultural simultaneity and syncretism does not make us less American nor disloyal to the American nation-state and its Western creed. 

If the Republicans are serious about reaching out, they can start by being more respectful and learning about Hispanic history and culture rather than relying on ugly stereotypes.  The reviewer for the aforementioned For Greater Glory, for example, could not resist the racist generalization that Mexicans' bloodlust goes back to the Aztecs.  That is as absurd as saying that the Hatfield-McCoy feud was a manifestation of Scottish barbarism dating back to William Wallace. 

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©Rosa Martha Villarreal.  Rosa Martha Villarreal is an award-winning novelist and essayist, and a member of PEN USA.  A native of Houston, Texas, she is a long-time California resident and graduate of San Jose State University where she holds bachelor's degrees in the biological sciences and English, and a M.A. in English.

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