A Latino in the White House? Not yet, but why not?

Julian Castro. Photo by Gage Skidmore | Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

It took 220 years for us to elect our first African American president.

Looks like it’ll take a bit longer before we elect our first Latino.

When news broke last week that Julian Castro had dropped out of the race for the Democratic nomination, I wasn’t terribly surprised. He had a tough row to hoe from the start.

Don’t get me wrong, Castro’s credentials are impeccable. He’s a Harvard graduate, former mayor of San Antonio and ex-secretary of Housing and Urban Development. 

The man is qualified to be president. He’s just not qualified enough.

I say that knowing full well that the single most unqualified man ever elected president of the United States is in office today.

The question isn’t whether Castro is more qualified than President Trump, but how he compares to the other candidates running today – all of whom are more qualified than Trump.

This isn’t an endorsement, but I happen to think that former Vice President Joe Biden and Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are empirically better prepared to lead our nation today, particularly in the wake of the incalculable damage that’s been done in the past three years by Trump to our government institutions and the country’s global reputation.

Yes, I realize some people – mostly Latinos – may think it’s sacrilege for me, a Latino, not to back the only Latino running for president. But in the same way that I don’t think white voters should automatically support white candidates just because they’re white, I don’t believe Latino voters have any obligation to back only Latino candidates. Such knee-jerk support would be hypocritical, bigoted and ultimately self-defeating.

All of that said, do I lament that this will not be the year we elect our first Latinx president? Of course I do. It’s because I also know full well that Latinos are among the single most maligned minority groups in our nation today. 

Hostility, including outright violence, aimed at Latinos has ramped up considerably in the past decade, and especially since Trump’s election. The shooting massacre of 22 people, almost all Latinos, in El Paso by an admitted white supremacist in July was just the most striking evidence of that.

If you are a brown immigrant – and especially if you’re brown and trying to immigrate from almost any Latin American or predominantly Muslim nation – Trump and his immigration policy czar, Stephen Miller, consider you “invaders” with no legitimate claim to share in the fruits of American democracy, even though Miller and Trump are the descendants of immigrants.

And because many Americans presume that the vast majority of Latinos in the U.S. today are immigrants (80 percent of Latinos in the U.S. today are citizens) – even people like me, who was born in Chicago – are routinely regarded as not fully American.

I can’t tell you how many times people have asked me, “Where are you from?” When I say, “Chicago,” some still ask, “No, really, where are you from?”

Castro, to his great credit, ran a campaign that challenged Latino stereotypes on a daily basis.

Yes, he backed strong pro-immigrant policies, but he also proposed a wide range of policy initiatives steeped in facts and his belief that the federal government has a vital role to play in helping Americans address society’s biggest problems, like the deterioration of our public education system, skyrocketing health care costs, the nation’s crumbling transportation and other major infrastructure, the widening wealth and income gap, and the need for major criminal justice reform.

Still, Castro is also something of a unicorn in U.S. politics. 

As Arizona Republic reporter Dianna M. Náñez recently wrote, “Only about 6,700 elected officials [nationwide] are Latino, according to a 2018 analysis by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, or NALEO. That amounts to a political representation rate of 1.2% in local, state and federal elected offices.”

Latinos are about 1 percent of all elected officials in the nation, but 18 percent of the U.S. population.

That has to change. It is changing. Not fast enough for my taste, but it’s changing. 

More Latino candidates are getting elected and Hispanic voters are playing an increasingly critical role in elections across the country. Arizona’s “swing-state” status in the 2020 presidential race has as much to do with our burgeoning Latino voter base as anything else. Nationwide, Latinos will account for the largest bloc of eligible minority voters in the country.

I’m also heartened by the news that Castro is now campaigning with Warren.

Again, this isn’t an endorsement. But I think the country is also long overdue to elect its first woman president – and I’d be the last to complain if her vice president was a Latino named Castro. 

With that kind of experience under his belt, I think he could be president one day.

James E. Garcia
James E. Garcia is a journalist, playwright and communications consultant. He is the editor and publisher of Vanguardia Arizona, which covers Latino news statewide. As a journalist, he has worked as a reporter, columnist, editor and foreign correspondent. He was the first Latino Affairs correspondent for KJZZ, and the first Latino editor of major progressive news weekly in the U.S., The San Antonio Current. James has taught writing, ethnic studies, theater and Latino politics at ASU. He is the producing artistic director of New Carpa Theater Co. and the author of more than 30 plays.