With Latinos becoming the country's largest minority group as of 2002, they are now starting to change the tone and dynamics of the discussion on race and politics in America.
"For the first time in history, we have stopped living in a black/white paradigm in this country because one sector of the population is outgrowing the others and we don't understand how to deal with it," said Mike Madrid, a nationally recognized expert on Latino voting trends.
On Jan. 16, approximately 300 people gathered at the Crest Theatre in downtown Sacramento to watch a special screening of 'Race 2012' -- a PBS documentary by Phillip Rodríguez, which takes a deeper look into how the changing racial landscape is altering American politics.
The viewing was followed by a discussion moderated by Madrid and several other panelists that included:
Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data Inc., the state's largest provider of voter information to political campaigns, consultants and pollsters;
Bill Wong, a political consultant that specializes in the advocacy, voting and fundraising power of California's Asian Pacific American communities;
and, Pilar Marrero, a journalist and senior political editor for La Opinión. She most recently wrote the book 'Killing the American Dream.'
Latinos -- who already make up the largest ethnic group in California at 38 percent are not only influencing voting trends and patterns, but are challenging the rhetoric on issues that continue to stigmatize the community such as immigration.
"For a long time politicians have used the issue of immigration to distract and undermine issues that are more important and relevant to the community. The middle class -- which is the most important class has an array of issues that need to be addressed and rarely are because immigration is always at the forefront. It's an easy and plain issue to frame and even easier to do nothing about," said Marrero.
Given the rapidly changing demographics, the panelists agree America is undergoing a loss of 'whiteness.'
For the first time in 70 years, whites believe their kids will not be better off than themselves in the classroom, at work, or in the economy. Yet, Latinos and African-Americans are at a turning point. They appear to be more optimistic about their children's future, the opportunities that are being created and the doors that are finally beginning to open for them.
"With the changes that are happening, Latinos are rewriting the narrative to this country. They are changing history and they are doing it in different ways because they are not a monolithic group. They draw their heritage from a mix of cultures," said Matt A. Barreto, a political science professor at the University of Washington.
In the documentary, Rodríguez interviews a number of experts in racial identity and politics who believe the black/white paradigm that existed since the 60s that gave rise to the Civil Rights Movement is finally shifting and being left to history.
"There is strong evidence that indicates Latinos will surpass whites by as early as this June so the framework we have been using with voting trends is changing and will continue to change given Latinos make up 52 per cent of the growth of the voting block," said Mitchell.
Despite the media frenzy that surrounded President Obama's re-election, which was attributed to the Latino vote, Rodríguez believes it wasn't necessarily Latinos who were responsible for his re-election.
"Every four years, aspiring presidents rediscover Latinos. They dismiss us as if we are this new phenomenon and we are not. The information about Latinos is outdated, behind the curb and ignorant to facts. California is a prime example of that. We are already the majority in most places," said Rodríguez.
What inspired Rodríguez to create the documentary was the quickness in which Latinos presence began to spring into the radar. Marrero attributes it to the tone partisan politics played in the topic of immigration.
"I had a difficult time understanding what it meant to be 'Latina' when I came to the United States," said Marrero who was born in Venezuela.
"I had to discover what it meant to be 'Latina' because for as long as I know, people from Latin América draw their roots to their countries of origin like Colombia, Perú, Nicaragua -- and here in the United States we are all under this umbrella of 'Latino,' " she said.
This so-called "umbrella" is responsible for gluing together people from Latin America based on the commonality of sharing the Spanish language despite their cultural and racial differences. "Latino" has become a pan ethnic term that Marrero says, is responsible for "unifying most, if not all Latinos on how they feel about immigration and the rhetoric that is given by either political parties."
"The anti-immigrant rhetoric brought on my Republicans really unified Latinos last year. As a whole, it set the tone for the way they voted in the most recent presidential election but it also taught us something about the way immigrants are seen," said Marrero.
According to her research, its not just Latinos that have been marginalized, but the question of their legal status has become more of a racial issue than about immigration itself.
"Immigrants who come to this country are not just Latino and we tend to forget that when we hear anything about immigration reform. The image that has become the face of immigration is the dark skin Mexican, not the Canadian, Irish or Korean," said Marrero.
The way immigration is being represented is limiting the scope of the Latino agenda and what really needs to get done so other important issues like education, health and the economy -- who have all been at the forefront -- get the attention they merit.
"Right now we are facing a shortage of professionals and we are having to bring people from overseas because we are not investing in education and we are increasing fees making it more difficult for people to have access so we are going to experience a loss if things don't begin to turn the tide," said Marrero.
Madrid -- who works locally in Sacramento as a political consultant and who has worked for the California Republican Party says California is already at a turning point.
"California is increasingly younger, poorer and browner and the state is trying to figure out how it's going to survive or thrive moving forward. It will be a question of the kind of policy issues they address and how it will impact the growing demographic," said Madrid.
But for Latinos, the demographic changes will give them an edge.
"This is the first time in American racial politics that Latinos have a voice and they are moderating that voice because they are at the forefront. It's never been the case before so the question now is what are they going to decide?" said Madrid.
Rodríguez says the whole idea behind his documentary is meant to give rise to just that -- and is also a farewell to the black and white paradigm politics of the past and a welcoming of the Latino phenomenon that is here to stay.
"It will be a story about how 'they' -- meaning, African Americans and whites will deal with us. I think they will and to some extent, already are going to try to figure us out finally, but they are still behind the curb," said Rodríguez.
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