For US Hispanics, Election '86 brought triumphs and setbacks. Wins in Florida and Texas, but doubt on English-language vote
Austin, Texas — For many of the 16 million Hispanics in the United States, the elections of a former migrant worker to the Texas Supreme Court and a Hispanic to the Florida governorship last week portend a more important role for them in the nation's politics. But the approval in California of a referendum making English the official language and the recall there of a Hispanic Supreme Court justice take some luster off the Texas and Florida victories. Some observers see the referendum's success, in particular, as evidence of resurgent anti-immigrant attitudes among Americans.
In Florida, Republican Bob Martinez became the state's first Hispanic governor. But it was in Texas that Hispanic candidates provided the best examples not only of how Hispanic voting is evolving, but of possible shifts in ``Anglo'' acceptance of ethnic candidates.
Supreme Court Justice Raul Gonzalez, a Democrat, who had been appointed to the court to complete an unexpired term, became the first Hispanic to win statewide office in Texas when he won with 53 percent of the vote. In addition, Republican Roy Barrera received 47 percent of the vote, much higher than polls and most political experts expected, in his bid against Democratic Attorney General Jim Mattox.
``What the Gonzalez victory in particular shows is that the race issue may be really declining, if not gone,'' says Rodolfo de la Garza, director of the Center for Mexican-American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. The fact that Gonzalez received more votes than defeated Democratic incumbent Gov. Mark White means a sizable number of voters for Republican Governor-elect Bill Clements ``switched back,'' Mr. de la Garza says, and consciously cast their ballots for a Hispanic.
``It was a deliberate vote, and it was an Anglo vote,'' he adds. ``It signals just how reduced is the racial dimension.''
Such a shift in attitudes among white voters could enlarge the prospects of Hispanic politicians such as San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros, who is mentioned as a possible Texas gubernatorial candidate in 1990.
And there are signs that the tendency to vote based on qualifications other than race held up in the Hispanic community as well. Exit polling done by San Antonio's Southwest Voter Research Institute (SVRI) shows that, while Mr. Gonzalez received 91 percent of the Hispanic vote, Mr. Barrera received just 33 percent.
Like other ethnic groups, Hispanics are anxious to vote for candidates of similar heritage, says William Velasquez, president of SVRI. ``But they aren't doing so blindly,'' he adds. ``Otherwise, Barrera would have received many more of their votes.''
Still, the fact that Texas Hispanics gave the conservative Barrera more votes than any Republican, including President Reagan, ``should lay to rest the notion that Mexican-Americans are unsophisticated, straight-ticket voters,'' Mr. Velasquez says. Despite Hispanics' long tradition of fidelity to the Democratic Party, ``they pick and choose, like everybody else, according to what they believe is their own self interest.''
Whether California's overwhelmingly successful proposition making English the state's official language is any reflection of attitudes toward Hispanics and other minorities remains disputed.
Former US senator S.I. Hayakawa, co-author of the referendum and a member of the board of directors of US English, says the proposition's primary purpose is to preempt any future calls for a second official language. He maintains there is ``nothing either anti-immigrant or xenophobic'' about the measure, although he admits that it received heavy support from voters who think immigrants should pick up English faster.
Others disagree with Mr. Hayakawa's assessment, however. ``There's no doubt in my mind that [the proposition] represents part of a backlash against the new immigrants to the United States,'' says Linda Wong, executive director of the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund. ``They're not European - they're Hispanic and Asian.''
The constitutional amendment will greatly assist efforts to curtail bilingual education as well as publication of multi-lingual ballots, drivers' pamphlets, applications, and other documents, she says, ``and rather than helping people integrate, that will only further isolate them.''
In Texas, Southwest Voter's Velasquez termed the California vote ``definitely anti-ethnic. This country has trouble with people who don't look Swedish.'' The fact many Hispanics supported the measure merely shows what a ``non-issue'' it is to them, Velasquez says, since most Hispanics, except for the elderly or newest immigrants, are bilingual. He points to surveys by the Rand Corporation and SVRI showing more than 85 percent of Hispanics in Los Angeles and San Antonio are bilingual.
But de la Garza of the University of Texas disagrees, seeing the referendum as part of the nation's desire to assure itself that the long-treasured melting pot is still cooking. ``I don't know that there's any evidence of anti-Latino sentiment there,'' he says. ``I think it's saying ethnics are OK as long as they are clearly American. It's being seen or acting as if you're not American that is not acceptable.''