Julio Ricardo Varela has a history of being fearlessly provocative. Back in 2011, he started Latino Rebels, the website that shook up Hispanic media by schooling people about Latinx life with a mix of straightforward news analysis and satire that tackles ignorance and racism. So it’s no wonder that Varela, now the senior digital editor for Futuro Media, co-host of the podcast “In The Thick,” and contributor to LatinoUSA, has plenty to say about how the election that gave us President-elect Donald Trump has affected Latinx people and how the community should take up arms via activism.
Everyone expected a big surge in Latino voters in this election. Did it happen?
Trump’s words on the first day of his campaign [in which he accused undocumented Mexican immigrants of criminals, rapists and drug-dealers] galvanized Latinos somewhat. Now, did it translate into votes? Yes and no. In places like Nevada, Hillary won and the first Latina senator, Catherine Cortez Masto, was elected. A lot of it had to do with the growing Latino population. But not enough Latinos voted. NALEO Educational Fund says 13 or 14 million voted, but 27.3 million Latinos were eligible. To me, we got a mixed result.
Though the data isn’t all in, exit polls put the number of Latino Trump voters at 29 percent, higher than Mitt Romney garnered in 2012, while the polling firm Latino Decisions put it at 18 percent. How do you think it will shake out?
I always thought that it would be closer to 23 percent, and in the end that’s what it could be.
Are you surprised that even that many Latinos would vote for Trump, given his disparaging statements?
I don’t think anyone should be surprised. I think that in seeing some Latino Trump supporters be very extreme and confrontational, we lost the fact that there were other Latino supporters who genuinely believed that he would make a better president. I also think the Hillary Clinton campaign did a very good job of painting Trump as anti-Latino, anti-Mexican, anti-immigrant. But then—what are you going to do? What are you offering? A JLo concert? Going on [Univision’s entertainment news show] “El Gordo y La Flaca”? It’s not authentic. As someone said, ‘This is how you reach Latinos if it’s 2004.’
What does it mean for the future of Latino political power that on one side you have a man elected despite racist remarks and on the other side, a candidate whose Latino outreach was lacking?
It’s brought me to ask myself some probing questions: Is the rest of this country taking Latinos seriously? Is our political power real or is it perception or being taken for granted? I’ve talked to Republican Latinos who wonder if they have a future in the Republican Party. You now have a party in the White House that can consciously say, ‘We don’t need Latinos to win the presidency anymore.’ What Republican is going to listen to Latinos now? There’s no pressure to do so.
On the other hand if you look at the last 24 years, we’ve had 16 years of two Democratic presidents, and eight years of a Republican president. We have a Democratic president in Obama who has deported more individuals than any other president in history. I’m not trying to equate Obama to Trump, but the industrial, militarized, enforcement-heavy immigration system was already in place. When Trump says he’s going to create a deportation force, it’s called ICE. It’s called raids. It’s called private prisons. These mechanisms have been in place for years.
It sounds like the Latino community needs to some soul searching about its best interests.
Yes, will you put your community first, or your party first? There is this perception that the Democratic party and Latino civic organizations are too closely aligned. So, are we putting our best foot forward together, or is this still going to be the same old partisan association? There is a severe underrepresentation of Latinos in the political landscape. Latinos never seem to be integrated into the political structure and I don’t see much enthusiasm by young Latinos with the Democratic party as an institution. So it’s a reckoning time for the party as well. It will be interesting to see whether it is going to reflect more of the people it says it represents.
What do Trump’s early picks for cabinet-level positions tell you about what Latinos can expect from his presidency?
Many Latinos are concerned. When you hear the name Jeff Sessions [Trump’s pick for attorney general] come up, he’s not seen in a positive light because of his spotty history with civil rights. You have Kris Kovach, the architect of Arizona’s anti-immigrant SB 1070 law and all of its copycat laws, on the transition team. Then there’s Steve Bannon, former head of the far-right Breitbart News. Breitbart perpetuates that image of the gangbanger, drug-cartel immigrant and they just feed it to their audience. Eventually the lies become real, and they become a campaign message, and then they become the message of a president-elect. And then next thing you know, the former Breitbart CEO is in the White House. Those are real concerns to many Latino voters.
What are the three areas that Latinos should be focused on in the next four years?
Education is being totally under-observed. I don’t think people realize in this country how Latino the public school education system is. The leadership doesn’t reflect the students they teach.
Another area is media representation and fighting how the media perceives Latinos. We as a community don’t give enough pushback to that. There’s plenty of people in this country who are now talking about how the “forgotten white vote” could be the future of this country for the next few decades, so if there’s ever a time for more voices to be out there and inform people that America is changing, that’s really important.
But the elephant in the room is still immigration. It’s the issue that has the most immediate effect. We all know the stories of families being ripped apart. It’s the biggest problem that needs to get resolved and it’s because of that, it’s been allowed to define our community. If that doesn’t get resolved, none of these other issues will be addressed.
Damarys Ocaña Perez is a freelance writer and editor whose print and digital work has appeared in The Guardian, Latina, The Miami Herald, The Stir, The Huffington Post and others. She is based in Brooklyn, NY