To make sense of the relationship between President Obama and Latinos at the start of his second term, you must separate appearance from reality.
The appearance is that Latinos are gaining power, as evidenced by the fact that they were prominently on display during the inauguration.
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor administered the oath of office to Vice President Joe Biden. Richard Blanco was the inauguration poet. And the Rev. Luis Leon delivered the benediction – part of it in Spanish.
Latino celebrities and politicos danced to salsa music at an event called “Latino Inaugural 2013: In Performance at the Kennedy Center.” Hosted by Eva Longoria, a co-chair for Obama’s re-election campaign, the star-studded gathering was meant as a tribute to a president who earned 71 percent of the Latino vote.
Biden showed up and thanked Latinos for their support in the election of 2012 – while courting them for his potential run at the presidency in four years.
“One thing that happened in this election, you spoke,” Biden told the crowd. “You spoke in a way that the world, and I mean the world, as well as the United States, could not fail to hear. This is your moment. America owes you.”
Meanwhile, Longoria, who has a film production company, wants to go from making movies to making policy.
“I think we have a permanent seat at the table, and now we’re going to be able to have influence on what affects our communities,” she said.
San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, the keynote speaker at the 2012 Democratic National Convention and one of the party’s rising superstars, even got a little carried away and compared Obama to John F. Kennedy.
“As we said ‘Viva Kennedy’ 50 years ago, today we say ‘Viva Obama,'” Castro said.
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid listed immigration as the body’s top legislative priority this year.
All this would lead you to believe that it’s a new world. Or, in the lingo of the moment, un mundo nuevo.
Biden is right: America owes us. So where do we go to collect? Unfortunately, not the Obama administration.
Which brings us back to reality.
While you’ll never hear it from Obama’s enablers, the president, in his first term, shortchanged Latino supporters and targeted Latino immigrants.
In the 2012 fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported an unprecedented 409,849 people. In four years, the administration has removed a record 1.5 million illegal immigrants. At the end of the next four, the number could easily reach 3 million.
Then there is the embarrassing fact that – with the departure of Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar – Obama’s Cabinet so far is a “Latino-free” zone. The top four Cabinet tops are spoken for, and three of them went to white males.
About this snub, Al Dia, a Spanish-language newspaper, said in an editorial:
“It leaves Latinos in a pickle. Since our strong showing in the re-election of the president, we’ve been telling ourselves we are a political force to be reckoned with. We’re feeling our oats. . . . (But) there are cabinet vacancies in Commerce, EPA, Office of Management and Budget, White House chief of staff, and potential vacancies in Energy and the United States trade representative. Guess how many of the names being floated for each of those positions is Latino? Zero. Not a single one.”
The National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, a collection of 30 of the nation’s leading Hispanic civil rights organizations, sent Obama a stern letter before the inauguration. It read: “With the Latino community heading into the epicenter of an historic policy debate around immigration reform, and related policies, your Cabinet can ill afford to not have the unique perspective and voice of high-level Latino members.”
The letter included a list of 19 Latino leaders who might make good Cabinet secretaries. The advocates want at least three spots to go to Latinos.
We aren’t just an afterthought for this president. We’re an after-after-afterthought.
I often hear Latino liberals say that because they thought Mitt Romney would make a terrible president, they voted for Obama as the “lesser of two evils.”
Is this what empowerment feels like? Latinos shouldn’t feel as if they have power. They don’t.
You know who has the power? Obama. A master manipulator who creates his own reality and vows to correct injustices that he committed, he has the power to actually make Latinos feel good even as he inflicts the bad.
Ruben Navarrette is a columnist for U-T San Diego. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.