California: Latino voter apathy reflects disconnected media

Ahead of the November 6 elections, CJR invited writers to spotlight stories that deserve closer scrutiny, in their states and beyond, before voters cast their ballots. Read other dispatches from “States of the Union” here.

California is home to 7.7 million eligible Latino voters, the largest such population in the US. When Democrats envision the “blue wave” that will wash the House of its Republican majority, they often attribute its power to Latino voter participation. That simplistic vision is perpetuated by media coverage that depict Latinxs as monolithic, and uniformly anti-Trump.

Latino voter turnout decreased in 2016 from 2012. There are many reasons for the group’s low participation, including a cynicism about politics born in countries where authorities often kill people for civic engagement. More than 60 percent of California’s Latinxs say they haven’t been contacted by any candidate or political party, according to a recent Latino Decisions survey. But it’s not just campaigns that aren’t speaking to Latinxs. Voter apathy is aggravated by news coverage of Latino communities that is disconnected from their diverse realities—something attributable, in part, to too-few Latino journalists. At a recent San Diego event, Maria Hinojosa, host of NPR’s “Latino USA,” said Latino stories are often told by white journalists as if through “binoculars.”

Latino voter concerns don’t exclusively center around immigration—a reality more coverage should reflect. State Senator Kevin De León, who was instrumental in California sanctuary laws and whose parents are Guatemalan, lags far behind his white incumbent rival Dianne Feinstein. California Latinxs care about education, healthcare, and the economy. But they are rarely depicted as three-dimensional, complicated voters whose interests extend beyond immigration—and who don’t always agree on that issue.

California Latinxs are a microcosm of the state’s contradictions. The state that waged war on Trump also has one the country’s most diverse white supremacist populations. Likewise, Mexicans with racist beliefs can be found living in the same neighborhoods as undocumented people. A lingering consequence of US and European imperialism in Latin America is that many Mexicans, Central Americans, and other Latinxs internalize white-supremacist ideals, before and after they cross the border. Their ruling elites are often lighter-skinned than the majority, and pander to US interests. But mainstream news coverage rarely acknowledges the existence of racism among Latinxs.

Journalists should talk to Latinxs who nod their heads when Trump vilifies brown immigrants as “rapists” and “criminals,” and the approaching Honduran exodus as an “invasion” of “gang members.” Just as important, they should delve into the contagious cross-border hate and fear that fuels, and is fueled by, those terms. Why did Mexico send federal police to stop the US-bound caravan, unleashing tear gas and resulting in the death of at least one man? It’s a question the mainstream media has not posed.

Immigration issues don’t revolve around Trump. Until we give voice to the true complexities of this topic, and to Latino communities, the electorate’s so-called “sleeping giant” won’t wake up for elections—let alone the midterms.

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Trump’s attacks against Muslims and Mexicans have echoes in California’s 50th Congressional District, where white Republican incumbent Duncan Hunter has repeatedly and falsely insinuated that his Democratic challenger Ammar Campa-Najjar, a Latino Arab American raised by his Mexican Catholic mother, is a terrorist because of his paternal grandfather’s actions before he was born. Hunter, who was indicted in August for misusing more than $250,000 in campaign funds, also called Muslims “disgusting.” Yet Latinxs, who represent one-third of the district’s eligible voters, may help carry him to victory, either by voting for Hunter or by not showing up at all. Most coverage of this race has failed to note the hate fueled by Hunter’s attacks or has described them as “anti-Muslim” instead of xenophobic, though outlets including KQED and the San Diego CityBeat distinguished themselves by publishing exceptional stories.

“Too often, many of my fellow journalists––particularly white journalists, since most newsrooms are led and populated by white people––choose not to call racism what it is, allowing a white supremacist ideology to hide behind phrases like ‘chain migration,’ ‘anchor babies,’ and ‘rule of law,’” writes Jose Antonio Vargas in Dear America: Notes from an Undocumented Citizen.

Trump has called the midterms an election of the “caravan.” Some believe his disproportionate response to the exodus will mobilize Latinxs against him. Latinx journalists, with roots in multiple worlds, are uniquely positioned to spot the connections and contradictions inherent to such transnational stories. But with mainstream media largely disconnected from Latinxs, such nuanced coverage seems unlikely. With a few notable exceptions, mainstream coverage of the “caravan” fails to put it in context: Decades of US intervention have helped destabilize Central America. When covering Trump’s threats to revoke aid from Central American countries for not halting the exodus, most reporters omitted the fact that the US provides the region with millions of dollars a year to purchase US guns, fueling the bloodshed sending them north.

Before covering the US-Mexico border under the Trump administration, I covered it under Obama, whose administration deported a record number of people. One of the reasons California Latinxs aren’t united against Trump is because they know, despite what mainstream media tells them, that the wall doesn’t belong to Trump alone; they saw the steel barriers rise east from the Pacific Ocean under Clinton. Border militarization began in the 1990s as NAFTA contributed to illegal immigration from Mexico. California’s sprawling farms welcomed the surge of cheap labor, a flight that crippled Mexico’s countryside. The so-called “broken” immigration system is a bipartisan creation, and California Latinxs reap the benefits at the same time that Attorney General Xavier Becerra fights to protect immigrants from it. Too few stories explore those paradoxes. We need more journalists covering them: more diversity, immigration and Latinx beats.

The literal distance between most journalists and the border surely contributes to the flawed national coverage. San Diego is home to the country’s busiest port of entry, the site of Trump’s border wall prototypes, and the legal battle over family separations. But national news outlets don’t have bureaus here. When Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen held a White House press briefing about family separations this summer, she falsely stated that the US was “not separating families legitimately seeking asylum at ports of entry.” None of the reporters in the room pointed out that this was false—perhaps because they weren’t at the ports, reporting on the law-abiding asylum-seekers who were being separated. It’s still happening.

False portrayals of family separations as a law-enforcement strategy curtailed public outrage by allowing people, including California Latinxs, to compartmentalize the policy’s victims as “other”—as criminals. Journalists haven’t done enough to show that this practice didn’t start or end with “zero tolerance.” Immigration issues don’t revolve around Trump. Until we give voice to the true complexities of this topic, and to Latino communities, the electorate’s so-called “sleeping giant” won’t wake up for elections—let alone the midterms.

Spanish-language news outlets like Univision have ongoing campaigns to increase Latino voter turnout with public service announcements and more. But US-based Latinxs are an increasingly young population that relies on English-language news. León Krauze, a Los Angeles–based Univision reporter and one of the highest profile California reporters fighting openly for Latino civic engagement, says mainstream media needs to do more to mobilize Latinxs.

This spring, Krauze became the first US-based journalist to moderate a Mexican presidential debate. He asked the candidates, including now president-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador, how they planned to protect US-based immigrants—blurring the traditional lines between US and Mexico policy. As everyone scratches their heads about Latino voter turnout, something else has been awakening south of the border: a leadership that promises to fight for Mexico’s most vulnerable people, both domestically and abroad. Like Krauze, we’d do well to examine it.

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Jean Guerrero is the PEN-winning author of Crux: A Cross-Border Memoir, and an Emmy-winning investigative reporter covering the US-Mexico border for KPBS, the NPR and PBS affiliate in San Diego. Before joining public media, she was a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones Newswires in Mexico City. You can follow her on Twitter @jeanguerre.