Clarence Williams/Los Angeles Times via Getty Image
Clarence Williams/Los Angeles Times via Getty Image
Navigate to News section

Is Spanish-Language Radio Really a Threat to Democracy?

Democrats can only explain electoral losses among Hispanics by infantilizing us as victims of ‘misinformation’

Alex Perez
January 24, 2022
Clarence Williams/Los Angeles Times via Getty Image
Clarence Williams/Los Angeles Times via Getty Image

After Donald Trump’s surprisingly strong showing among Hispanic voters in the 2020 election, a media narrative arose of a possible realignment. Trump had picked up his fair share of Hispanic votes in 2016, but with further gains in 2020, the trend seemed worrying: Were Hispanic Americans ditching the long-predicted Emerging Democratic Majority?

The shift caught progressive media and activists by surprise. But as a Cuban American who lives in Miami, the more even split between Democrats and Republicans among Hispanic voters is old news, obvious to anyone who’s cared to look and listen since before 2015. In other words, this realignment, or shift, or whatever you want to call it, can’t be blamed on Trump.

Not that people haven’t tried. The few progressive pundits who even dared to acknowledge the reality of Hispanic voting patterns mostly blamed their failures of prognostication on ridiculous concepts like “multicultural whiteness,” hypothesizing that Hispanics and other people of color are under the spell of “whiteness” and act as its unwitting foot soldiers. This didn’t quite catch on, so a new blanket explanation that conveniently deflected blame from the woke movement was developed: Hispanics may not be afflicted by multicultural whiteness, but they are misinformed. According to the new logic, Hispanics are particularly vulnerable to “misinformation.”

This theory has had staying power, as it appears to explain the Democratic Party’s slide in Hispanic support while absolving Latinx-identifying “experts” who act as Hispanic whisperers. According to Democratic operatives, Spanish-language media in America, from talk radio to local news channels, is being flooded with ideas that deviate from the elite liberal consensus (i.e., ideas that aren’t “true”). The reason Hispanic listeners and viewers can’t distinguish between true and false information is presumably because most of them are working class, and thus “uneducated.”

The players pushing the misinformation angle within the Hispanic community are not the usual NatSec doofuses and former spooks grifting on MSNBC, but Latinx-identifying Hispanics with little connection to nonelite Hispanic culture, such as Paola Ramos, daughter of Jorge and author of the book Finding Latinx: In Search of the Voices Redefining Latino Identity. Because these expert pundits are mostly paid from somewhere within the Democratic political or media apparatus, they understand their job not as explaining Hispanic voters to white Democratic officials and national broadcasters, but as reassuring the latter that the emerging Democratic majority is nigh. When that narrative goes off the rails, “Hispanics are being targeted with misinformation” keeps the gravy train rolling; “Hispanics are like other Americans and trust Republicans more on taxes and immigration” doesn’t.

One reason the coastal elite Latinx haven’t made many inroads with Hispanic voters is because they are often afflicted with the racial neuroses of elite whites, which working-class Hispanics don’t share. An October article in HuffPost by Lautaro Grinspan titled “How Spanish Language Radio Helped Radicalize a Generation of Miami Abuelos” is the acme of this: Grinspan’s old timers aren’t human beings with agency, but confused and pitiful vessels for misinformation. “Virginia, a 58-year-old Cuban immigrant who lives in Broward County, north of Miami, says that many of her mother’s radical views stem from the same source: misinformation on regional Spanish-language talk radio. To her growing dismay, Virginia says her mamá, 79, is an avid listener, with particularly strong allegiance to right-wing commentators on Radio Mambí, Miami’s leading Cuban-exile station.” The article is filled with many such misinformed abuelos (I can drop Spanish words for authenticity, too) to feed the fears of white Democrats while also allowing them to feel grave concern for the poor, the downtrodden, the people of color.

The key to reading reporting like Grinspan’s is to understand that the popularity of anti-communist radio among Cuban refugees in America is actually a very old story. These outlets have always trafficked in ideas that elite white audiences would consider “hard right” or even “radicalizing.” But they only became sources of “misinformation” once Democrats started losing Hispanic votes. Is that a coincidence?

Not according to Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a South Florida Democrat who was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2018 but lost reelection in 2020. Nearing the end of a competitive race, Mucarsel-Powell asked “the FBI for an immediate investigation into disinformation targeting Latinos before the 2020 election,” according to her website. After she lost, “a targeted disinformation campaign to Latinos” was among the reasons she cited. The Republican who beat her? Carlos Giménez, from Havana.

Evelyn Pérez-Verdía, a Florida-based “veteran senior advisor on Latino issues” (according to her Twitter bio), put her finger on the larger issue: “As I speak to more experts on #disinformation, I realize how so many do not grasp the massive challenge we have if we do not become more proactive in hiring people to research what is happening in Spanish speaking networks. This is not just about Florida. This is global.” Pérez-Verdía comes equipped with a solution worthy of her diagnosis:

Here’s an accurate description of Radio Mambí and its fellow travelers in America’s Spanish-language radio universe: They have always been hyperpoliticized, pandering to niche audiences that demand polarizing ideological fare delivered by charismatic personalities. The content is sometimes hysterical and even totally mad. I would venture to say that these stations became more emotionally charged during the Trump era. But please don’t confuse Radio Mambí with CNN, MSNBC, or Fox, notable for their politically tempered, nonideological content delivered by subtle personalities to highbrow audiences.

The actual difference with Radio Mambí and company is that their audiences tend to be older Cubans, Venezuelans, and other Hispanics with a deep disdain for communism who tune into shows that rail against it. As someone who’s grown up around this stuff and regularly associates with old-guard Cubans, I can guarantee that what you hear at any Cuban bakery or ventanita is even worse. This has been the case for decades, and is only a surprise to anyone who didn’t know until recently that Miami is teeming with communist haters.

Is it healthy for some of these old timers to call into talk radio and froth about “socialists” like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and President Joe Biden? Maybe, maybe not; it’s not for me to say. What about their attacks on Vice President Kamala Harris, recently detailed in a Politico report titled “Democrats riled by Spanish-language radio attacks on Kamala Harris.” How ferocious are these attacks?

POLITICO did record and review segments of local programs independently via a radio station’s webcasts. In one, a male caller can be heard describing Harris as “inefficient” and “disappointing,” adding that the vice president “doesn’t do nothing at all.” The same caller jumped from one point to another before finally accusing the administration of poorly managing the economy. In recent days, a POLITICO reporter also heard callers on other Miami-based Spanish-language programs using similar phrases to describe Harris.

The man who sounded the alarm, a “Miami-based Democratic pollster” and “political strategist who helped Barack Obama win the state in 2008 and 2012” named Fernand Amandi, brought the detail:

“It’s not like you get 10 calls every day. It’s not like that. You get a couple of calls here, a couple of calls there,” Rodriguez said. “That’s how the phone banks begin that [have] worked,” he added, pointing to the way political operatives over the years have directed specific messages through callers on the radio programs. “But it’s a trend that you see that is growing by the day; is growing by the week.”

The larger point, of course, is that shadowy figures running phone banks don’t need to call into Spanish-language radio to “misinform” listeners into hating Harris; they hate her already. But that’s how you turn a ho-hum phenomenon—geriatric refugees from communist hellholes like listening to people talk smack about the left-wing party—into a supposed information operation requiring FBI investigations, the hiring of researchers, and complicated flow charts.

If Democratic operatives are interested in winning back the Hispanic voters they’ve lost, especially in swing states, they should focus less on grandpas drinking cafecito and screaming at each other than on the young, working-class Hispanics who have shifted rightward.

In the summer of 2021, as Cubans on the island took to the streets to protest the regime, Cuban Americans in Miami followed suit. I’ve seen countless demonstrations like these over the years and participated in my fair share, so I was skeptical: Not again, I thought. More pointless yelling and dancing and banging pots together. And to what end? Nothing ever changes on the island. Many Cuban Americans think this way, too, even if they won’t admit it, because the Cuban story, one of perpetual hope and disappointment, has frankly gotten old. Still, I watched the protests on the news and had a good laugh at the hysteria, the flag waving, the police having to close off all the usual streets—Miami at its most Miami.

But what struck me this time around was the age of the participants. In previous iterations, you would see the same old, beleaguered faces. Miguel Saavedra, whom I call the Cuban werewolf, is the leader of an anti-communist group called Vigilia Mambisa. The werewolf has been at the forefront of these protests for decades, always highly emotional and wearing out his voice, never losing his faith in the possibility of change on the island. The werewolf is typically flanked by his usual crew of similarly passionate—excuse me, misinformed old timers, fellows who remind me of my dead grandfathers, or of my father, forever cursing out the communists as he listens to Radio Mambí. These are the Cubans who risked all so that I could live the good life, writing for sophisticated publications like Tablet in an ironically detached style for an intellectual readership, giving them a taste of urban Miami. I’m not a Latinx loser, but I’m still an embarrassment, is what I’m trying to say. If there was any justice in the world, the werewolf would be the one writing this piece, not me, who never thinks about politics until the old timers are back out on the street screaming Libertad! Patria y Vida! again.

But last July was different. It wasn’t just the werewolf and his crew anymore—it was young Miamians: Fine Cubanitas you’d normally only catch out at the club, waving flags and shouting; dudes who look like dollar store reggaeton stars, who’d never uttered a political word in their lives, out in full force. “Patria y Vida, bro!” Now I was interested. This isn’t how millennials and zoomers are supposed to behave. The long-running Democratic narrative has been that, as younger Cuban and other Hispanic Americans assimilate, they’ll shift inexorably away from the right-leaning political and social views of their parents, and join the progressive coalition like good multicultural warriors. And younger Cuban Americans are typically less right wing than their parents. They just don’t think or act like Democratic consultants have decided they should.

About five years earlier, when Fidel died, I drove to La Carreta, a Cuban restaurant in the Cuban-heavy neighborhood of Westchester, where I was born and raised, and where the Cubans who don’t make the trek to Versailles Restaurant in Little Havana (the mecca of Cuban Miami) congregate during major happenings. There’s no other way to describe what I found there at La Carreta: It was a Fidel death party. The typical pots and pans, the chants and dancing. But this time around, in July of 2021, the vibe on the commandeered Palmetto Expressway near La Carreta—during peak traffic hours, no less—was different. It wasn’t just delirious partying, like it was when Fidel died. This time, there was anger, even rage. The young people were not out on the highway to party with their older relatives; they were out because they actually expected things to change on the island. Unburdened by decades of disappointment, they felt entitled to demand it. What was driving their anger, and their hope? Were they “misinformed”?

A few days after the highway incident, I visited La Carreta again, where a good friend of mine, a Cuban American named Willie, had been going everyday since the protests had kicked off. Like me, Willie lives in Westchester, but in a near-decade-long friendship, we’d barely ever spoken of Cuba. But now Willie, who’s disabled and gets around in a wheelchair, was pushing himself to La Carreta every morning and staying there until midnight—he’d caught the Patria y Vida bug. He’d meet up there not only with other young Cubans but Venezuelans and Nicaraguans, too. What brought all these young people from all over the Americas together at La Carreta for that beautiful summer? Was it “misinformation”?

What brought all these young people from all over the Americas together at La Carreta for that beautiful summer? Was it ‘misinformation’?

In the years since Fidel died, a booming Spanish-language ecosystem geared toward younger Hispanics has emerged on social media platforms. While Latinx activists have been pushing wokeness on a mostly confused and uninterested audience, YouTube personalities like Alexander Otaola and other Hispanic influencers haven been steadily attracting viewers in real numbers by speaking to their real concerns. Otaola is bombastic, willing to court controversy, and says inflammatory things like (in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd), “If we are going to fight racism, it is not by segregating or separating into races that we are going to achieve it.” But Otaola has not been given permission by Democrats to disseminate information to Hispanics; he is not Jorge Ramos or an elite talking head from Telemundo or Univision. No surprise, then, that Otaola was featured in The New Yorker’s October 2020 story, “How Pro-Trump Disinformation Is Swaying a New Generation of Cuban-American Voters.”

The painful reality for the Latinx set is that Hispanics are, as Ruy Teixeira recently wrote, “a patriotic, upwardly mobile, working-class group with quite practical and down to earth concerns.” Which means they have more in common with working-class Americans of all races than they do with Democratic Party elites. Anti-Americanism, violent riots, and pathological obsessions with racial and gender categorization cut no ice with them. They didn’t vote for Trump in surprisingly large numbers because they’re misinformed. They did it because Trump said wild shit, pissed off the prim and proper, only cared about the economy and jobs, spoke of his love for America, and had a hot wife. The Trumpian ethos, for all its stupid bullshit, is more relatable for many Hispanics (and non-Hispanics!) than the soulless progressive alternative.

If Democrats don’t want to lose any more Hispanics, they’re going to have to stop worrying and learn to love the Miami flotilla boys, with their fade haircuts and souped-up Honda Civics, more than the fourth-generation, non-Spanish-speaking dweebs who majored in Latinx studies at Oberlin. They should come on down to La Carreta, meet the werewolf and Willie, and smash some pots together at the next gathering: maybe for another round of Patria y Vida, or the Maduro death party. I hope to see them there.

Alex Perez is a writer from Miami. Follow him on Twitter @Perez_Writes.

Become a Member of Tablet

Get access to exclusive conversations, our custom app, and special perks from our favorite Jewish artists, creators, and businesses. You’ll not only join our community of editors, writers, and friends—you’ll be helping us rebuild this broken world.