A national Latina/o politics emerged over a fifty-year period following the Great Depression. It reflected a broad attempt to forge a nationwide pan-ethnic constituency out of a host of political communities that had most often defined themselves by national origin (e.g., Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban). In almost every case, a central impulse of Latina/o politics was a faith that the country’s diverse Hispanic or Latina/o people had a natural obligation to unite with one another. Some activists and elected officials envisioned Latina/o political power formed in a coalition of communities that would remain distinct. Still others viewed political unification as a means to make concrete their feeling of primordial sameness and to bring about the transcendence of national origin differences. All expected unity to yield durable influence in national affairs. The possibilities of a national “Latin American” electorate began to appear sporadically during the 1960s. Mexican American and Puerto Rican politicians and activists, long seen as regional or local forces at best, embraced the nationalizing power of presidential campaigns and civil rights initiatives. Party elites viewed them as a temporary bloc, one that could be mobilized and demobilized quickly. In the 1970s, however, Latina/o politics was institutionalized. The urge to assemble a “Spanish-speaking vote” from coast to coast brought Latina/o political leaders of diverse ethnic and ideological orientations into greater contact with one another and with the major parties. Republicans attempted to fuse Mexican American voters, traditionally Democrats, with an emerging Cuban American vote in a middle-class “Hispanic Republican Movement.” Latina/o Democrats attempted to join Mexican American and Puerto Rican constituencies and thereby force their party to accept “Latina/os” as a permanent feature of the political landscape. This bipartisan competition defined core constituencies in both parties, with roughly two thirds of Latina/os backing Democrats and a third of Hispanic Americans supporting the GOP, numbers that have held steady since the period of consolidation in the 1970s. White elites in both major parties—including US presidents—provided grass-roots activists and elected officials the resources and legitimacy needed to nationalize Latina/o politics. Yet party incorporation has also enabled elites to manipulate the content and possibilities of Latina/o political organizing in ways that frustrated the search for unity. What emerged was, on one hand, the image of a “sleeping giant” poised to transform the country once it awoke, and on the other, a series of fierce counter-mobilizations that conflated Latina/os’ new prominence with illegality.
The 1950s have typically been seen as a complacent, conservative time between the end of World War II and the radical 1960s, when anticommunism and the Cold War subverted reform and undermined civil liberties. But the era can also be seen as a very liberal time in which meeting the Communist threat led to Keynesian economic policies, the expansion of New Deal programs, and advances in civil rights. Politically, it was “the Eisenhower Era,” dominated by a moderate Republican president, a high level of bipartisan cooperation, and a foreign policy committed to containing communism. Culturally, it was an era of middle-class conformity, which also gave us abstract expressionism, rock and roll, Beat poetry, and a grassroots challenge to Jim Crow.