The Latina Advantage

Gender, Race and Political Success

Article by Christina E. Bejarano

I have often challenged the stereotypes and assumptions that we all hold based on our identities. Growing up as a Latina in Texas, I often challenged traditional gender role attitudes of my community. I sought out ways to assert my independent and inquisitive nature, even if that meant I would have to follow my career goals out of Texas. Then my identity as a Latina was put into stark contrast as I moved from Texas to Iowa for graduate school. In Iowa, I searched for ways to emphasize my Latino identity even if that meant navigating snow packed streets to meet others for salsa dancing on Fridays.

I was always interested in studying how our identities impact our lives. I realized very early on that our identities can provide us with different perspectives in life, which can be seen as both advantages and disadvantages. As a Latina, I have personal experience in two underrepresented groups in this country. Also, I was a first-generation college student and the first in my family to receive a Ph.D. The common assumption may be that I would face double disadvantages from my identities. Instead, my identities have provided me with a unique perspective I bring to my academic research, my interactions with students from diverse backgrounds, and my university teaching as a political science professor.

My own life perspective as a Latina has led me to urge scholars to rethink the common assumptions made about females and Latinos in politics. I strive to incorporate my diverse life experiences and my broad research interests into my teaching and research of Latino politics. I bring forth the important dynamics that come from the intersection of gender and race/ethnicity to outline the conditions under which minorities and women successfully compete for electoral office. I focus on Latina political candidates, since they epitomize the interactive effects that come from having racial, ethnic and gender identities.

In the last twenty years, Latinas have made significant strides in U.S. politics. Currently, Latinas make up significant proportions of the Latino delegations in both the U.S. national and state legislatures. This growing political presence of Latinas can significantly influence Latino political representation in the United States. Despite the growth in Latinas’ political success, scholars have yet to offer clear explanations for it. It is important for us to broaden the types of questions that we ask in politics. Will we continue to see more Latinas attaining prominent political positions, like Justice Sonia Sotomayor in the Supreme Court? Will we get more than nine Latinas elected to U.S. Congress? Will Latinos, especially Latinas, help elect the first female as president of the U.S.?

My book The Latina Advantage: Gender, Race, and Political Success (University of Texas Press 2013) offers a theory to explain the Latina electoral phenomenon. I study the interactive effects of race/ethnicity and gender in electoral politics. This book challenges the classic literature, which has common assumptions that minority female political candidates will face compounding electoral disadvantages from their gender and racial/ethnic identity. I argue that there are political advantages that can come with having multiple identities, which can uniquely lessen the effect of potential political disadvantages. Therefore, the intersecting identities provide fewer electoral disadvantages and allow Latinas to more readily attain electoral support. For example, Latinas may expect to face obstacles to getting elected to office, so they make sure to run as highly-qualified candidates, which benefits their campaigns and likelihood of success. Latina candidates also benefit from more available sources of voter support from those who share their identities.

As the U.S. population continues to grow more diverse and complex, we are challenged to rethink our assumptions about each other. Latinas have a lot to ofer, especially in terms of their unique perspectives and life experiences. I am grateful that my family always supported my challenging questions, especially the strong and wise Latinas that inspired my work.

About the author

Christina E. Bejarano is Associate Political Professor at the University of Kansas. Her research on Latina/o political candidates and voters has appeared in numerous political science publications.

Source: This article originally appeared in the 20th Anniversary edition of LATINAStyle magazine, Vol. 20, No. 1, 2014.