This story originally appeared in Columbia Journalism Review.
By Brian E. Crowley
FLORIDA — One of the most wearisome elements of media coverage of the 2012 election campaign is the often trite and lazy reporting about Hispanic/Latino voters. So it was refreshing to read a story on Sunday byMiami Herald political writer Marc Caputo that looked beyond the usual caricature of such voters.
Caputo’s lede immediately let readers know that they were in for something different here:
Rep. Ana Rivas Logan’s opponents call her loads of names on the campaign trail.
But one seemed to bother her more than others: “Nicaraguan.”
“They’re making calls to the little old Cubans, telling them, ‘Don’t vote for her. She’s a Nicaraguan. Your commitment is with the Cuban vote,’” a choked-up Logan said last week about her bare-knuckle race against fellow Republican Rep. Jose Felix “Pepe” Diaz.
Welcome to Miami.
This is a place where calling the daughter of Cuban parents a “Nicaraguan” is a slur even though she was born in Nicaragua and says so on her website. Diaz denies participating in or authorizing the attack.
The fact that it was 1) used against the Cuban-American lawmaker and 2) worked enough to deeply unsettle her is a sign of the hardball politics in Miami-Dade. And it stands as a clear sign that Florida’s Hispanic vote is anything but monolithic.
Just beyond the Spanish-English language barrier is a not-so-brave world of ethnic tensions, borderline racism and nationalistic pride that will subtly play out this election season…
Often the media—especially the national media—concentrates its reporting about Florida Hispanics on the Cuban community. There is no question that Cuban-American voters are a critical segment of the South Florida vote. But the growing generational divide within the community is too often overlooked by reporters. Second- and third-generation Cubans tend to be less rigid about some issues than first-generation Cubans who fled the Castro regime.
But the Herald’s Caputo went well beyond that obvious difference. He delved into areas that are rarely reported. For example, he wrote:
[Marco] Rubio doesn’t have instant support from other Hispanics just because he’s Cuban. Quite the opposite, for some. Many immigrants, particularly those from Mexico and Central America, resent the special immigration privileges that give Cubans legal residency as soon as their feet touch U.S. soil.
Rubio’s supporters have decried the “ethnic politics” of the Democrats, but they’re prone to it as well. Some noted the countries of origin of Spanish and Colombian reporters who wrote critical stories about Rubio last year.
The rivalries, friendly and not, between Hispanics from different countries aren’t limited to politics. You can hear them play out during kids’ soccer matches or, sometimes, in the workplace.
Complicating the matter further is the fact that Hispanic is an ethnicity, not a race. There are black and white Hispanics.
Florida’s Hispanic politics are complicated. While South Florida remains dominated by Cuban-Americans, there are significant and growing populations from Central and South American countries.
And, as Tampa Bay Times political editor Adam Smith noted in a well-reported July 1st story, the influence of voters from Puerto Rico or of Puerto Rican heritage is growing in importance in the Central Florida swing county of Oceola—and these voters “lean heavily Democratic.” Smith also reminded readers that while Puerto Ricans are US citizens, if they live in Puerto Rico, they can’t vote in presidential elections. Wrote Smith:
Osceola County is an ominous harbinger for Florida’s dominant Republican Party, but the fastest growing part of its electorate still remains an unpredictable enigma to political strategists and academics alike.
Why? Because something is fundamentally different between Election Day in Little Puerto Rico near Disney and Election Day in Puerto Rico, nearly 1,200 miles away.
Spain ceded Puerto Rico to America in 1898 after the Spanish-American War, and Congress in 1917 made Puerto Ricans American citizens. The Democratic and Republican parties include Puerto Rico in their primaries, but under the U.S. Constitution only the 50 states and the District of Columbia are entitled to choose electors in the presidential election. That means a Puerto Rican living on the island can’t vote in November, but if they live on the mainland they can. And Puerto Rican turnout on the mainland is nowhere near what it is in Puerto Rico.
As Caputo and Smith demonstrated, “Hispanic voters” are far more complicated than the mythical generic Hispanics often invoked in media stories. That type of reporting is as silly as doing a story about “European American” voters. The media can do better in explaining the complexities of this swing state’s Hispanic community. Caputo and Smith deserve credit for raising the bar with their recent pieces.