The Fickle Sleeping Giant

"You should never talk about politics with your family," is a common saying that many of us chose to challenge during the recent recall election. So, there I was with my family, sitting around a table in a low-income neighborhood of Southeast Los Angeles.

"Don't tell me who to vote for!" roared my uncle, a Salvadoran immigrant who came to Los Angeles in the early 80s to escape the civil war and to provide better economic opportunities for his family. Now, more than 20 years later, he still lives in an overcrowed apartment in Pico Union, a Central American neighborhood in Central Los Angeles, earns a minimum wage salary, has no health benefits and no access to other social services.

The promise of a better life has not become a reality for him or for many of the other Latin American immigrants living in Los Angeles. They, like the rest of the California population, are fed up with false promises by "lofty" politicians on their way to the top. They did not see nor benefit from the dot-com boom of the 90s. For them, the California economy only affects them negatively. During low points they lose their jobs; in the high points they have steady employment, but never enjoy the benefits of a raise or stock options and face pressures from the higher cost of living that come with an economic boom.

"They are all corrupt," my uncle growled. I would not be surprised if my uncle and the rest of my family join the 28 percent of Latinos who voted for the recall and for Schwarzenegger.

There are 11.9 million Latinos in California and we represent about both a third of the state's population and the biggest Hispanic community in any state. Yet, because of the social ills from which our adopted country suffers -- low levels of education, high-school drop out rates among people of color, and lack of inclusion of immigrant populations to the mainstream -- Latinos continue to be the sleeping giant in California and the nation's politics.

While many news outlets characterized the recall election as a revolt, some of us are convinced that it was more of coup. Could you call the recall a revolt when "most of voters who cast ballots in Tuesday's recall election were white, female, Republican, college-educated and financially comfortable, with more than half of interviewed voters reporting a household income of $50,000 or more" (CNN)? When I think of revolt I think of the people at the bottom voicing their objections and demanding change. Yet voter turnout in the low-income communities of color and other disenfranchised groups was lower than expected.

And maybe it wouldn't have made a difference in the outcome of this election. I wonder if many more voters from these groups came to the polls, would they, like my family, be more likely to vote for the newcomer rather than the experienced politician in the know? A large percentage of the California Latino population are naturalized citizens from countries in Latin America. To many of these new US citizens, government and elections have always meant corruption, political violence and human rights abuses. Now, in their new US context, they see signs of corruption such as the Florida fiasco and outrageous amounts of money that politicians are forced to raise to be in the game. Both the negative experiences of the past and the growing evidence of corruption in US politics impact the way Latinos are voting, or even whether they choose to engage in the first place.

The recall election is a wake-up call, not just for the Democratic Party, which continues to demand blind faith and loyalty from its constituency, despite broken promises and an inability to provide an alternative platform to the Republican agenda, but also to all organizations engaged in issues of fairness. To many of us, the election of Schwarzenegger means that our message is not getting through; that we are not speaking in a language that appeals to and supports the people we say we are fighting for. The question we must all face is: Why would a muscleman movie star with no experience appeal to both the top half and the bottom third?

Ana Perez is director of Cuba programs for Global Exchange

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