North Texas Daily

LMAS distinguished lecturer discusses growing the Latino electorate

LMAS distinguished lecturer discusses growing the Latino electorate

LMAS distinguished lecturer discusses growing the Latino electorate
October 17
16:30 2022

The Union welcomed Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado on Wednesday for this year’s installment of the Latino/a Mexican-American Studies Distinguished Lecture Series.

The former president of the Latino Caucus in Political Science of the American Political Science Association presented a lecture titled “Which Way to Your America? The Challenge and Opportunity of Growing the Latino Electorate.”

The LMAS department hosts a distinguished speaker series every year but had to postpone the event during 2020 and 2021 due to COVID-19. LMAS Director Valerie Martinez-Ebers said they chose Benjamin-Alvarado because of his political expertise.

“With this being an election season, we just thought this would be a good topic,” Martinez-Ebers said. 

Before moving to Texas in May, Benjamin-Alvarado worked with the Latino community in Omaha, Nebraska as the Office of Latino and Latin American Studies director at the University of Nebraska Omaha. He is now a special assistant to the president and chief diversity officer at Texas Christian University and said it’s a big change coming from a public institution like UNO.

“What I’m gonna share is basically a story — how I found myself in a place that was experiencing rapid growth in the Latino population and yet there was no corresponding political representation,” Benjamin-Alvarado said. “We wanted to help create an environment where people would become much more aware, cognizant, of political participation and what it means […] I was not trained to do this, my training is as a nuclear policy analyst.”

The turnout for the lecture included both students and professors.

“Since I focus more on Latin America, I don’t really know a lot about the Latino politics in the United States, so that’s why I find that interesting,” political science assistant professor Diego Esparza said. “As a Latino person, I’m aware of some of the voting patterns, but I don’t really study this area so for me it’s more of a learning opportunity.” 

Benjamin-Alvarado took the podium after an introduction by Martinez-Ebers and began his lecture by discussing his past as a nuclear research scientist, which led to him focusing on the Latino community.

He said the biggest turning point for him was when giving an address in Moscow, where he was the only brown person in a room of over 3,000 people.

“There needs to be — there [have] to be more people like me out there in the world, and I kind of told myself at that time that I needed to do something different,” Benjamin-Alvarado said.

Despite having great success in the nuclear policy field, he wanted to work with people like himself. He began his national search and ended up looking into Nebraska. 

“You go, ‘What the hell’s going on in Nebraska?’” he said. “Well, in the time that I got there, it had just experienced 150 percent growth in [the] Latino population from 1990 to 2000. I got there and was blown away at the vibrancy and the size and the dynamism of that Latino community.”

He then discussed his mission to inform Latino voters about their right to vote, citing an estimated 32 million Latinos are voter eligible but not all are registered. More Latinos voted in the last election cycle and the immigration issue seemed to be less present in the Latino electorate, Benjamin-Alvarado said. 

“Maybe it’s a […] Americanization of the Latino population that the economy is first in terms of their interests […] education, health care […] potential for growth,” Benjamin-Alvarado said. “Those things have really captured the interest of the Latino electorate today.”

When he started working at UNO, Benjamin-Alvarado said the Latino population in Omaha had little interest in any of these topics. Despite making up 80 percent of the city’s population, they had no representation politically. For Benjamin-Alvarado, representation goes beyond simply having someone from a community in office.

“There’s a qualitative difference between symbolic political representation,” he said. “Even though you’ve elected a Latino into office that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to substantively have your interests at heart.”

Modern discourse surrounding immigration has also left a mark on the Latino community. Racist rhetoric and disinformation from public figures have changed how the public views the population, he said.

Benjamin-Alvarado mentioned Florida Governor Ron DeSantis sending immigrants to Martha’s Vineyard as one of the most recent examples. 

In 2006, after working with the Nebraska state legislature, the Nebraska DREAM Act was passed, and Benjamin-Alvarado said it was all because of the hard work done by students. The act allows non-U.S. citizens who attend a high school in Nebraska to attend state institutions at in-state tuition rates. 

“I didn’t do any of the work — I just watched the students,” Benjamin-Alvarado said. “We informed them. We motivated them. And they’re the ones that were doing all the knocking on the doors, meeting with the different senators and representatives to make that become a reality.”

UNO’s work was noticed and they received a $100,000 grant from Nebraska’s secretary of state at the time, John Gale. The grant allowed them to fund a nonpartisan voter effort in the Latino community.

“We began to see a growth of Latinx, Latino, Hispanic, political actors, individuals who were now dedicating themselves to being actively engaged,” Benjamin-Alvarado said. “Not only in terms of what they were doing — we had a number of students who are actually working in legislative offices at the state and federal level — we had a number of students who were working in political campaigns.”

He said some of his students are now practicing lawyers and doctors.

Benjamin-Alvarado also started scholarships for “Dreamers” to cover their full education, once again stating that he did not do this alone. The large political movement in Nebraska coming from people like congressional candidate Tony Vargas, his own students and other supporters showed Benjamin-Alvarado that their process was effective.

“The reason I wanted to share this story with you is that this is something that can be replicated everywhere in the country,” Benjamin-Alvarado said.

At the end of his lecture, Benjamin-Alvarado opened the floor for questions. Political science and Spanish junior Andromida Delaney asked him why immigration is becoming less of an important issue in the Hispanic community.

“First hand, I have seen the sacrifices that [immigration] takes,” she said. “In my life — in my family’s life — it’s always been so important.”

Benjamin-Alvarado said the topic has not diminished in his mind and remains a pressing issue, but he did not have a definitive answer for the whole population.

Martinez-Ebers asked the final question of how to get students into Latin American studies. Benjamin-Alvarado said it is important for students to think of themselves as capable of representing their Latino community.

“You have to ask yourself very intentionally — ‘What skills, competencies, knowledge, do I want to put in my tool belt before I walk out the door?’” Benjamin-Alvarado said. “Just think of this as something else to add to your portfolio.”

Featured Image: Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado speaks to an audience on Oct. 12, 2022. Photo by Andrew Hermes

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Giovanni Delgadillo

Giovanni Delgadillo

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