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Latino voters trickier than you think
By Rueben Navarrette | Columnist
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Published: 10/20/2008 12:03 AM

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Documentary filmmaker Philip Rodriguez has heard political observers - including me - predict that the Latino vote will decide this election. And he's not buying it.

Nearly 10 million Latinos are expected to cast ballots next month, and they could swing four battleground states: Nevada, Florida, Colorado and New Mexico.

Rodriguez just finished a documentary about Latino political activism in the United States. He believes the impact that Latinos will have on this election is much more complicated than people realize.

"Latinos '08" airs this month on PBS.

Like his earlier film "Brown Is the New Green: George Lopez and the American Dream," which explored the intersection of entertainment and Hispanic marketing, Rodriguez's latest production is crafty, engaging and fun. Rodriguez is not advancing a political point of view, or trying to make the case for a particular candidate.

"I don't feel loyal or beholden," he told me. "I'm not a partisan. I'm not in the business of politics. I'm a chronicler."

The way Rodriguez tells it, what is happening now has roots in what has happened: the first television ad aimed at Latino voters, where Jacqueline Kennedy made a pitch in near-perfect Spanish, and the "Viva Kennedy" clubs of 1960; the Chicano movement of the 1970s; when Ronald Reagan declared, "Hispanics are Republicans. They just don't know it" and then walked off with about 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in 1984; the Clinton years, which quaintly continued to cast racial issues in black-and-white terms; the arrival of George W. Bush, who put his Latino outreach efforts out front with television ads, wound up with 44 percent of the Latino vote in 2004. Finally, there is a new civil rights movement in which U.S.-born Latinos and legal residents are taking to the streets to defend illegal immigrants against barbed-tongued demagogues and political opportunists.

"Latinos '08" also includes observations that discuss Latino voting patterns and the current presidential matchup between Barack Obama and John McCain. (Disclosure: I am one of those interviewed by Rodriguez.) It's the racially polarized nature of the contest that, Rodriguez says, might actually work against the Latino vote getting the attention it should. Polls show Obama winning more than three-fourths of the black vote and McCain winning about two-thirds of the white vote.

Put simply: The American electorate seems to be so polarized between black and white that it's difficult for many people to see any other color. The filmmaker began picking up on some of that recently when he screened the film before audiences around the country. A lot of viewers, he said, struggled with the process of taking in something new.

"A lot of them are under siege right now," Rodriguez said. "They're in a bad spot, praying for their jobs, and they haven't really retooled or gotten any really sophisticated understanding of Latinos, this group that defies their black-and-white imaginary thinking."

That's the best reason to watch a documentary like this - for a better understanding.

One of the experts in the film notes that, every year, about a half-million Latinos become voters.

You can either catch the sunrise or miss it all together. Either way, a new day is coming.

© 2008, The San Diego Union-Tribune