Washington — Miami, Denver, San Antonio, and a number of other major cities are sending the United States a message: Hispanic political power is on the rise. Miami was the latest. The election last week of Miami's first Cuban-American mayor, Xavier Suarez, sent a wave of pride through the Magic City's Spanish-speaking neighborhoods. It was an event comparable to the election of the first Irish-American mayor of Boston in 1885, or the first black mayor of Los Angeles in 1973.
It was also one more signal that Hispanics are finally beginning to flex their muscles. As millions of immigrants pour into the US from Mexico, Cuba, and other Latin nations, Hispanic votes are beginning to change the face of American politics.
That change is almost certain to accelerate. Because of a high birthrate, and because of both legal and illegal immigration, Hispanics are the fastest-growing population segment.
The US has not yet felt the full impact of Hispanics' power. Politically, they are like a 100-watt bulb that is producing about 40 watts of light. Although they now total 7.5 percent of the US population, Hispanics made up only 3 percent of the voters in last year's presidential and congressional elections, according to ABC News exit surveys.
In fact, the record of Hispanic voting is even lower than the traditionally poor record of blacks.
Despite their low turnout, political experts say that Hispanics' voting power bears close watching. Not only are their numbers increasing, but Hispanic population growth is concentrated in some of the most crucial electoral states.
Hispanics have gravitated in the greatest numbers to California, Texas, Florida, Illinois, and New York. Those five states alone have 58 percent of the electoral votes (157) needed to elect a president.
The Hispanic population that is of voting age in California, for example, surged 117 percent from 1970 to 1980. And, according to a private research group, rapid increases in California's Hispanic and Asian populations could lead to the white population's losing its majority status within 25 years. The Hispanic voting-age population of California climbed to 2,775,170 in 1980 and has continued moving upward at a rapid rate since that last official census. In Florida, growth was 130 percent, in Texas, 82 percent.
What does this mean politically?
First, it should be wonderful news for Democrats. Both Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans (concentrated in New York State) usually vote Democratic.
In the 1982 elections for Congress, for example, 82 percent of Hispanic voters supported Democratic candidates; only 16 percent, Republican, according to NBC/Associated Press exit surveys.
Presidential voting is usually the same. In 1980, Hispanics supported Democrat Jimmy Carter over Republican Ronald Reagan by 70 to 25, according to the Southwest Voter Education Project.
The exception to this rule is the Cuban-American. Cubans, strongly anticommunist because of their experience with Fidel Castro, support a tough defense policy. Most, therefore, register Republican.
If Hispanic immigration continues at a high rate, it could conceivably derail Republican plans to become the majority party in the US House of Representatives in the early 1990s. The GOP is counting on dozens of new congressmen from the Sunbelt -- precisely where Hispanic power will be concentrated.
Republican leaders, who read the census data as well as anyone, have made Hispanics a vital target group. President Reagan went all out to court Hispanics in 1984 -- apparently with positive results. ABC exit polls found Reagan received 44 percent of the Hispanic vote, 19 percentage points more than in 1980.
Hispanic voting power is already having a notable effect on some sensitive political issues, such as abortion, school prayer, immigration reform, aid to religious schools, and even foreign policy.
Hispanics are, generally, regarded as liberal on economic issues, conservative on social issues. But a study by the National Council of La Raza indicates such generalizations are not always true.
A survey by the Southwest Voter Education Project found that in East Los Angeles and San Antonio 75 percent of all Mexican-Americans favor the Equal Rights Amendment; 64 percent favor abortion under some, or all, circumstances.
Even so, some generalizations seem to hold true. A majority of Hispanics in the Southwest Voter poll said they wanted more federal funds for social programs.
The vast majority of Hispanics are Roman Catholic, a factor that could also influence national and state policy. A Republican strategist working for President Reagan in 1984 said one key reason the White House backs tuition tax credits for parochial school costs is the need to court middle-class Catholic voters, including Hispanics. Similar considerations played a role in Mr. Reagan's decision to send an ambassador to the Vatican.
Just last week, Education Secretary William J. Bennett showed that the GOP plans to continue this courtship of Catholic voters when he unveiled his new plan to provide federal money, through vouchers, to 5 million low-income children to attend school, many of them parochial.
Earlier efforts to sluice government money into religious schools have been ruled unconstitutional by the courts. But pressure could increase as the number of Catholic voters grows. Nearly 3 of every 10 voters in the 1984 election were Catholic, according to ABC News surveys.
If there is one issue that most concerns Hispanics, it is the high level of unemployment. While generally lower than black unemployment, Hispanic joblessness is usually above the level for whites.
Hispanics blame a number of factors: lack of job skills and confidence, discrimination. But the most important, they believe, is poor education. Which means better schools may be the most important key to winning this new Hispanic vote.