There are many heat stress prevention strategies for farmworkers that focus on correcting either individual behaviors (e.g., avoiding caffeinated beverages and bulky sweatshirts) or workplace conditions (e.g., providing shade and regular break periods). Yet, few heat stress-specific health plans take into consideration the conditions of the built and natural environment that farmworkers are returning to at the end of a long day in the fields.
(All names used are pseudonyms, in order to preserve interviewees' confidentiality)
Nadia: "You really can't run against a white guy. You can't. You're going to lose, regardless whether the population, whether we outnumber them. I think they'll still win."
Interviewer: "Why do you think that?"
Nadia: "I think they can brainwash us, because we work for them. In farm labor. We work for them in the rice fields. We work for them in the orchards. We work for them."
In Colusa County (located in the northern Sacramento Valley), Latinos comprise 55 percent of the total population, but there are no Latino representatives on the two city councils or among the five county supervisors (US Census, 2010).[i] In fact, there are only two Latino elected officials in the entire county: one on a local school board and the other on the county’s school board. As of March 2012, there were 14 majority-minority[ii] cities in California with all non-Latino white city councils, and there were 20 majority-minority California cities with only one minority member on the city council.[iii] With similar situations arising in political districts across the United States, the study of the potential causes for this phenomenon is timely.
The motivation for this study was to better understand why there is little official Latino political representation in Colusa County, when the majority of the population is Latino. The research focused on the lack of Latino candidates as a primary explanatory factor and poses the following question: Why are more traditionally qualified Latinos not running for political office in Colusa County? The case study approached this question by conducting 18 in-depth interviews with traditionally-qualified Latino political candidates in Colusa County (i.e., community leaders and professionals), who have chosen not to run for political office. The findings show that accomplished and admired Latino community leaders shy away from formal politics due to a combination of political exclusion and fear of running against the current political elites in the county (particularly white farmers).
Dispelling the Myths
The initial assumption may be that there are not enough Latino registered voters to support and elect co-ethnic candidates into office. Indeed, only 31 percent of registered voters in Colusa County are Latino. Yet, the election results do not fully explain the lack of representation. Over one-third of all the Latino candidates who ran in the last 14 years were elected to office. Despite the successes of Latino candidates, only 12 Latino residents have actually been on the ballot during that time period. Therefore, the issue does not appear to be only about being able to win an election. Rather, it appears that the main reason is not having enough Latino candidates run for office. The absence of more Latino candidates willing to throw their hats into the political race is a significant barrier to gaining more Latino political representation in the county. If there are no Latino candidates on the ballot, how can the voters elect them?
Benefits of Latino Political Representation
Before describing the research findings, it is necessary to identify what the benefits are of having political representatives that reflect the community members they serve. Descriptive representation,[iv] defined as political representation by representatives of the same social, racial, and/or ethnic group, has been shown to provide both substantive benefits and symbolic benefits for minority constituents. Regarding substantive benefits, political scientists have found that Latino representatives are more likely to vote in favor of policies of particular importance to Latino constituents.[v] Along symbolic lines, descriptive representation has been shown to foster a sense of inclusion within the public arena for Latino residents, which has been linked to encouraging increased civic and political engagement.[vi] Descriptive representation does not guarantee these benefits, but empirical research affords enough evidence to consider it at least one avenue for gaining equitable representation of Latinos in political decision making.
Explanations for the Lack of Latino Political Candidates
The interviewees all thought that having more Latino political representation in the county would be beneficial for the Latino community. However, both historical structural barriers and individual perceptions are preventing them from envisioning themselves in a formal political role. All of the interviewees want more Latino leaders to run for political office in the county. However, they do not want to be the ones in that position since, among other things, they doubt Latino candidates would have the support of either non-Latino white or Latino voters. Furthermore, running for office is seen as a substantial risk to their professional careers.
On the surface, the findings from the interviews paint a picture of Latino leaders who feel a tight bond to fellow Latino residents and a similarly strong pull to Colusa County as a physical place and community. Indeed, one interviewee stated the following about Colusa County:
My feelings for Mexico, that's my homeland, I was born there. But my life is here in Colusa now. It matters more to me what happens to Colusa. Cause I'm going to live here. My family's going to live here. My family lives here.
Digging deeper, however, the Latino leaders reveal that the formal political domain—as opposed to their professional and personal spheres—is viewed as off limits to them. Many of the interviewees feel excluded from the formal political realm, which is exhibited by the follow interviewee’s frustrations with the local city council:
I went to a [city council] meeting. To me I felt like the token Mexican because they're asking us to put in our suggestions. None of the suggestions I've made or said in the little groups ever got a second thought. They didn’t listen to a damn thing I said.
Many of the interviewees react to the exclusion they perceive in the formal political realm by engaging in activities that are tangential to the formal political bodies (e.g., soccer club and parents’ club). Unfortunately, these alternative civic spheres are limited in their material impact on the community in comparison to the decisions of the formal political bodies. The elected officials in the formal political arena draw on an annual budget to authorize planning projects, set utility and water rates, and make decisions on the academic experience of children in public schools. The alternative political realm allows the Latino leaders to plan projects without the approval of formal political officials, but they are limited to extracurricular activities and require fundraising efforts prior to implementation.
Larger structural issues of race, class, and labor history loom over the Latino leaders’ perceptions of political power in Colusa County. Their cultural belonging with other Latino descendents engenders empathy and, at times, outrage for the difficult circumstances of Latino residents in Colusa County. Yet, at the same time, the interviewees distinguish themselves from the farmworkers still laboring in the fields. Still, they also see themselves as in a lower status than the non-Latino white farm families in the county who are perceived as the ones who have the political power in the region. One interviewee explained her perception that the political representatives were farmers “that are like all white” and are “keeping it like this, the old way, and it's gonna be like this.”
Another confounding question is whether or not the Latino leaders in the study are power brokers in the community (able to mobilize co-ethnic and broader support) or if their political power is limited by their positionality. Specifically, the “in-between” social positions of the Latino leaders in the study influence their perceptions of their status within the community and their connection to other Latino community members. Many of their livelihoods are maintained through a balancing act between professional positions subordinate to economic elites (e.g., government positions that report to the current elected officials) and their efforts to support the Latino working class. As such, they are bound by an “in-between” economic state that constrains their political flexibility. Thus, running for an elected office could put them in political competition with the elite class on which their livelihood depends; a risk they may not be willing to take.
Furthermore, since farm labor has been racialized over time and inextricably linked with Latino residents, the Latino leaders face the conundrum of being respected professionals (particularly within the co-ethnic community) and simultaneously part of a racialized minority associated with marginalized labor.[vii] The formal political sphere is where their “in-between” status in the community (marginalized and revered) appears the most obvious to them. Their retreat from the formal political realm and insertion in alternative political endeavors circumvents the exclusionary political environment, but it also ensures the persistence of the unbalanced political structure.
Finally, family obligations were also cited as a deterrent to running for an elected position. The Latino leaders referred to caring for an elderly relative and spending nights with family as specific conflicting family obligations to running for political office. However, the importance placed on families compels some of the Latino leaders in this study to contemplate running for political office, particularly the school board. Hence, the family obligations felt by Latino leaders both motivate and deter their candidacy decisions, depending on the specific situation. From this study, Latino leaders with school age children were more likely to see serving on a political body as a benefit to their families, while those with small children or adult children were more likely to see it as taking away from family responsibilities.
Summary of the Findings
The findings reveal that accomplished and admired Latino community leaders shy away from formal politics due to a combination of political exclusion and the fear of the repercussions of running against candidates that are literally, or figuratively, their bosses. In short, the interviewees want more Latinos to run for political office, but, at the same time, most of them see a political future for themselves as a virtual impossibility and minimize their professional success in comparison to the political influence of the non-Latino white elected officials. The unbalanced political representation in Colusa County reveals the complex intersection between exclusion, subordination, and racialization. Aside from family obligations, the Latino leaders’ individual circumstances do not precisely explain why more traditionally qualified Latino residents are not running for political office. The structural barriers in Colusa County (i.e. exclusion and perceptions of political power) more clearly indicate the reasons why the Latino leaders in this study are choosing not to run for political office.
Policy Implications and Suggestions
The first step in addressing these issues would be to make the political realm more amenable to the Latino community in general. This does not mean simply providing Spanish translators (although that would also be a useful addition to all local government meetings in the county). The Latino leaders in this study are all fluent in English, and many have even grown up in the county. It is more than simply understanding the meetings; rather, it is about creating an environment that acknowledges and embraces the shifting demographics in the county.
Nominal efforts at inclusiveness are transparent, including inviting Latino leaders to sit on an advisory committee and then “not listening to a damn thing” they say. The focus must first be on listening to the needs of the community that are communicated by the people that show up to meetings. If the Latino leaders already feel ostracized by the current political representatives, then it is hard to imagine them wanting to serve as the single Latino official alongside a sea of non-Latino white established representatives.
Next, there need to be more systematic efforts to encourage naturalization and register Latino voters. Currently, the Colusa County Clerk’s office has the only formal outreach program to register voters. However, a government program may not be the most effective means of registering new voters that may already feel disenfranchised by the formal political arena in the county. Also, a local non-profit has begun a new program to offer citizenship classes to the community. Yet, there are only a few dozen spots available at a time. There are potentially hundreds or thousands of Colusa County residents that are eligible to naturalize and gain the right to vote. The non-profit’s program may expand and reach out to more people, but more funding is needed for this purpose.
Also, there is the common misconception that there are few Latinos registered to vote in the county, or that Latino candidates cannot win. This fictitious information should be corrected, and the real statistics should be disseminated widely to the community. Latinos are already one-third of the voting population, and when Latino candidates have run for office, they have won one out of every three times. These statistics defy the mistaken belief that a Latino candidate cannot beat a non-Latino white candidate in Colusa County, and that Latinos in Colusa County do not vote. When more people recognize the potential for success, it may encourage new Latino leaders to take the risk of running for political office.
Finally, it is important to note that having greater Latino representation is not a panacea that will immediately or inevitably bring benefits to Latino residents in the county. The Latino population of the county is highly diverse and divided across both political and class lines. Still, Latino representation will at the very minimum provide the community with symbolic representation, and allow the diversity of the community to be more fully represented among the formal political bodies. Beyond that, there is at least the opportunity for representation that more fully embodies the shared experiences and unique perspectives of Latino residents in the county.
[i] This study was conducted prior to the November 2012 elections, and therefore does not include that data.
[ii] A “majority-minority” city is one in which the majority of the residents are racial or ethnic minorities (as opposed to non-Latino whites).
[iii] Evans, Will. 2012. “White-dominated Boards Face Legal Threats Over Racial Make-up.” California Watch. March 9, 2012. Accessed online: http://californiawatch.org/money-and-politics/white-dominated.
[iv] Descriptive representation is characterized by the shared ascriptive (i.e., inherited or involuntary) traits of the representative and a particular constituency, but it is the shared experiences of discrimination, disadvantage, and cultural similarity between the polity and the policy maker that result in decision makers that better represent a disadvantaged group’s interests (Mansbridge, 1999).
[v] Kerr, Brinck and Will Miller. 1997. “Latino Representation, It’s Direct and Indirect.” American Journal of Political Science. 41(3): 1066-71.
[vi] Pantoja, Adrian D. and Gary M. Segura. 2003. “Does Ethnicity Matter? Descriptive Representation in Legislatures and Political Alienation among Latinos.” Social Science Quarterly. 84(2): 441-60.
[vii] Mitchell, Don. 1996. The Lie of the Land: Migrant Workers and the California Landscape. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.
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