Latinos and the New Battle for Texas

Latinos and the New Battle for Texas

Tejanos will change the state’s politics. But that remake won’t be as simple as either Republicans or Democrats assume.


Adam Dominguez feels hesitant as he prepares to shoot unarmed white men.

“I’ve done it so many times, I sometimes get numb,” says Dominguez, while standing under a large cotton tent with other men cleaning their guns, on a large field in Goliad. It’s a small town in south Texas, a land where most census tracts are over 90 percent Tejano, or US-born Texans of Mexican descent. “The first time I shot them, I felt a lot of empathy. My heart still goes out to these guys because they’re unarmed.”

Despite his reservations, Dominguez, a 34-year-old Tejano who is a newspaper delivery coordinator from San Antonio, marched with his fellow shooters alongside the troop of white men, helped line the men up, and then shot them.

Most of the hundreds of spectators gathered to see the mock execution are white, with some Tejanos mixed in. Several in the audience cry; and still others yell, “Nooooo!” and boo loudly.

Dominguez acknowledges their feelings, but holds his political ground in his role as a cazadero—a scout and sharpshooter in the Mexican army that fought in the March 1863 Battle of Coleto Creek. He is one of hundreds of volunteers who pay thousands of dollars for the uniforms, guns, tents, and other paraphernalia they use during this annual reenactment of the “Massacre at Goliad.” Now in its 31st year, the reenactment of the battle, and the executions Mexican President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna ordered after the battle, recalls the fighting and settlement that led to Texas’s independence from Mexico.

“It was common practice to execute people,” says Dominguez. “The Americans were deemed pirates, which meant they were bearing arms against a government and not fighting with official flag, kind of like what we call terrorists today.”

Dominguez’s comments inspire his colleague, William Bennett, a 67-year-old native of the Houston suburb Katy, to lead the conversation into the political battles raging in the Texas present. “If Donald Trump were alive at the time of the Goliad massacre, he’d have been on the Mexican side,” says Bennett, referring to how mixed both sides were in terms of nationality and ethnic and racial identity. Speaking for the Mexican army of 1836, he explains, “We were protecting our country, our borders from foreigners. These foreigners want the same equal rights as Mexican citizens, but they don’t pay taxes, they don’t learn our language—Spanish—they don’t become Catholics. They came here to steal land. So, to be historically accurate, Trump would have to be on the Mexican side.”

Bennett, in his real life role as Texas voter, says he likes Trump because “he’s against the establishment.” Dominguez, who prefers Texas Senator Ted Cruz, says he will vote Trump if he wins the nomination. Neither man would, in Dominguez’s terms, “ever vote for Hillary Clinton.”

Like most of their peers in the reenactment, both Bennett and Dominguez have studied Texas history closely. Both believe early-19th-century culture and politics made Texas very dynamic, a place where the shifting sands of political identity rendered attempts to institute political and physical borders here futile, something the insurgent campaigns of Trump, Cruz, and Bernie Sanders indicate is happening again. Deep-rooted dynamics among and between whites and Latinos in Texas, a state with a whopping 38 electoral votes, continue playing a critical role in the future of Texas and presidential elections. And things will only keep being unpredictable, even zany as Texas inches towards becoming, like the other western Latino behemoth of California, another Latino-majority state.

This is the context for the state’s conflicts, and conflicting developments: This week’s unanimous Supreme Court decision sustaining a Texas-based challenge to the one-person-one-vote principle dealt a setback to anti-Latino forces who hoped to redraw legislative districts based on eligible voters instead of total population (79 percent of Texas’s whites are eligible to vote, but only 46 percent of Latinos); polls showing that immigration and border security are, respectively, the number-one and -two issues for Texas voters, but with Latinos and whites having very clear divisions on these issues. Texas has 2.2 million registered Latino voters and another 2.6 million who are eligible, but not registered, and they will eventually turn over the political tortilla in Texas. But, then, Texas being Texas, 48 percent of these Latinos gave their vote to Republican Senator John Cornyn in 2014, and Republican Governor Greg Abbott won 44 percent of Latino voters.

* * *

Taking tickets in front of the defensive stone walls at the entrance to Presidio de la Bahia (the former Spanish and Mexican fort that became Fort Goliad), Kenneth Buelter described the new political walls here and across the country. “The new voters that you’re seeing in all these primaries are part of the 80 percent that has felt like everything revolves around minorities—whether LGBT, whether immigrants, whatever portion is smallest—everything revolves around them. A lot of these voters that Trump is bringing out are people who don’t feel like they’ve had a voice until now.”

As county chair of the Republican Party, Buelter’s job is to find that voice and amplify what it’s saying. Until the year 2000, it was often the voice of Democrats working in cattle, oil, and tourism industries. The resentment that followed the decline of these industries opened spaces for Republicans like Buetler, the former chapter president of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, to snatch all of the countywide seats and half of the local seats.

As of the Republican primary last march, Goliad and Texas became “Cruz country,” says Buetler, who sees the potential for “rebellion” at the Texas convention, whose 9,000 delegates make the event the “the biggest convention of Republicans in the world.” It will also be possibly the biggest Republican slugfest in the world, says Buetler. “The Texas state convention is going to have a large Trump faction and a large Cruz faction,” says Buetler. The high-profile personal attacks of both candidates, Buetler admits, have damaged the party overall, but he adds, “The only chance the party has of electing someone is that either Trump or Cruz is that nominee.”

Buelter doesn’t “know what to expect” at the either the Texas or national Republican conventions. “As long as the Republican establishment doesn’t try to impose its will outside what voters want, things will be OK,” he says. But if, for example, Trump wins the popular vote and is denied the nomination, “there’s no doubt there will be rebellion, because Republicans don’t want another moderate like McCain or Romney. I don’t know if the Republican Party will continue to exist in the form that they are now.”

Key to mobilizing white voters is the issue of immigration, an issue Cruz and, especially, Trump have used to great effect among Republicans in Goliad and beyond. “Trump’s message on immigration was received really well here,” says the former Minuteman Buetler. “A lot of the [immigration] enforcement around here is local enforcement from citizens in the area calling the sheriff’s department. So, the idea of a wall appeals to people, even though the idea of a wall is not feasible on a good portion of the Rio Grande River.”

Trump’s wall idea, as well as his overall candidacy, is also not very feasible for a Texas and national Republican Party that will need Latino votes to be viable in 2016 and beyond, says Lydia Camarillo, vice president of Southwest Voter Registration Education Project (SVREP), the largest nonprofit Latino voter-registration organization. “We will see a ‘Trump effect’ among Latinos everywhere, if he is the candidate,” says Camarillo.

Trump, she adds, appeals to the siege mentality taking hold in white South Texas, a South Texas where the conditions for an electoral Alamo are already in place. “In El Paso, San Antonio, Corpus Christi, throughout the Valley, most of the competition is primarily between Latino and Latino.” The attempts to water down and suppress the Latino vote—challenging one person, one vote; instituting voter ID laws; etc.—are the political walls of the new Goliad, the new Alamo, walls that will crumble, according to Camarillo.

“When Latinos reach over 30 percent of the vote, Texas will turn Democrat. It’s only a matter of time,” insists Camarillo, a native of El Paso. The question is, she says, “when and how will we get there?”

Camarillo and other students of the Latino vote in Texas often compare Latino electoral dynamics in Texas, home to the second-largest Latino electorate, to those of California, the largest. Latino voting power is transforming politics in California, thanks, in no small part, to the “Pete Wilson effect.” Named for former California Governor Pete Wilson, who, like Trump, used fear of Latinos and Latino immigration in his presidential bid, the Pete Wilson effect energized Latinos who wield enormous influence in the state legislature and are a central part of the political mix that may make it impossible for Republicans to hold statewide office there in the foreseeable future. But the Texas-California comparison has its limits.

Unlike California, where labor unions, philanthropic foundations, nonprofits, and other institutions invested heavily in the Latino vote, says Camarillo, the Democratic Party and its allied institutions “do not really invest in Texas because of the myth that Latinos don’t vote.” Several factors—mobility, youth (the median Latino age is 22), high poverty rates—require investment in registering and then mobilizing voters, as happened in California. The lack of a similar investment in Texas was clear in the 2014 gubernatorial race, says Camarillo. “Wendy Davis [the Democratic gubernatorial candidate] had a confused Latino message and lost by over a million votes. People weren’t excited by her candidacy.” Her opponent, Abbott, boosted the Republican share of the Latino vote by 6 percent over what Rick Perry won in 2010.

These results also give credence to the idea that Texas has been a kind of Republican Latino vote laboratory, ever since Leonel Sosa, advertising executive and former consultant on Latino issues to Ronald Reagan, and Karl Rove developed strategies to drive Latino support for George W. Bush up to somewhere between 40 to 44 percent (the exact number is still debated).

But, says Camarillo, the combination of the Trump effect and major investments in mobilizing the Latino electorate will turn Texas blue. “Just look at Arizona,” she says. “Investments in Latino voters and the [anti-immigrant Sheriff] Arpaio effect increased Latino voters from 250,000 to 750,000, in less than 4 years.” Lacking this kind of investment, the Latino vote in Texas will continue orbiting around the 2.5 million it has in previous presidential cycles, despite continued increases in Latino voter registration, says Camarillo.

“At the current rate of investment, it will take 20 years to turn Texas blue” she says. “But if the Democrats and their allies invest even $25-30 million, Texas will turn blue in five years. It’s really astonishing what the Democrats don’t invest.” Lacking this investment, the politics fueling the siege mentality surrounding the walls of Goliad will continue to carry the day.

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