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On the eve of the next round of presidential debates, America’s Hispanic community is hoping Democrats will, this time, display a deeper understanding of Hispanic hopes, ideals and culture – not just a few words of Spanish.
My father, Hector Barreto Sr. – who was a historic leader in the Hispanic business community, including being the founder of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce – had a blunt message for politicians who learn Spanish (or, back in his time, hire a mariachi band for a political event), in the hopes of winning Hispanic votes: “You might speak Spanish, but you don’t speak our language.”
His point was that politicians must get past their superficial impressions in order to connect with our community. There are five key things Democratic presidential candidates need to remember if they truly want their messages to resonate with Hispanic voters:
Hispanic Americans are not monolithic. The quickest way for a politician to show their lack of understanding of Latinos is to stick to the stereotypical assumptions that our No. 1 policy concern is immigration, that we are economically or socially liberal, and that we all speak Spanish! Like all other demographic groups, Hispanic Americans are incredibly diverse within our own ranks – with a variety of political, religious, social and economic views that range across a spectrum as colorful as America herself. Many Hispanics speak Spanish, but many do not. Many have parents or grandparents who were immigrants; many were born into families that have been here for many generations.
We don’t all feel oppressed. In the United States, growing up as a minority is not the same as growing up white – but the experience, for most Hispanics, is far from oppression. Improvements can always be made, but America has mostly been a land of opportunity for Hispanics for many generations, and our economic and cultural success is the proof.
Handouts are not our priority. It is a tired habit of the Democrat party to offer handouts to minority groups. Our desire for affordable health care, education and housing should never be confused with a request to get something for free.
We want an environment where we can improve ourselves. Politicians who think “Hispanic” and automatically think “immigration” should slow down to think about what the children or grandchildren of immigrants believe about the United States. Most of our families came here for opportunity – a better chance to be employed, to save money, to start a business, to earn an education. An environment where our ideas and hard work can lead to financial and social success is important to us.
Hispanics are more interested in small business than big business. Democrat presidential candidates have been talking a lot about big business – and while their words are often critical, their focus on household-name companies leaves the impression that they aren’t familiar with the small-business sector, which is – both economically and culturally – incredibly important to Hispanic Americans. A Stanford Graduate School of Business study found that, for Latinos, entrepreneurship runs in the family. More than half of the Hispanics surveyed by Stanford said they had a family member who owns, or once owned, their own business. Indeed, Latinos start businesses at a higher rate than other demographic groups, and the growth of their businesses is also outpacing that of other groups. Candidates who understand and appreciate entrepreneurship are likely to appeal to Hispanic voters in a meaningful way.
Democrats are in the spotlight this week, but both political parties can, and should, work on their understanding of the Hispanic community. Latinos are a complex and important group; we deserve more than the literal lip service of a few words of Spanish. Politicians from both parties who seek to connect with us on a deeper level will be rewarded with the votes of the fastest growing demographic group in the country.
Hector Barreto is the Chairman of The Latino Coalition and the former U.S. Small Business Administrator.