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Luis A. Miranda Jr. details his 'Relentless' career in new memoir

Luis A. Miranda Jr. beside the cover of his memoir, "Relentless." (Courtesy)
Luis A. Miranda Jr. beside the cover of his memoir, "Relentless." (Courtesy)

Luis A . Miranda Jr. has spent decades as an activist and advisor working in the administrations of New York City Mayors Ed Koch, David Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani. He’s now published the memoir “Relentless: My Story of the Latino Spirit that is Transforming America.” He joins host Deepa Fernandes to talk about the book.

Book excerpt: ‘Relentless’

By Luis A. Miranda Jr.

My career has often been shaped by a simple-sounding question: what do Latinos want? It’s a question that is being posed more often and more loudly as the demographics and politics of this country progress steadily toward a new future. And it has become central to living in our communities, as Republicans use migrants and Latinos as pawns in their political chess games. The majority of this new country will be a combination of minorities within the next two decades. Much of that change is from the rapid growth of the communities that have been my focus for decades.

Several years after I arrived in New York, the 1980 census showed that 80 percent of the population of the country was white, 11 percent was Black, and just 6.5 percent was Latino or Hispanic. Within two decades, Latinos outnumbered Blacks. Today, the white population is 60 percent of the country and falling, while Latinos and Asian Americans represent almost 25 percent of this country. How you feel about these changes has become a defining measure of whether you are conservative or progressive. It’s no coincidence that a corrupt New York real estate developer, trained in the racial politics of the 1980s tabloids, could ride a wave of nativist and racist feeling all the way to the White House. A majority of Republicans—59 percent—think this diverse majority will lead to more racial conflict and weaken this country’s values and customs. That’s why clowns like Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida and Governor Greg Abbott of Texas have created havoc by sending asylum seekers to Democratic cities.

These are not small changes, and the question about Latinos and Latino voters is a valid one. However, in most circles, and certainly in the media, it is fundamentally flawed and wrongly framed. Understanding why can help decision-makers—in politics and in business—answer the question for themselves. Too often Latino political views are seen as being in the middle, somewhere between whites and Blacks. We end up as the average of multiple measured variables.

In fact, let me be provocative: there is no such thing as a Hispanic voting bloc. Although we have much in common, communities that make up this group are as varied in background, class, and race as the entire hemisphere. There’s a huge diversity of Latinos in the United States today. We are no longer just Mexicans, or Puerto Ricans who started arriving in the 1950s, or Cubans who came in the 1960s. Over the last several years, we have seen new waves of Latino immigrants trying to create a new life in a country that’s in a different place every time a new wave arrives. The desire to consider them a single voting bloc comes from the brutal and rigid legacy of slavery and Jim Crow that intentionally erased the different identities of African Americans. Their shared generational suffering has created patterns of politics that can be generalized to seem more predictable. There is nothing equivalent in the Latino or His-panic experience, and assuming that some parallel exists does not make it so.

It’s not just voters with family ties to Cuba; there are now Ven- Venezuelans who came here for the same reasons as Cuban families, with similar political attitudes as they seek asylum. They are arriving at a time when the Democratic Party is in a battle between the left, the center, and the right. While Republicans are a monolithic party, aligned with Trump and engaged in the culture wars, Democrats have a diversity of opinions and messengers. Some of those messengers are not ideal for some Latino communities. Ten seconds of Bernie Sanders, a huge figure in the Democratic Party, talking nicely about Fidel Castro becomes the headline.

“We’re very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba, but you know, it’s unfair to simply say everything is bad,” Bernie told 60 Minutes on CBS. “When Fidel Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing? Even though Fidel Castro did it?”

As Joe Biden was trying to unify the party so that Democrats could win, Sanders offered an opportunity for Republicans to say, “You see, they’re married. The guy who thinks Fidel Castro is the best thing since sliced bread is now in bed with the guy who says he’s from the center.”

Let me make it more complicated: we can also behave as a voting bloc. Our political beliefs are shaped not only by our origin but also by a shared language and our immigrant experience once we are here. Campaigns need to speak about our concerns and our hopes and how we relate to others who were here before us— and that needs to happen in two languages. Candidates and pundits need to know a bit about this audience before they open their mouths, particularly if they don’t have a history with the Latino community. Language is a proxy for respect and understanding, for cultural sensitivity and embracing our immigrant experience. Speaking our language appropriately moves Latinos to behave as a voting bloc.

What about those who were born and raised here? English may be their dominant language, but living in multigenerational households exposes many of us to Spanish—whether in our daily routines or through the media. The home I would make in New York would include an English-dominant mom, a Spanish-dominant dad, a Spanish-monolingual “grandma,” and three kids born in New York. Communicating in Spanish as well as English in a political campaign shows respect and opens multiple doors to talk to everyone in my household.

That’s also true for the one-quarter of the Latino community who are Donald Trump admirers or supporters. When he speaks about race and immigrants, even his Latino fans can frown. But they like him because he’s decisive and entertaining. He presents an aura of being in charge. He becomes the symbol of what many of us had in mind when we migrated: be successful! His Latino supporters can disapprove of him demonizing immigrants, or saying that Mexicans are rapists, and still admire him because they aspire to share in an American dream of wealth. When he talks about providing honest work instead of a government handout, many Latinos listen. For many immigrants, governments are not honest and well-intentioned. Some Latinos are invested in what Trump represents because they have come from countries that were ruined by corrupt dictators. For those fleeing socialism, when they hear that Democrats are socialists, their life experience or their fears take over. I warned my Democratic friends that we were losing ground in Florida in 2020 because the other side was portraying centrist Joe Biden as a socialist—pointing to Bernie Sanders as his proxy. We believe in the saying “Dime con quien andas, y te diré quien eres.” Your friends tell us a lot about who you are.

Campaigns need to make sure their arguments fit the bill. Latinos are increasingly getting their news through Facebook, YouTube, and WhatsApp, and misinformation inundates our brains. Half of the knowledge base upon which we make our political assumptions is not true. You don’t go to south Texas and talk about open borders. You go to south Texas to figure out how we have a continued relationship with our southern neighbors and how our new neighbors can come to this country in an orderly fashion. We are building a better country that is a more diverse country, so candidates need to arm their supporters with their best arguments and get them out to vote. Latinos need to be reassured of the truth— that our hopes and dreams will be advanced by good government as well as personal entrepreneurship. The struggles of working people are the same whether you are white, Black, or Brown: to get ahead, to give your kids a better future, to pay medical bills or buy a car. Political leaders need to speak to those struggles—to show the path forward—and deliver on their promises. Republicans do not need a majority of Latino voters to win elections; they just need to peel away enough votes to deny a majority to Democrats. Fear and propaganda can do that, and the only cure is a conversation with trustworthy people who show up in our Latino community. A conversation that moves the world forward, that shows that our leaders know how voters want to move forward. That’s what we mean in Puerto Rico when we say pa’lante: it’s the drive to keep moving ahead, to build a better future.

Excerpted from “Relentless: My Story of the Latino Spirit That Is Transforming America,” by Luis A. Miranda, Jr. with Richard Wolffe. Copyright © 2024. Available from Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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