DAN RICHARDS: From the Watson Institute at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Dan Richards. To mark the end of Hispanic Heritage Month, we're teaming up with the Watson Institute's Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies to explore the many meanings of the term "Hispanic Heritage" in the year Twenty Twenty-Two.
In the first part of the show, we'll look at how the growing Hispanic and Latinx population in the US is changing electoral politics in the country. In the second half of the episode, we'll explore the history of US immigration from one particular Latin American country. It's a fascinating story in its own right. But it can also help recast all of American immigration policy in a new light.
But to start, according to the Twenty Twenty census, Rhode Island's Hispanic population grew by 40% between Twenty Ten and Twenty Twenty. And Rhode Island isn't alone. In the country, as a whole, the amount of people identifying as Hispanic on the census grew 23%, far outpacing the overall population growth of the country. But despite what you've heard about how this change might affect US elections and political parties, the effects on electoral politics are actually numerous and far from clear.
To get a better understanding of all this, I talked with Dr. Pablo Rodriguez. He's a medical doctor, public health advocate, and political commentator based in Rhode Island. And he's observed this transformation firsthand in his almost 40 years working and organizing in the state.
Before looking at the relationship with him between these demographic changes and America's politics, I asked Dr. Rodriguez to describe, in a little more detail, how exactly these demographics have shifted. Here's what he had to say.
PABLO RODRIGUEZ: So this is a major change to Rhode Island, just like it was a major change when the French-Canadians were coming here to work in Central Falls in the Mills. So it is the story of immigration in this country. And every time you have a large group coming in, they are going to change the complexion of the place that they arrive in.
And this is what's happening in Rhode Island. Not only are Latinos coming in big numbers, they are also having more babies. They are also younger. The median age of Latinos is 24 years old as opposed to 42 for the general population here in Rhode Island. Latinos, even though they are 18% of the population here in Rhode Island, they represent almost 30% of children.
DAN RICHARDS: Wow.
PABLO RODRIGUEZ: And so you can see where the demographics are going. Also, you're having a decrease in fertility rates for the rest of the population, not for Latinos to the same extent. And therefore, what we could see for this community and for people of color, in general, is that by Twenty Fifty, Rhode Island, probably, will be a majority minority state.
DAN RICHARDS: Are there any particular ways that come to mind for you or in your personal experience, how you've seen this community grow and change in this state?
PABLO RODRIGUEZ: Well, no, absolutely. Not only I had a practice delivering babies-- so I did see my practice grow over the last 37 years that I've been here-- but also the community involvement, the involvement of Latinos in all facets of the social, economic, and the political life of the state. The fact that we have been able to elect a number of officials of Latino descent as opposed to Boston and Massachusetts and Connecticut, which are older Latino communities, have not had the same success.
We were lucky in that we started about Nineteen Ninety-Eight, a number of years ago, we started a group called the Rhode Island Latino political action committee. And that was a very purposeful organization that wanted to bring all nationalities under the same banner, as opposed to having Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Colombians running their own political empowerment.
DAN RICHARDS: And that gets to something I wanted to ask you about, that idea of building a cohesive movement. Given the diversity of nationalities and life experiences of people who identify as Hispanic or Latinx, and maybe we can even get into some of the questions around terminology as well, what do you see is the reason for trying to organize in a more coherent way?
Given that diversity, what issues do people from these countries, perhaps, share? Or what are the unique challenges? Why-- why create such a cohesive movement?
PABLO RODRIGUEZ: Well, we share the same problems. We share the same problems with discrimination, the same problems with access to education, the same problems with access to health care. And we were sharing the same problem of political representation that addressed the issues that were important to our community.
Once the Rhode Island Latino political action committee and other organizations-- because it was not just the Latino PAC-- other organizations got involved in the action as well, we became much more sophisticated in our political aspirations and our political engagement.
So the PAC started endorsing candidates not just because they were Latino. They were-- we were endorsing candidates that represented the best interest for the Latino community. And we have an interview process and a form to fill that not only gives us an idea of how this person thinks, but it also teaches the politicians what are the issues that are important for this community.
And that created its own momentum that has brought us to this moment, where we had a candidate for governor, lieutenant governor, treasurer, mayors of Providence. And we have elected now about 34 Latinos to office.
DAN RICHARDS: So I did want to ask you because I think it's related to a lot of what we're talking about right now. There is this tension, sometimes, over what words and labels are most appropriate or accurate or respectful to use when talking about or identifying people who have Hispanic or Latinx American heritage. How do you see these debates over these labels and words? What can it tell us about the tensions that exist within these communities?
PABLO RODRIGUEZ: Yeah. So it is-- it is an issue. The term "Latinx" is not a Spanish term. And as a matter of fact, one of the foundations did a nationwide poll looking at the use of Latinx. And we found out that 97% of Latinos do not use the term. Only 23% had seen it or recognized the term.
And it follows the coasts. So East Coast and West Coast used the term much more often, and also age, younger Latinos, more educated Latinos. And what has happened is that it has created somewhat of a wedge that are being utilized by more conservative aspects of our political process, mainly Republicans saying, you see, they don't even call you the right name and utilizing it as a wedge.
And people are very proud of their origins, proud of the language. And all of a sudden to give us a different name simply because it's gender correct or politically appropriate, it's a problem for a lot of people.
DAN RICHARDS: And perhaps, the fact that it's also being given to them by this seemingly small minority that they don't really resonate or feel a connection with as much.
PABLO RODRIGUEZ: Exactly. It didn't come from within. Also, the important thing about this entire political discourse is the fact that it's also tied to other issues of worker's rights, other issues of cultural importance to Latinos.
And it adds to the distrust that many Latinos have for the Democratic party, for example. And we've seen it in the polls throughout the years. There's been a gap between Democrats and Republicans in the Latino community. It was 38% in Twenty Sixteen, 34% in Twenty Eighteen, 26% in Twenty Twenty, and it's down to 21% in the latest-- in the latest poll.
DAN RICHARDS: This is support for Demo--
PABLO RODRIGUEZ: This is support for Democrats. The gap between the support for Democrats and the support--
DAN RICHARDS: The gap. The gap is narrowing.
PABLO RODRIGUEZ: The gap is narrowing nationwide. And we've had elections in Florida and elections, mostly in the South, where conservative Republican Latinos are winning over liberal Latinos. So it is a very interesting situation that both political parties are trying to figure out how to best talk to this community because it's a growing community. It's a younger community.
And it's where the workers are going to be coming from. And any of the issues that political parties have to have in mind have to be related to workers living, working, and being able to support their families.
DAN RICHARDS: There's a lot of prognosticating about the midterm elections coming up and a lot of discussion about the Latino vote or the Hispanic vote as an essential, potential swing vote. But I think, also, as you've made clear and as the reality makes clear, also, as this group gets bigger, I feel like it's harder to also describe this group as one bloc that's going to swing one way or the other.
To go back to what you're saying all the way in the beginning, a few decades from now, who knows, it could be more similar to saying, how's the French-Canadian vote going to go? It seems like, well, there's a lot of people with a lot of different experiences.
PABLO RODRIGUEZ: Absolutely. That is so on point because what happens with many in the mainstream is that they think that Latinos are a single group. They try to craft a message that, hopefully, will reach everybody.
And in reality, you're reaching to multiple communities. Mexicans are not the same as Puerto Ricans. They're not the same as Cubans. They're not the same as Colombians. And you have to have a message that resonates with all those communities. And that's a mistake that a lot of people make.
One mistake that we made originally in creating the PAC is that we thought that we were going to be able to have a cohesiveness in terms of electoral process. And what happens with all groups is that, eventually, the groups develop their own ideologies and structures of support.
So in the last election, even though we had four Latino candidates in the main positions, not all of them were successful because Latinos were divided. Some of them were with the other candidates, the non-Latino candidates.
So that, by itself, is a growth. That, by itself, is a political maturation that is expected of any group that comes to the United States, and after a while, just like the mainstream, just become aligned to the ideologies that most respond to their needs.
DAN RICHARDS: Given this diversity of experiences and interests, looking ahead, what do you see as the most important issues that can, perhaps, unify these diverse interests? And also, will that, perhaps, also be able to unify people who don't even identify as Hispanic or Latino? But what do you see as those core interests that a group should be working towards?
PABLO RODRIGUEZ: If there is one thing that unifies Latinos throughout history when the polls have been made, what is your definition of the American dream, by a large majority, the definition of the American dream is that my children do better than myself.
And we have a serious problem with education in this country and economic opportunity for Latinos. And that American dream is not being fulfilled in many places. Here in Rhode Island, the two districts with the largest percentage of Latinos, Providence and Central Falls, both have been taken over by the state because of poor performance.
Latinos in Rhode Island have the lowest performance of any Latino group in the country in their schools. So it is a serious, serious problem. And anyone that talks about improving education with plans, with things that are tangible, are going to get support regardless of what political party they are from.
DAN RICHARDS: Well, Dr. Pablo Rodriguez, thank you so much for coming to talk with us on Trending Globally.
PABLO RODRIGUEZ: My pleasure.
DAN RICHARDS: The tension Pablo describes between the diversity of experiences of people who identify as Hispanic or Latino or Latinx and the unifying struggles many of them face in the US, is crucial to understanding the many meanings of Hispanic Heritage.
Next up, we're going to look at one country whose relationship to the US can teach us a lot about this tension, particularly with regards to one of the most pressing issues in American politics, immigration. The story of Cuban immigration to America is a singular one, a result of geographic, economic, and geopolitical quirks of history.
Susan Eckstein is a Professor of sociology at Boston University and has written multiple books on the subject. Her newest book, Cuban Privilege, the Making of Immigrant Inequality in America, looks at the complex politics and history of Cuban immigration to the United States. And she compares it to another country whose immigrants are treated very differently.
In charting how immigrants from these two countries experience US immigration so distinctly, she reveals a lot about what immigrant communities need in order to thrive and ultimately build political power in the US. We started with the moment that set Cuba's contemporary history on a different path for many of its neighbors. Here's Susan.
SUSAN ECKSTEIN: The privileges start after January Nineteen Fifty-Nine, which was when Castro comes to power. And Eisenhower, who was president at the time, very anti-communist, it led to him immediately trying to accept the Cubans who wanted to come and make it easy for Cubans to come. And the idea was that you de-legitimize the revolution by so many people leaving, secondly, weaken the government because they were losing so much of their human capital.
And the people who were coming at first were really the wealthy, the educated. And so the assumption was the regime is going to collapse as a consequence. So the immigration policy of the United States was really a pillar of our foreign policy at the time in the Cold War.
DAN RICHARDS: So it almost sounds like a Cold War version of, the enemy of the enemy is my friend type of thing. Was there any precedent for offering this type of special status to people from one country for a geopolitical reason?
SUSAN ECKSTEIN: Hungary, with the Hungary uprising in Nineteen Fifty-Six, I think it was. And Eisenhower had a very open refugee policy for the Hungarians. But they were much fewer in number. So it was-- it wasn't felt as much in the United States when the Hungarians came. But that gave some precedent for his special treatment of the Cubans.
DAN RICHARDS: And key to the privileges were-- was the Cuban Adjustment Act and the Cuban refugee program, which were both federal programs or pieces of legislation. So what exactly did those things provide for Cuban immigrants?
SUSAN ECKSTEIN: Let's start with the refugee program, which was the largest refugee program that the United States has ever had in its history. And it provided job training, job placement, housing assistance, and college support. A lot of Cubans actually got free tuition or considerable tuition assistance for colleges.
There was professional training, for example, for doctors who weren't licensed to teach in the United States. So the US offered special licensing programs. So we really helped create an educated class in this country. We helped them establish themselves economically, helped them get jobs. So it was a very broad, extensive program.
Then in Nineteen Sixty-Six under President Johnson and his crafty politicking, he got passed the Cuban Adjustment Act, which allowed any Cuban, who was in the country for over a year, to qualify for lawful permanent residency. And that is a gift that the US has given Cubans and no other foreigners. It's really enabled them to come here, stay here, and adapt quite well here.
DAN RICHARDS: As Susan explained, this all happened around the same time that another piece of immigration legislation was passed, the Nineteen Sixty-Five Immigration Act, which got rid of racist national quotas in our immigration policy that privileged northern and Western Europeans over pretty much everyone else. But LBJ made clear that at least one country would retain special privileges. In his announcement speech for the Nineteen Sixty-Five Immigration Act--
SUSAN ECKSTEIN: They chose the Statue of Liberty as background, so this very well-crafted speech, and he's saying, now we will admit people on the basis of their merit and not on the basis of where they're from. He finishes this major speech, takes a sip of water, takes a breath. And he says, any Cuban who wants to come to America can come.
DAN RICHARDS: Over the decades, at least on the margins, different presidents would create or revoke new privileges for Cuban-Americans in response to different political concerns. Fundamentally, though, these privileges remained pretty consistent for a long time, which made sense during the Cold War. But of course, the Cold War ended. And yet--
SUSAN ECKSTEIN: The entitlements have continued. And so the question is why.
DAN RICHARDS: As Susan explains, there are a few reasons. Some were intentional, and some were accidents of history. An example of the latter, Cubans didn't primarily move to New York, or Los Angeles, or what were at the time, these other massive hubs for immigrants from around the world.
SUSAN ECKSTEIN: They happened to mainly settle in Florida. Not all, but vast majority of Cubans would settle in a state that grew rapidly in size. So Florida came from having 10 electoral college votes in Nineteen Sixty to having 29. That's huge, tripling of the number of Electoral College votes. So it becomes very, very important politically. And it's a so-called swing state, the largest swing state. So both Republicans and Democrats want to curry favor of the Cuban voters.
DAN RICHARDS: And increasingly, Cubans weren't just voters. Over the course of the nineteen seventies and nineteen eighties, they became a highly organized political group in Florida. Part of this was just the result of Cuban immigrants becoming a thriving, upwardly mobile community in Florida. But part of it was also helped along by a president who saw an opportunity in this growing demographic.
SUSAN ECKSTEIN: Reagan courts the Cuban-American community in really fascinating way. He sends his top staff there to Miami to work with them, to turn them into really a political action committee, tell them how to go about doing it.
And it's modeled after AIPAC, the Israeli lobby, which is the strongest ethnic lobby in this country. And they become active in, really, mainstream politics in the United States. And they start giving political contributions to candidates who support the policies that they wanted.
DAN RICHARDS: This is an example of what Susan calls the path-dependent nature of Cuban immigration policy or a feedback loop. Cuban immigrants to America had these special privileges, which helped them to organize and create power and influence as a community. They use that power to further promote their unique privileges. With more privileges, they were able to become even more influential and advocate for themselves further, et cetera, et cetera. As a result--
SUSAN ECKSTEIN: What began as a Cold War rationale basis for privileging Cubans then became a domestic political phenomenon. They have really a block that has worked in Congress, et cetera, to promote what they think are their Cuban-American interests.
DAN RICHARDS: Meanwhile, during this whole period, there was a neighboring country to Cuba that had a very different relationship to the US in terms of how immigration was handled. One part of your book that was so fascinating was how you weaved in the story of immigration from Haiti. What were the main ways that Haitian immigrants were treated differently than either Cuban immigrants or just general immigrants, broadly?
SUSAN ECKSTEIN: So massively detained, massively deported. And that was very, very different than the Cuban experience and probably more extreme than with other immigrant groups. It's an embarrassment to our country that we could be, first of all, treating immigrant groups so unequally.
In the case of Haitians, what was interesting, they're both coming from the Caribbean, right? They're neighboring countries coming at the same time. And the two are treated so differently. In fact, my book opens with a vignette of a Haitian boat bringing Haitians to the United States to come in undocumented.
DAN RICHARDS: In the recent history, right? Or was this--
SUSAN ECKSTEIN: Yeah. This was actually under Bush 1, this vignette. And so they-- this Haitian boat picked, very nicely picks up, some Cubans that-- their boat had capsized and so invites them to join them on their boat. So they come in to the US coast line.
And the Cubans are welcomed, and they're paroled, have access to all these benefits that I describe, et cetera. And the Haitians are turned back. They're repatriated. It's so visualized the different way-- I mean, when coming in the same boat, that they would be treated so differently.
DAN RICHARDS: This whole history were describing, though, it changed in the last decade. Not that Haitian immigrants started to receive more humane treatment, but that many Cuban privileges were revoked. You might assume it changed under President Trump, given that he ran on a platform of closing our borders. But it actually happened a little earlier.
SUSAN ECKSTEIN: In Twenty Seventeen, Obama, his last full week in office, ended parole rights.
DAN RICHARDS: This was the right for Cuban immigrants to stay and work in the US, even if they had come into the country undocumented.
SUSAN ECKSTEIN: There were some entitlements he left there, like the Cuban Adjustment Act. That was Congress, and Congress only could revoke it. But it seemed like the days of Cuban privileging were over, with the retraction of parole rights.
DAN RICHARDS: You might think that this would then lead to a drop in Cuban immigration to the United States. But that's not what's happened.
SUSAN ECKSTEIN: What has happened so interestingly is that Cuban migration has continued.
DAN RICHARDS: This isn't just the result of the few remaining privileges Cuban immigrants receive. It's also the result of years of economic hardship in Cuba, exacerbated by the pandemic. And this gets to a bigger truth. When it comes to immigration, the policies of countries that are receiving immigrants can only do so much to affect who comes to their borders, something we've seen, especially clearly in the last few years.
SUSAN ECKSTEIN: The origins of the mass migration from Latin America, which has been the largest migration in the last decades, it's because conditions have gotten so bad in these countries. That led to a huge exodus of people for their lives, right?
And that then begins an whole new wave of immigration because they're now here, and they want family to come, et cetera. So we really need to work on conditions in the homelands if we're going to tackle the problem of immigration.
DAN RICHARDS: Before we finish, Susan, I just couldn't help but think while reading your book, the benefits that were given to Cuban immigrants, and then the federal support that was given to Miami and southern Florida to help support this influx of immigrants.
On one hand, you could maybe look at that and be frustrated that this group is getting a special privilege. But on the other hand, I think you could also look at it and go, wow, look at how much, when we do support immigrant communities, they're able to thrive in incredible ways. And was that anything you thought about while you were looking at this history?
SUSAN ECKSTEIN: I mean, sure. Of course, I was trying to stick to my task, which is the Cubans. And I take the liberty a little bit in my final chapter to raise that issue. I think the issue of legal status is really, really important and a lesson that should be taken from the Cuban experience, which is cheap. You could argue these other benefits cost money. But you can't really say the same in terms of allowing them to have legal rights to stay and to qualify for citizenship.
We have 10 million unauthorized immigrants in this country. And they don't have basic securities. They could be deported. They are limited in the kinds of jobs they can get. They are going to get paid less, typically because employers exploit the fact that they don't have legal titles.
If you give them rights, they qualify for more jobs even and can contribute more economically to the country. So the country, you could argue, would benefit more, and not only individual immigrants. So that would be my lesson number one to abstract, is the importance of giving legal title to people.
DAN RICHARDS: As I mentioned, this interview is part of a special we're doing for Hispanic Heritage Month on Trending Globally. And you know, of course, I think one of the takeaways from this history is how distinct different countries are different groups. All of Latin America can't be lumped into one story.
SUSAN ECKSTEIN: Right.
DAN RICHARDS: But I wonder, that said, are there-- and I think we've touched on some of these-- are there takeaways that you think this story can provide more broadly, either to other countries in Latin America communities or to ideas of immigration rights, more generally?
SUSAN ECKSTEIN: This is an important issue that we have to understand we have to deal-- should be dealing with different groups in different ways. And I think as I said, had policy towards their homelands too, not just to people when they come here. But what are the conditions that induce people to be coming to the United States?
We are a country of immigrants. We do need immigrants as a source of labor and a source of labor, also, to support health care for the elderly and things like that. So I think we need to be more welcoming of immigrants. It doesn't mean we don't have certain restrictions on who can come in, et cetera.
But I think we have to really understand the importance that immigrants play in this country, which of course, the Trump administration did. And if he runs again, I'm sure, will run on an anti-immigration platform. And where does that get us? I mean, it introduces hatred, division within the country.
DAN RICHARDS: All without even achieving their desired effect of stopping immigration.
SUSAN ECKSTEIN: Without even stopping immigration and without recognizing the economic contribution, the important economic contribution, that immigrants do make to this country.
DAN RICHARDS: Susan Eckstein, thank you so much for talking with us on Trending Globally.
SUSAN ECKSTEIN: Thank you so much for having me.
DAN RICHARDS: This episode was produced by me, Dan Richards, and Sam McKeever Holtzman. Our theme music is by Henry Bloomfield, additional music by the Blue Dot Sessions. Special thanks to Watson Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies for working with us on this episode. If you want to learn more about their center, including upcoming events and guests, we'll put a link to their website in the show notes.
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