NYU Professor Talks Latinos and Authentic Political Representation

How can the claims representatives make about their constituents influence the way that their constituents think and vote? New York University professor Cristina Beltrán tackled this idea as well as other ideas from her upcoming book, tentatively titled “The Right Kind of Difference: Latino Republicans and the Pleasures of Race,” during a lecture at UConn Tuesday.

Beltrán spoke about the commonly held idea that Latinos are often seen as “either saving or destroying the Republican party.” She noted that when George W. Bush won 40 percent of the Latino vote in 2004, many claimed the turnout as proof of Ronald Reagan’s infamous statement that Hispanics are already conservatives, but they don’t yet know it.

However, when 71 percent of Latinos voted for Barack Obama in 2012, they were categorized as big-government liberals, inciting conservatives to argue that they should limit immigration and rely on white voters for elections.

“Latinos are characterized as a problem to be solved,” Beltrán said. Beltrán noted that in most research on conservatives, conservatives of color generally aren’t mentioned. Latino scholars recognize Latino conservatives as a “present non-presence.”

However, while the number of Latino Democrats outnumbers the number of Latino Republicans in political office, there has been a 22.5 percent increase in Latino GOP voters since 2006.

Because they fail to win the majority of Latino voters in their respective states, Beltrán said that these politicians are viewed as “inauthentic and in some sense not really Latino.”

Beltrán argues that as the Republican party is facing a growing Latino electorate, they have needed to utilize the “practice of representation,” which she describes as a “dynamic process of claim making and claim receiving.”

She focused on the idea of influencing aesthetic judgments, which come from an emotional, sensory place and can’t be changed through argument. “Criteria can never function as proof that (an aesthetic) judgment is correct,” she said.

While judgments are held by individuals, they are validated by others. Judgments of taste are open to discussion, Beltrán said.

Beltrán spoke about the notion of developing good judgment through an enlarged mentality, which she is further seeking to understand and explain through literary examples.

Beltrán also noted that aesthetic judgments can create a sense of dissonance. Every day examples of this phenomenon include finding a person attractive while not respecting that person, or enjoying a song while disagreeing with its lyrics.

“How do I reconcile those things?” Beltrán asked. “You find dissonance between what you wish you liked and what you really like.” This type of feeling can apply to the gap between the political party that an individual feels drawn to based on its representation versus the political party that that individual agrees with policy-wise.

Beltrán showcased two efforts by Republican politicians to target Latinos through creative representations.

The first of these was a 2004 campaign advertisement for George W. Bush that featured Bush’s own narration over antique photographs of Mexican-Americans living in the southwestern United States.

Beltrán explained that the advertisement was designed to present Bush as familiar with and admirable of Latinos, creating “unexpected forms of satisfaction” as Bush describes the Mexican-Americans as hard workers with inherent optimism.

Images of Mexican-Americans going about their daily lives offered a nostalgic picture of the old west, establishing that Mexicans have had a long history in the Southwest United States, Beltrán said.

While Bush talks about the redivision of land between Mexico and the United States before the Civil War, he never specifically mentions the Mexican-American War by name. Beltrán said that this “lack of precision” and erasure of both wrong-doings and victims creates a type of poetry “meant to invoke a sense of pride.”

Beltrán then showed Marco Rubio’s more recent speech at the 2012 National Republican Convention, an event which she called “a really fascinating exercise in the making of representations,” noting the choices of whether or not to use Spanish in speeches and how to tell stories about immigration.

While two of the Latino speakers at the convention, including Rubio, spoke about their immigrant parents, none of the speakers spoke about immigration as a policy issue because “there is no one stance among Latino conservatives” on immigration, Beltrán said.

Beltrán also pointed out the applause that came from the largely white audience when Rubio began speaking Spanish in the middle of his speech, claiming that they seem to be taking pleasure in Rubio’s “racial performance.”

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