Posted on November 21, 2020

Trump Didn’t Win the Latino Vote in Texas. He Won the Tejano Vote.

Jack Herrera, Politico, November 17, 2020

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.) {snip}

In the end, Trump’s success in peeling off Latino votes in South Texas had everything to do with not talking to them as Latinos. His campaign spoke to them as Tejanos, who may be traditionally Democratic but have a set of specific concerns—among them, the oil and gas industry, gun rights and even abortion—amenable to the Republican Party’s positions, and it resonated. To be sure, it didn’t work with all of Texas’ Latinos; Trump still lost that vote by more than double digits statewide, and Joe Biden won more of the nationwide Latino vote than Hillary Clinton did in 2016. But Trump proved that seeing specific communities as persuadable voters and offering targeted messaging to match—fear of socialism in Miami-Dade’s Venezuelan and Cuban communities, for example—can be more effective than a blanket campaign that treats people as census categories. And in the end, it was enough to keep Florida and Texas in his column. If the Democratic Party’s 2020 postmortem for Texas—indeed, for the whole nation—goes only as far as to try to increase their appeal to “Latinos” as an undifferentiated bloc, they’re going to experience even harsher losses in the next election.


Trump’s success in the Rio Grande Valley, says Daniel Arreola, a cultural geographer and author of Tejano South Texas, “peels back the onion on how really conservative that Tejano ranch and small-town rural population is.”

From the brush of Laredo across more than 200 miles to the lush delta of Brownsville, there’s a legacy of a frontier culture that lives on. A place like Zapata is oil country. On weekends, the town empties out as people head into the ranchland to hunt, and nearly everyone is proudly gun-toting and God-fearing. In the deeply Catholic county, support for abortion is practically nonexistent, while support for law enforcement, the military and even Border Patrol is rock-solid.


In some ways, by pursuing the coveted “Latino vote” nationally, the Biden campaign created a massive blind spot for itself in South Texas, where criticizing Trump’s immigration regime and championing diversity just does not play well among a Hispanic population where many neither see themselves as immigrant or diverse.

Take Cynthia Villarreal, a lifelong Democrat and lifelong Zapata resident. She, like many along the Texas border, holds that her family history begins with the Spaniards’ colonial regime along the Rio Grande.


“I’m too white to be Mexican, and I’m too Mexican to be white,” Villarreal says with a laugh. “No soy Mexicana, ni gringa. Soy Tejana.”

In 1848, at the end of the Mexican-American War, the Treaty of Guadalupe ceded all Mexican land north of the Rio Grande to the U.S. As part of the conditions of surrender, Mexico extracted a guarantee from the U.S.: All Mexican nationals who remained on the land would be offered U.S. citizenship, with full civil rights. In the U.S., with Texas still a slave state, the second part of that agreement had a specific consequence: Mexicans would be considered white. If only it were that simple.

Tejanos were conscripted to fight for the Confederacy in the Civil War but were also forced into racially segregated platoons in World War I and World War II. In 1930, “Mexican” appeared as a race option on the census. But by 1940, it was gone again. After a Supreme Court decision in 1935 ruled that three Mexican immigrants were not white, the Mexican government pressured President Franklin D. Roosevelt to remove “Mexican” from the census and again record all Mexican-descended people as white. In 2020, the census treats Hispanic as an option to select before asking one’s race, though election exit polls often don’t distinguish between white Latino voters and non-white Latino voters, instead drawing the demographic lines around non-Latino white voters versus Latino voters of all races. {snip}


Arreola says that while the exact origin of the term Tejano dates back to before the U.S. conquered the area that was once called Tejas, the prevalence of Texan Mexican Americans using that identifier as a rejection of others being put on them—“I’m not Mexican, I’m Tejano”—began in the mid-20th century, as South Texans tried to distance themselves from more recent Mexican immigrants across the country as well as from Hispanic activists who were beginning to embrace Chicano identity. {snip}

Even descendants of more recent Mexican immigrants who’ve assimilated into Tejano culture tend to mythologize a non-immigrant identity for themselves, Arreola says. In 19th- and 20th-century Texas, he explained, being called Mexican “had such a stain to it, and I think that the legacy of that is, in some ways, alive and well in the subconscious of some Tejanos in the [Rio Grande] Valley.”

“I see myself just as an American,” says Yvonne Trappe, another lifelong resident of Zapata but an ardent Trump supporter. “Growing up, I never knew that Hispanics were another race, that we were brown. Everybody just put white—not that it matters. Our culture is one thing, but we were just Americans.”


While many Trump supporters in South Texas, like Trappe, have Mexican roots and say they can understand how the president’s crude and derogatory language might seem divisive to some, few of them hear the president talking about them when he makes comments about Mexicans.

“I think when people say they don’t like Mexicans, to me it means a Mexican citizen, or a Mexican national, who has crossed illegally,” says Barrera, the Starr County Republicans chair. “And then again, not all Mexicans look alike. So when they say they don’t like Mexicans, I don’t think it means me. … It means a Mexican national who has broken the law.”

In Trappe’s view: “Today, the people coming over are not the kind of people who came before, like the braceros, who came to work, to educate their children, to better themselves. No, the people coming now are looking for handouts.”