No one understands me when I ask for water in New York with my oh-so-quant English accent. A new arrival, I’m stubbornly refusing to smooth my inflexion.
In truth, asking for agua would serve me just as well much of the time in a city whose Latin soul often rises above the kaleidoscopic array of languages and ethnicities. Here, preachers in East Harlem implore sinners to turn to Dios; Mexicans chat in the streets of Queens’ neighbourhoods.
According to the Pew Research Center there were 54 million Latinos living in the US in 2013 – the majority Mexican, Caribbean and Central American. And while culturally, linguistically and demographically Latinos have long been on the rise, their political clout has never been more apparent.
The US’s former cowboy-in-chief George W Bush understood the power of the Hispanic vote better than most. He was known to wide-gait his way to the microphone and address a crowd in Spanglish. Fast-forward to the present day and the current election cycle: shiny-faced candidates-in-waiting from both sides of the political divide already have their eyes on mid-term elections in November and – further ahead – the presidential run in 2016.
Not content with wooing Latinos in their adopted nation, politicians are increasingly heading abroad. Rand Paul – son of Libertarian Ron – is planning a trip to Guatemala, while Republican New Jersey governor Chris Christie – another 2016 hopeful – will meet Mexico’s president Enrique Peña Nieto alongside business leaders in Mexico City next month.
All this eagerness is making president Barack Obama look decidedly sloth-like, especially in light of his slow handling of the ongoing border crisis in the southern states. Over the last few months, thousands of unaccompanied Central American children, many of them Honduran, have arrived on the frontier, driven by gang violence and poverty. Latinos have lambasted Obama for not doing enough; his conservative detractors, meanwhile, have accused him of pandering to illegal immigrants.
The Latin quandary has caused Obama to get his fingers burned in the past. Elected as the reconciliatory antidote to the Bush years, his promises of sweeping change have been snubbed out by a hungover electorate and Capitol Hill pragmatism. His plans to end the Cuban embargo have gone decidedly quiet, largely due to the moneyed – and powerful – revolution-haters-in-exile sunning themselves on the beaches of Miami.
Since Mitt Romney’s cagey refusal to talk about his father’s Mexican upbringing in 2012, everything has changed. The elbows are out in the fight to cement the Latino vote and the community has its stars of the future: Texas Democrat Julián Castro and Sunshine State Republican Marco Rubio.
While neither is likely to win their respective party nomination, it shows that those taking my incoherent water order in New York – and Latinos from all walks of life – are an oft-overlooked but increasingly powerful voice. 2016 is unlikely to usher in America’s first Latino head of state but one day in the not-too-distant future, the US may be chanting not “Yes we can” but “Si, se puede”.
Ed Stocker is Monocle’s New York bureau chief.