What do President Bush and President Obama have in common?
They understand and get it when it comes to us.
Last week, President Obama had a fiesta at the White House, and I do mean fiesta. It was packed full of Hispanics, recognizing the diversity of our heritage and the richness of our culture. The celebration, timed to coincide with Hispanic Heritage Month, was called “In Performance at the White House: Fiesta Latina.”
The “Obama-mania” was clearly evident at the event, especially when Thalia got the president to dance a few steps with her and he showed off a touch of hip-swiveling Obama-meneo!
Well, the truth is, he was following in Bush’s footsteps – literally. At President Bush’s first inaugural ball back in 2001, the former president tried matching hip-wiggles with Ricky Martin. It looked a lot like pairing a weekend duffer with Tiger Woods, but the point was made: the President saw Hispanics as partners, side-by-side in the national two-step.
He ought to – without Hispanics, Bush’s razor-thin victory would not have been. In an election where every vote counted, the Latino vote made the difference. The majority of Hispanics voted predictably Democrat, but Bush seized an unprecedented percentage of their votes. Estimates hover around 35 percent of Hispanic voters went for Bush over Al Gore in 2000, and an even higher 40 percent cast their ballots for him over John Kerry in 2004.
Obama, too, recognized the power of the Hispanic vote. His campaign slogan as he ran for the nation’s highest office was “Yes, we can!” In Latino ears it rang as practically a direct translation of legendary labor activist Cesar Chavez’s ¡Si, se puede!
Obama spoke to us, and in return Latinos voted for him overwhelmingly – 66 percent to 31 percent according to the National Exit Poll. The United States Hispanic Leadership Institute, which examined the vote in 13 key states, reached an almost identical conclusion: 67 percent for Obama, and 31 percent for John McCain.
Bush and Obama got it.
Oh, they weren’t the first. Ronald Reagan was. It may seem like ancient history by now, but way back in 1980, Ronald Reagan knew Hispanics were key to future election victories. The Republican playbook made courting Latinos the party’s version of the Miami Dolphins’ wildcat play – even when the opposition saw it coming, there was little they could do to stop it from scoring.
The gala at the White House last week offered a not-so-subtle glimpse of our increasing contributions to our country’s culture and leadership. The audience included Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis. And they gave a standing ovation for the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor, when the president recognized her.
“We’re not really a minority anymore,” David Hidalgo, leader of Los Lobos, told the Washington Post. “Latin music is being recognized as mainstream expression. It used to be just for Latin people – now it’s for everyone.”
The Fiesta Latina was, primarily, a concert for, and by, Hispanics. And it probably comes as no surprise then that the songs were almost exclusively in Spanish. But their meaning needed no translation. As the President himself said, “Latin music speaks to us in a language we can all understand.”
The President knows it. And, in a more understated way, his words were saying what millions of Hispanics know all too well; that Spanish-language lyrics touch us in a way that English language just does not. It is what it is.
Que viva el Obama-meneo.
By Jose Cancela
Jose Cancela is Principal of Hispanic USA Inc, a full service Hispanic Market Communications firm. He has also the author of “The Power of Business en EspaÃ±ol, Seven Fundamental Keys to Unlocking the Potential of the Spanish Language Hispanic Market” Rayo / HarperCollins.