TIJUANA, Mexico — A Mexican-American truck driver in his late fifties, José, wore a star-spangled National Rifle Association t-shirt here at the San Diego-Tijuana border crossing on Tuesday. He was waiting in line to cross into the U.S. and cast his vote for Donald Trump, he said. He pointed at his well-worn shirt, and announced that he was showing his “true colors” on Tuesday.
Though born in Tijuana, like many here José is a dual citizen who went to high school in the U.S. along with his siblings. He said he has worked there, like his mother did before him, since he was 17 years old.
When José got his first “shitty factory job” in the U.S., just out of high school, he said he earned $2.50 an hour. But as the years passed he focused on his education, served for years in the army, was deployed overseas five times, and built up an impeccable work ethic, he said, “unlike some people.”
“I made it in the U.S. legally,” he said. “They should too.”
By “they,” it was clear, he wasn’t talking about the hundreds of other Latinos waiting in line to cross into the U.S. He was talking about the “freaking hills full of people” he has seen hoping to thwart the existing border wall, as helicopters fly overhead in the border city where he was born.
Precisely on the issue of the proposed southern border wall, he did not mince words. “They should build the damn wall or watch the people [American citizens] rise up in arms,” he said. “Both psychologically and physically the wall works, and I can’t wait to see Trump come through on his promise.”
Some have compared the mindset of people like José and other conservative Latino voters to those who would climb into a treehouse, and pull up the ladder behind them—the ladder of opportunity, in this case.
But as the world comes to grips with the outcome of the election, many are still scratching their heads as it becomes clear that this epic tale of the Latino “sleeping giant” that would rise up to defeat Trump proved untrue.
Although they may have turned out in record numbers on Election Day, a whopping 29 percent of Latinos cast their ballots for Donald Trump, according to CNN exit polls, devastating the narrative that played out in the media leading up to Tuesday. This is more than the 27 percent of Latinos who voted for Republican candidate Mitt Romney in 2012.
So, almost one out of every three Hispanic voters decided, despite Trump’s rhetoric about Mexico, Mexicans, and Mexican-Americans, that they want him to lead the United States as it grapples with a future full of decisions about how it will treat migrants, refugees, and the estimated 11 million undocumented people who have lived alongside them in communities across the country.
In speaking with Mexican-American voters lining up at the border to cast their ballots on Tuesday, it became clear to me that Latino voters have been largely misunderstood, and projections were not representative of the rainbow of opinions that Hispanic individuals hold, nor who they consider their vested allies to be.
Many sweeping generalizations tended to ignore the often profound differences among Hispanic communities from different geographic backgrounds, assuming, for instance, that Puerto Ricans or Cuban Americans have exactly the same interests as Mexican-Americans.
Indeed, even if one focuses exclusively on Mexican-Americans, they have remarkably diverse opinions on some of the issues that they are closest to—immigration, border security, binational trade.
Asking African-Americans if they would be against building a wall against the US-Mexico border, 82 percent say yes. But, surprisingly, ask Latinos the same question and that figure falls to 68 percent, NBC exit polls showed. On the issue of whether unauthorized immigrants should be able to apply for legal status in the country, 82 percent of blacks said yes, whereas only 78 percent of Hispanic voters agreed.
José is not an outlier. He is just one of several Trump supporters that I spoke to in Mexico on their way to the polls, but one of the few willing to voice his polemical opinions, loudly answering my questions as some of the surrounding border crossers glared.
He explained that he spends months at a time driving across the U.S. in his truck, listening to his favorite talk radio hosts—Alex Jones, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, Sean Hannity. He says that he knows they can all be a little bit “out there,” but that overall they are the only ones in the country who are “telling it like it is.”
“The liberal media is so full of shit. And that’s why Trump is going to win this thing,” he told The Daily Beast on Election Day. “I spend 100 days at a time driving across the U.S., and every time I look at my paycheck I see that they [the government] are stealing more of it—$350 to $500 dollars each paycheck, always more, every check,” he fumed.
Ignoring my concerned questions about the welfare of migrants and refugees, he said: “People who work and pay taxes support Trump, because they know what’s at stake.”
“I have a sister who I haven’t talked to in years,” he said, as we spoke in Spanish on the international pedestrian bridge. “She’s on welfare, and has five kids. She lives in Mexico and has a job here, and it’s total fraud. There are millions of other people just like her. I used to tell her that she needs to grow up. She’s young, isn’t disabled, speaks perfect English, and is an American citizen, so why does she do this? Because she can, because it’s easy, and she’s lazy, and the government we have enables her and encourages her to commit fraud.”
“They are paying her to break the law,” he argued. “I pay for her lifestyle, and so do you, and every other American taxpayer. And somehow people like me are the assholes? Americans are stupid for allowing this.”
Voters like José break from the narrative of what has been expected of them, much to the chagrin of non-voting Mexicans, some of whom looked on at him with expressions undulating between amusement and disgust as we spoke.
You may have noted that José did not want to share his last name.
“I live in Mexico because I can’t afford to buy a house in the U.S.,” he said.
Then we went back to his opinion of immigrants in the U.S.: “Where does my money go? It goes to Muslims and Mexicans—to people who are here illegally. They give it to people who are on welfare. But I am the only one working for it. It isn’t fair.”
Comprising 11 percent of the electorate, Latinos were touted as a unified bloc that would overwhelmingly throw their votes at former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—they’d be a force to be reckoned with. But, in speaking with voters like José it becomes clear why despite projections, one in three Latino voters came out to support President-elect Donald Trump.
By the time Americans cast their votes again in 2020, one in four people living in the US will be Latino, but it is clear that the idea of them acting as a whole toward a common goal or shared worldview will not be the reality, and their votes will continue to be as diverse as the opinions of the nation at large.
As a demographic they have been discussed in overly simplistic terms. Pundits have not taken into account, on the one hand, a religious, conservative streak among Hispanics, and on the other hand, the idea that many Mexican-Americans and Latinos would call themselves average Americans, rather than identify with the communities that politicians, pundits, and members of the media cast them into. Obviously.
José said he is “an American first,” and also “a patriot” in the most typical sense, “above anything else.”
He took offense when I, at first, referred to him as a “Latino voter”—simplistically implying, he thought, that his vote would somehow conform with anyone else’s.
“Look, lady, I’m an American, and vote for my country’s interest,” he said with a smile. “I don’t go around calling people like you a white voter or a woman voter, and I wouldn’t assume that you would vote for Clinton because she looks like you, so why’s everyone asking the same of people who look like me?”
And he’s right about at least that much, as evidenced by the votes cast by “people like” me: white women—who were expected to overwhelmingly reject the prospect of a lewd, misogynistic, alleged groper-in-chief, but instead voted in President-elect Trump, throwing 53 percent of their support behind him. Latinos, too, surprised on Election Day by failing to meet everyone’s expectations for how they should react at the polls.
I asked if he, as a veteran who spent years on active duty, sympathized with the deported veteran community in Mexico, dozens of whom have protested at the border in full military uniform over the years.
“No way,” he said. “There are laws that grant full citizenship to people who serve their country,” he said, noting the bumpy path to citizenship for people with green cards who enlist — people who despite their service, lose that right if found guilty of an offense. “These people lost their chance to be Americans as soon as they committed a crime, so they dress up in the regalia and ask for pity, but most of them are here in Mexico now as a result of their own actions—they shouldn’t have sold drugs, or committed violent assaults, or stolen. People need to be accountable for themselves.”
On Tuesday, as polls opened and closed across the U.S., the non-voting people of Mexico hoped that the impact of droves of their fellow “bad hombres” north and south of the border turning out to vote would guarantee a Trump-less future.
But as evidenced by José’s opinions, not everyone in Mexico was glum after Election Day, as it became apparent that Trump would be the next president. The questions raised by the votes cast by Latinos—Why did they vote for Trump? What were they thinking? Who are they?—have pretty simple answers.
“Latinos” are still, at the end of the day, your average American individual with a head full of opinions, undefined by racial makeup, socio-economic class, level of education, or anyone’s assumptions of them—just like me, just like you, and just like every other American who will spend the next four years calling The Donald, among a litany of other things, President Trump.