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Why did Zapata County, my Mexican-American hometown in South Texas, vote for a Republican presidential candidate for the first time in generations this year? And what does it mean that many of us liberals and leftists were shocked on Election Night that a county with an over 90 percent Hispanic population would do such a thing?
I don't have a lot of answers to this question, but I have plenty of theories. Reporting is starting to corroborate some, and others are based on anecdote and experience. Workers in oil and gas, two key industries in South Texas, perceive the Democratic Party to be hostile towards their livelihoods. Race and immigration issues, which the Democrats consistently emphasized, are not extremely salient for a community in which incidents of interpersonal racism are rare. The Donald Trump campaign appealed to machismo by identifying with policing and public pride. Each of these theories could be a book of its own, but my concern in writing this op-ed is to focus on those of us doing the theorizing.
While the support for Trump within my Mexican-American community saddens me (and angers me when I speak to my cousin), our collective surprise is rooted in our perception of what should be the natural order of the world: that certain marginalized groups would increasingly identify with the political left in this country. Much of the shock that liberals and leftists across the country felt about the election results — when Trump actually increased his support among multiple minority demographics — stem from our failure to consistently listen to and explore the perspectives from marginalized communities that don’t flatter our own perspectives.
At institutions like Harvard, we often already agree that we must listen to marginalized voices. But we don't generally mean all perspectives from marginalized communities. Too often, we only focus on the ones that match our political and cultural sympathies — narratives about the harms of bigotry or classism, and the proud traditions of resistance against broader oppressive forces. Classwork and panels abound on the treatment of immigrants and refugees on the Mexican border, the experience of transgender individuals in the diaspora, and the trauma of racism within our institutions of learning. While all of these topics deserve discussion and support, this practice has left us blind to the issues that do not match those expectations.
The world of South Texas is ripe for more nuanced analysis. From the outside, the region suffers from chronic underinvestment in its educational system and medical institutions. Federal and state leaders generally ignore the region — in my view, primarily because of its ethnic composition. The highest-paying jobs are in the body-breaking energy or policing sectors. Yet these realities don’t make everyone a nihilist — individuals develop self-narratives that help them deal with life's difficulties. Some match our perceived narratives of what marginalized communities should do and feel — but many don’t.
The family of an energy worker or sheriff’s deputy develops an intense pride in that work for its ability to put food on the table. A mother turns to God and pro-life politics, holding onto the belief of a better life through her faith, as a way to survive daily travails. An immigrant puts on the uniform of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent as a way to feel belonging in a country that often alienates him.
We have to be willing to listen to all of these stories, even those that might infuriate or seem retrograde to us. This does not mean that we have to change our ideals. As a political leftist and educator, I fight for a world where class, race, gender, sexuality, and religion do not determine our condition. But part of that work involves fully understanding the world around us — which cannot happen if we act as if the people whose lives we want to make better are without agency, rather than multi-dimensional human beings, many of whom may disagree with our analysis of them.
The mainstreaming of the trans-inclusive label “Latinx,” at least in more academic and leftist circles, presents a compelling example of debates around identity. I have found that the backlash to the term by more conservative commentators is more often than not bigoted, but it is also true that few in South Texas, and across the country, would identify as “Latinx.” This does not make the term illegitimate, or its use suspect — language evolves constantly. It should push us, however, to consider the distance between our sympathies and the realities of the people we hope those match onto. Much of our conversation in the academy does not match everyday people's concerns in South Texas, even when we use language that suggests we are being inclusive.
Everyone would do well to broaden the scope of their concern. For students from privileged backgrounds, ask questions that go beyond what you imagine of marginalized communities, and question who is speaking for whom. Engage in real historical study of these communities, not merely hunting for anecdotes that match your perspective. For those of us who choose to speak through experience, we should be mindful that we cannot claim to represent everyone we grew up with. Rather than fearing that we will be ignored, we should acknowledge that other individuals within our communities may have stories that contradict or provide nuance to ours.
My degrees and my distance, for example, have marked me in ways that fill me with skepticism about my ability to represent the perspectives of my community perfectly. I take on for myself the task of communicating those limitations when discussing South Texas or the broader Hispanic experience.
I don't have the full answer about why the people I grew up with came out to vote in 2020 like never before — and why a majority of them voted for Trump. But what is clear is that the left’s standard narratives of how marginalization determines political views are not enough. To work in solidarity with marginalized communities we say we want to help, we must do a lot more listening.
Fernando Reyes is a graduate student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
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