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Latino Political Power is There

  ·  Sylvia Puente
This blog post was originally published in the NiLP Report on Latino Politics and Policy February 22, 2016. The NiLP Report asked a number of Latino opinion leaders across the United States to respond to the issues raised by journalist Roberto Suro in his January 2nd New York Times opinion piece, "Whatever Happened to Latino Political Power?"
As it seems to happen every election year—Latinos as a voting bloc suddenly become the 'it' topic for national conversation. Big media and political pundits take turns musing over why Latinos are 'stuck' on the issue of immigration; the root of their apathy for candidates on either side of the party line; or why they 'fail' to show up on Election Day. They talk about the Latino electorate as a monolith; they argue that Latinos don't vote at the rates they could be-often failing to peel back all the layers of contradicting circumstances this electorate faces. There is often an emphasis on the Latino responsibility to vote, yet rarely are systemic solutions offered to lower barriers to voting.
Advocates that work to build Latino power on a daily basis are well acquainted with paradoxical behaviors of one of the nation's fastest-growing demographics.  Latino political influence is not monolithic but one that is complex and politically divergent.
For every downward trend that limits Latinos at the ballot boxes, there is an upward swing that increases their political voice.
Latinos do not vote at the same rates as their White and Black peers. But voter apathy isn't a Latino-specific problem. The 2014 midterm elections saw the lowest turnout in 70 years, with less than half the eligible population casting a ballot. And while it's true that Latino voter turnout rates are lower than other groups, yet or paradoxically more Latinos are expected to cast a vote in 2016 than ever before. According to Latino Decisions, 13.1 million Latinos will show up at the polls this year, compared to 11.2 million in 2012.
Mexican nationals eligible for citizenship do not naturalize at higher rates-or even the same- than other immigrants. But low levels of citizenship don't take away from the largest cohort of eligible Latino voters: millennials. According to the Pew Research Center , Latino Millennials now make up 44 percent of a record 27.3 eligible Latino voters. U.S. born Latino youth will not only become the next generation of Latino political players but will also greatly influence overall political engagement.
So how do we change the narrative on Latino electoral participation?
Linguistic and culturally-relevant outreach, by candidates and grassroots organizations alike, can play a key role in either shifting electoral distrust or creating a culture of voting, where one may not exist.
If we're to learn anything from last month's Iowa caucuses, it's that a proactive and targeted investment in the Latino electorate can result in higher turnout. And engagement must go beyond a focus on immigration. While it's a top issue for Latino voters, poll afterpoll suggests they care about the same issues as all voters. There are more Latino nonprofit organizations that focus on education than any other issue; and the economy, the environment, and health care consistently emerge as top concerns.  
Will we ever see Latino voting strength realized to its fullest potential?  Firsthand, I reflect on the thousands of instances I've witnessed democracy in action through my work at the Latino Policy Forum: parents trekking hours to our state capitol to advocate for their children's future; community leaders helping others navigate the complexities of immigration reform; or college students being trained in understanding their fair housing rights. Everywhere I look, Latinos are participating in the civic life of our communities.
Their direct actions are the manifestation of an undeniable political influence. If you have to ask, "Whatever happened to Latino political power?" I'd argue you're not looking hard enough.