Understanding the difference will be key to Democrats moving past their faltering, one-size-fits-all approach to Hispanics.
ZAPATA, Texas — Of all the results from the November 3 election, few drew as much attention from national political observers as what happened in a quiet county on the banks of the Rio Grande. Donald Trump became the first Republican presidential candidate to win Zapata County’s vote in a hundred years. But it wasn’t its turn from a deep-blue history that seemed to be the source of such fascination but rather that, according to the census, more than 94 percent of Zapata’s population is Hispanic or Latino.
Zapata (population less than 15,000) was the only county in South Texas that flipped red, but it was by no means an anomaly: To the north, in more than 95-percent Hispanic Webb County, Republicans doubled their turnout. To the south, Starr County, which is more than 96-percent Hispanic, experienced the single biggest tilt right of any place in the country; Republicans gained by 55 percentage points compared with 2016. The results across a region that most politicos ignored in their preelection forecasts ended up helping to dash any hopes Democrats had of taking Texas.
To many outsiders, these results were confounding: How could Trump, one of the most virulently anti-immigrant leaders, make inroads with so many Latinos, and along the Mexican border no less?
In Zapata, however, these questions have been met with mild chuckles to outright frustration. The shift, residents and scholars of the region say, shouldn’t be surprising if, instead of thinking in terms of ethnic identity, you consider the economic and cultural issues that are specific to the people who live there. Although the vast majority of people in these counties mark “Hispanic or Latino” on paper, very few long-term residents have ever used the word “Latino” to describe themselves. Ascribing Trump’s success in South Texas to his campaign winning more of “the Latino vote” makes the same mistake as the Democrats did in this election: Treating Latinos as a monolith.
Ross Barrera, a retired U.S. Army colonel and chair of the Starr County Republican Party, put it this way: “It’s the national media that uses ‘Latino.’ It bundles us up with Florida, Doral, Miami. But those places are different than South Texas, and South Texas is different than Los Angeles. Here, people don’t say we’re Mexican American. We say we’re Tejanos.”
Though not everyone in the Rio Grande Valley self-identifies as Tejano, the descriptor captures a distinct Latino community—culturally and politically—cultivated over centuries of both Mexican and Texan influences and geographic isolation. Nearly everyone speaks Spanish, but many regard themselves as red-blooded Americans above anything else. And exceedingly few identify as people of color. (Even while 94 percent of Zapata residents count their ethnicity as Hispanic/Latino on the census, 98 percent of the population marks their race as white.) Their Hispanicness is almost beside the point to their daily lives.