Ep. 48 Rogelio Saenz: Latinx Demography and Politics in Texas

NICIE PANETTA: This is The MidPod: The Midterms Podcast. I'm Nicie Panetta with Heather Atwood. We're two moms traveling America to chronicle what may be the most important set of elections in our lifetimes. The midterms in November. In these elections, we the people have the chance to elect a new generation of leaders capable of reinvigorating the U.S. Congress, our first branch of government. This week's interview is with Rogelio Saenz. He's dean of the College of Public Policy at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Saenz has written extensively in the areas of demography, Latinx communities, race and ethnic relations, inequality, immigration, public policy, social justice, and human rights. He's the co-author of "Latinos in the United States: diversity and Change" and he's the co-editor of the "International Handbook of the Demography of Race and Ethnicity." He's a frequent contributor to op-ed pages in Texas and around the country. I was grateful for the opportunity to get his insights into the complexity and the critical importance of Latinx communities to the future of Texas and of our nation.

ROGELIO SAENZ: I'm Rogelio Saenz and I'm a sociologist and demographer and I've been here at the University of Texas at San Antonio for seven years. Previous to that I had been at Texas A&M College Station in the Department of Sociology.

HEATHER ATWOOD: So first just tell us a little bit about your own life story.

SAENZ: I was born in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas. For people that don't know the valley, it's the farthest south you can get in here in Texas between Brownsville and McAllen, a little town Marcellus, that's where I was born. Grew up there and this is an area that has always had high levels of poverty. And at that time about 85, 90 percent of the population were Latinos primarily Mexican origin. There was very little political power in the Latino community, most of the mayors across the, the cities were white. So that was kind of the environment that I grew up in. I went to Pan American University which is now part of the UT system it's now UT Rio Grande Valley. And there, I majored in social work and then found sociology and that really was my passion. And then I took a course in demography. It was demography of the Southwest. There was a professor and then a few other students but it was a, an evening class. The other two students didn't show up to class. So it was mostly a one-on-one with a professor and I, what I liked about demography is that a lot of us had the feeling and so forth that you saw all around, there was a discrimination, there was a racism and so forth, but I think what I saw demography was that it represented a tool to be able to use data to analyze it and then to document many of those things that people were talking about.

NICIE: What's the famous Daniel Patrick Moynihan? "We're all entitled to our, our opinions but we're not entitled to our own set of facts?"

SAENZ: Exactly. Yeah exactly. So that was to me, that has been kind of the tool in terms of higher education that itself and writing have been the tools that have enabled me to try to tell the story or correct a lot of myths that surround the, the Latino population in the U.S.

NICIE: And maybe just in terms of the arc of your academic career, what were the first set of questions that you took a look at and how have those questions changed over time that, that you've been analyzing?

SAENZ: I remember in my days at Pan American when I was an undergraduate I was very much interested in the topic of immigration. In fact I've run into a colleague who was a professor of mine and he said, "Oh I'm going to go look for your essay," because he kept essays even decades and decades later and then he said, "Oh yeah you wrote this, this wonderful paper on immigration". So that was one of the areas that really touched my heart and farmworkers struggles that were very much at the time that you have Ceasar Chavez, Antonio Orendain in, in the valley area organizing farm workers. And then another one that kind of predated a little bit the significant changes that would take place in, in the next few years but that was also looking at the internal migration of, of Mexican Americans in, in the U.S. and for the most part Mexican Americans have been concentrated in the southwest and in Chicago. So I was looking at where people were going and I was talking about these areas that were much more frontier kind of areas for Mexican Americans, others that were more peripheral that where already you begin to see some settlements of Mexican Americans in those areas.

SAENZ: And probably that came out in probably it was 1993 or so, and then in a few years you see the massive movement of Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants to these places called "new destination areas". So places in the South and the Midwest, where you really see the restructuring of the meatpacking industry that drove a lot of, of that movement. So that we've really seen kind of the fanning out of the Mexican origin population in, in the U.S.

NICIE: And I'll just refer our listeners back to our interview with Gustavo Arellano of the L.A. Times, who talks quite a bit about his own family's experience and how folks from different parts of Mexico have tended to go to specific parts of the U.S. and bring their own culture and families with them. It's a great conversation. So you are now the dean of the College of Public Policy here at UT San Antonio. Talk to us a little bit about your institution and what you've been working on here at the College of Public Policy.

SAENZ: Here University of Texas San Antonio, UTSA, is one of the largest major Hispanic-serving institutions. The university is now about 48 years old. I would say probably about 54 percent of the student body is Latino. African-Americans make up another 10 percent so it's probably about three fourths of our student body are people of color here. So you really see a very interesting dynamic in terms of our student body. The large majority of our students are first-generation. So we like to see UTSA as what the future will look like particularly in higher education. This is really a wonderful environment to be and really seeing kind of the opportunities that kids that I identified myself decades and decades ago similar kind of going to higher education, finding opportunities, taking advantage of them, and trying to, to make changes.

NICIE: I thought we would start with your work on children here in Texas. There's a wonderful presentation that you gave in detail that's on YouTube, I will refer our listeners to if you want to learn more, that presentation really resonated for me especially since we recently interviewed Jacob Hacker from Yale University about his book "American Amnesia," which looks very much at American children of today versus decades ago. So, give us a snapshot of the demography of Texas and particularly with respect to what you see with, with kids here today in Texas.

SAENZ: Here in Texas Latino children are now the majority. Now we've been probably from about 2010, 2011, so in the public schools it's a majority numerical majority Latino population. And with Professor Hacker's work you can see some of those kind of connections. Texas has always been ranked among the last in terms of providing funds for public schools. But in particular this has been much more apparent in the last decade or so where it's a very different population. In 2011 the Texas Legislature cut 5.4 billion dollars from public education. And that was a time when you really see Latino children becoming the majority in, in public schools. There's been some funding but it's, we haven't recovered from that massive devastation in terms of the taking away of, of funds. There have been the court cases that, that have been going on, judges saying, "Yes this isn't a very good system, but it's good enough". So there hasn't really been massive pressure to change the funding. But here in the city of San Antonio for example you see Edgewood, one of the, the poorest school districts in the, in the state. And then just a few miles down the road is Alamo Heights, which is a very wealthy, wealthy school and we've seen the original lawsuit with Edgewood in the 1960s and those kind of differences we see those continue to exist.

SAENZ: If you look at kind of the larger picture of the demographic shifts that are taking place, it would be difficult to say these are not coincidental or you don't have the, the investment in educational opportunities for Latino children and African-American children. Demographers are now projecting that in 2022 is when Latinos will become the numerical majority here in, in Texas. And, you really have seen little in terms of investment for kids in the public schools. It's becoming increasingly difficult for people to enter higher education as well. So those are some of the major challenges. And if we want to keep Latinos as a population that doesn't have political power of course you keep them uneducated and you don't make opportunities available for them. We've also seen the voter I.D., the gerrymandering that has taken place. All these factors that have tended to limit the political power of, of Latinos as well as, as African-Americans.

HEATHER: From your presentation one thing I was so struck by was how we all have a stake in Texas in a sense because so much of the population growth in this country is right here in Texas. Texas demographically is our future as a country.

SAENZ: So you see kind of overall the population trends and so forth. You really see a lot of growth here in Texas. Close to 10 percent of all children less than 18 years of age here in the U.S. are here in, in the state of Texas.

NICIE: That's pretty amazing really when you think about it.

SAENZ: There have been people who look at urban kind of trends, geographers, urban specialists are suggesting that the 21st century you really are going to have Texas being a major part of carrying the economy. And you'll see San Antonio, Austin, Dallas, and Houston really being major players, kind of what California represented in, in the 20th century, where you had L.A., San Francisco, San Diego and so forth really driving the, the economy in the state. It's more likely that in the 21st century you'll be seeing this changing here to our own state of Texas.

HEATHER: I was struck just reading the local paper here in San Antonio a story about how school teachers in Texas had come up with a plan to offer Mexican American studies as an option that would be part of the official Texas high school curriculum. And that, is it the state school board? Intervened with this professional recommendation. Just maybe share that story 'cause I think it's a good example of how the dynamics play out here.

SAENZ: Yeah Texas has always lagged behind with respect to things like Mexican American Studies at the university level so here University of Texas at Austin had one of the first programs University of Texas El Paso, here in UT San Antonio, but for the most part there has been very little compared to California which really started and these programs in, in the 1960s and a lot of that has been kind of the power structure at universities, the absence of Latinos in higher education, and particularly in positions of power and authority. This is a case here that Texas has been over the last seven eight years or so has been trying to get Mexican American studies in the high schools. And we know that this is something that really helps students because you have issues having to do with self-esteem. They're, they're not seen as American even if they're born here in the United States. And in Mexico of course they're not seen as Mexican either. So for many of us we grew up in this kind of a no person's land. And I think that the evaluation work that has been done has looked at that positive impact that it's had on students' self-esteem, sense of belonging, as well as their academic achievement. So did you see for most kids if they don't have those kind of classes, they go into the traditional history classes and it's the sanitized version of what happened with very very little attention to the issues of, of Latinos as well as African-Americans, I should add.

SAENZ: And here finally this, this year the State Board of Education voted in favor of making this be a part of, of the curriculum with one caveat. And that caveat was that they changed the name of the program. It was going to be Mexican American Studies Mas M-A-S, and they changed it to Ethnic Studies colon, something about the perspective of Americans of Mexican descent. So for many of us here in Texas this represented another slap in the face. Again, the fact that we're, we achieved a little victory here and then they wanted to really push us down again that we really don't have political control and so forth. There was a lot of controversy over that occurred in, in April and over the last couple of, of months that has taken place. I write a monthly column for Ahora Sí, which is the Spanish language newspaper of the Austin Statesman and I had written a piece on how what happened here has been part of our experience throughout our history. So growing up José for example, José's name was changed to Joe, Maria's to Mary, my own case, when I was born, my mother says the, the doctors, "What are you gonna name him?" "Rogelio." "No, name him Roy like Roy Rogers or something." So myself and other Rogelios and we had our names changed in schools and it was that reminder that even though you have changes that have been made and so forth and even a victory in terms of having Mexican American studies as part of the curriculum and so forth it was that slap in the face again that we're really in control here.

HEATHER: I think will be really helpful for our listeners if there are any other things that you can cite that make Mexican Americans feel like they don't belong, that, that happen kind of on a daily basis or regularly.

SAENZ: Going back again when we were growing up, I was born in the late 50s so I went to school in, in the 1960s and the early 1970s in terms of a K through 12, but it was very regular at that time that people would be punished for speaking Spanish. And there was so much ridicule also in terms of having tacos or so for your lunch, people would typically hide so that they wouldn't be made fun of and things like that so those are kind of those reminders. And here in Texas, a generation or so before or even a decade before, there were the segregated schools here that we know a lot about the segregated schools for African-Americans but that was the case here in Texas. You had the lynchings with the Texas Rangers and, and so forth so it's been kind of that historical kind of oppressive kind of environment that has tried to maintain Mexican Americans and, and Latinos in their place as has been the case with African-Americans in the state of Texas. And I think that you find the daily reminders again where you'll overhear people talking bad about Latinos those kind of subtle kind of things that take place what sociologists call the microaggressions. And I think in terms of the policymaking here in the state of Texas, massive parts of that where you can see the inequality and efforts again to keep Latinos in, in their place so that this last legislative session the important topics were the bathroom wars for example, trying to move funding from public schools to charter schools and so forth. Those have been major issues. We've had health kind of issues particularly with the Latino population. About 30 percent of Latinos don't have health care here in Texas.

NICIE: Texas is not a Medicaid expansion state under the Affordable Care Act.

SAENZ: Yep that's the case so that really has made things difficult. And many Latinos work in jobs that don't provide health care insurance or a very limited kind of, kind of resources.

NICIE: Maybe that's a good segue to the political sphere. It's clear that both in the state legislature and in the federal delegation Latinos are massively underrepresented. And I was just at the protest covering the rally for the Keep Families Together, protesting the, this zero-tolerance policy on immigration. And I have to say, it was a small town in West Texas. And there were very few people of color there. The vast majority were white and I was wondering if you could share some thoughts on why you think that is. I think it flows probably from the discussion we just had, but talk about the dynamics of, of the Latino community finding its voice politically here in Texas.

SAENZ: Back in the, we were talking the 1930s, 1940s where there were the political bosses in South Texas and in West Texas that really ran the, the political system and again I had mentioned growing up in the valley that even though the population was 85, 90 percent Mexican American, there were very little political power in those communities, so that you had business owners, employers, and so forth that very much pressured individuals to vote for their own particular candidates or their own selves. So I think that you still have that, that suppression and you find it with respect to the 1960s and the 1970s where you have the Chicano movement that took place in Texas, the emergence of the La Raza Unida Party that did very well in Crystal City and some of the Winter Garden area here just south and west of San Antonio. And there you had Texas rangers, they would be in the community at those times when there were the voting day and so forth. Again that signal of intimidation. And I think that even though it's not as overt, there are the elements that still are part of the environment, particularly for the older segments of, of the population.

NICIE: In order for me to attend this rally and cover it, I had to go through a border patrol checkpoint well within the U.S. border right, and I was not coming from Mexico, I was coming from another town in Texas. And the idea that you have to go through these checkpoints all the time I think could be quite intimidating.

SAENZ: Yeah and that's another thing having to do with Texas and weather patterns and so forth are a lot of hurricanes that take place and there has been that kind of discussion about what happens if there's a hurricane that hit south Texas for example, and people have to flee. And you have the checkpoints and so forth and people that are unauthorized and not being able to move freely. And that's typically the case in any kind of a presidential administration. But this one in particular where there has been such drastic measures that have been taken to deport people.

NICIE: That's a really interesting point and I was just in Presidio, Texas, where they have a sister city across the border in Ojinaga. And those two communities work very closely together on all kinds of issues including, you know firefighting, disasters, they've had flooding of the Rio Grande there and so there's close cooperation at the local level but the federal government is a player because of the border, and that's something that we all need to keep in mind.

SAENZ: And you really have seen that since 9/11, where you had before that easy passage people coming back and forth, relatively easy, businesses on this side of the border depended and still continue to depend extremely heavily on consumers coming in from Mexico and that has become much much more difficult. Businesses right now on the border particularly as Trump has really escalated his treatment towards Mexico and the border wall and so forth has really alienated a lot. And you see surveys that show the negative impact on, on the consumers' market there in South Texas.

NICIE: I got an earful about it when I was there for sure!

HEATHER: So what is your analysis of how the Latino community could get more political representation here in Texas? What do you think needs to happen? Do you see any green shoots of hope?

SAENZ: I think that the young people in our community really represent the future and if we're going to gain political power it's going to be them. And you look at the millennials you're talking about a significant portion now of Latino voters are millennials because of our youthfulness here in, in Texas about 191,000 Latino children turn 18 every year and most of those, about 95 percent, are U.S.-born so they're eligible to, to be voters. This really represents our, our future. But I think that there needs to be much more in terms of the engagement of youngsters. For any group, younger people are less likely to vote. You saw with Bernie Sanders and you saw it earlier with Obama, particularly the first time he ran in terms of really engaging youngsters and you can see the potential for, for voting power there and I think that represents our hope in terms of gaining some political power. And we also have continued to have a high proportion of Latinos who even though are eligible to vote they're not registering and they're not voting. Part of that could be the engagement of course, or the, the pessimism that their vote doesn't make a difference. If we really want to change things and really get the Texas Legislature to pay attention to our important issues such as employment, such as health, such as education, housing, affordable housing and so forth, we really need people who are going to push for those policies, as opposed to the bathroom wars and so forth, or making guns more available and things that really aren't what the state needs.

NICIE: So I'm going to pause there and say because I know our listeners often ask us what they can do, this question of registering young voters in Texas and inspiring them to turn out is if there's anything that you can do personally on this, please put your shoulder to that wheel, because if you look at the raw vote totals from the U.S. Senate primary race in March, with Ted Cruz running versus Beto O'Rourke, Beto O'Rourke has run a tremendous campaign but he was not even close in terms of the absolute number of votes that he got in his primary versus what Ted Cruz got, so it's like a double digit percentage gap I think. However, 190,000 new 18 year-olds in Texas could fill that gap. So that's where the math is.

SAENZ: And I think that the other inequality that you see across political parties is also and, with respect to contributions and the amount that they have in their financial chests to run political campaigns. You see the amount that Ted Cruz has over Beto O'Rourke. You see this over and over and it's because really I think at the national level, the Democratic Party either sees Texas as a lost cause because of the being heavily red or, say demography will take care of it, but we know that that isn't a one-to-one kind of situation. So there really needs to also be greater emphasis on investing in Texas so that people like the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project, my friend Lydia Camarillo is a major person in terms of registering people, but there's a need for resources to be able to do that.

HEATHER: And we are seeing more Latino candidates in this cycle running, so that is a positive and hopefully, we definitely have heard from citizens in other parts of the country that you know, "I've never had somebody like me to vote for," and that that can make a huge difference.

SAENZ: Yeah and I think you see it across the country, we've had women, for example, running for office, winning, and so forth. And you see it with Latinos and, in Nevada, now we have our first Latina senator there. And that's likely to take place elsewhere as was the case with Ocasio-Cortez in New York, twenty-eight-year-old woman and many millennials might say, "What am I doing, a 28 year-old running against someone who's been a ten-term U.S. Representative," and she did it. She brought that energy. She was marching, she was an activist. She's really I, I hope, is going to be pushing that agenda that we really need, and I think that as you see more and more of those candidates I think that that is really what galvanizes and fosters a lot of, of excitement, rather than having the same old same old same old politicians who suggest that they're going to make differences but things don't, don't change.

HEATHER: Great picture on Twitter of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's shoes where she shows you how she wore out the bottom of her shoes knocking doors in the Bronx and Queens. So Dean Saenz just maybe in closing, what would you suggest if our listeners want to learn more either about the demography of Texas and the U.S., issues facing the Latino community, where, where would you point them?

SAENZ: Here in, at UTSA we have the state demographer Lloyd Potter and they have quite a number of reports having to do with the demography of, of Texas. Myself I've written quite a bit as well you could probably Google "Rogelio Saenz" and it's R-O-G-E-L-I-O and Saenz S-A-E-N-Z. If you Google you'll find a lot of work that, that I've done particularly on the Latino population. This is probably going to look like a shameless plug but I have a book on Latinos that is coauthored with Maria Cristina Morales who is a sociologist at University of Texas at El Paso, and our book is titled "Latinos in the United States: Diversity and Change" and it looks at kind of the issues not only in Texas but in the U.S., but looks at issues of immigration, history, and each of the institutions, education, political institution, religious institution, mass media and so forth so it's really extensive.

HEATHER: Just lastly, any novels, poets, musicians, any that really resonate for you?

SAENZ: Well there is quite a bit I think in terms of novels in Texas. There have been the work of Sandra Cisneros that you really see kind of issues of gender, issues of inequality, that take place. Our poet laureate that we've had here in, in San Antonio, Laurie Guerrero, writes marvelous poetry again the Mexican American experience herself being a millennial that you see some of that energy of the, the, the millennials, the music and you see it a lot in the corridos also, the folk ballads that you find that really speak to the, the situations that are taking place. Carmen Tafolla, a friend and colleague here at UTSA, another of the poet laureates again, fascinating work that they've captured the spirit, the challenges that we continue to face on a daily basis.

NICIE: And I would be remiss if I didn't ask you, I'm sure some of your students here at UTSA are DACA recipients and, maybe you could just reflect a little bit in closing on what they're dealing with in their lives and the broader picture of, of these new harsh immigration policies and how they're affecting your students and their families.

SAENZ: So here we have a significant number of, of DACA recipients in, in our university. They've always been a very powerful and an activist voice here. There was the immigration rights marches and so forth. San Antonio really represented kind of the hub of a lot of the protests that were going on a lot of those were students and you continue to see the, the very powerful demonstrating voice that they have. And here are kids that are among the, the best that are coming out of our high schools. Many of these are students that finish in the top 10 percent of their, their classes. They get the opportunity because here in Texas, we did pass back in the 90s where students if they graduated from Texas high school could be considered in-state so that they would be paying in-state tuition, so there are those opportunities.

SAENZ: But then there was the issue of employment and so forth which DACA recipients had that, and you really see the normalizing of their experiences. Kids that for the most part were brought when they were 2, 3 years of age, they know that this is their home, this is where they belong, but they've had those barriers and DACA really lifted those and really made them much more the so-called normal kind of life, the mobility that they were able to experience working and working not in underground kind of economies where they're exploited but in work that take advantage of their own skills, their education, and so forth. And then with Trump doing away with, with DACA you have kids that had that carrot dangled in front of them and kind of the good life, the possibilities and all of a sudden going back to the shadows, those are quite tragic and it's so sad. It's that scene where people are biting off their nose to spite their face or something like that, because in the end this country really loses by not taking advantage of the skills and the education that we've already invested in these youngsters.

NICIE: I think that's something that I saw in one of your presentations that, it feels often as if the state, the government are treating our children as if they're liabilities and not like they're our assets our future.

SAENZ: Yeah so this is very important I think that Latino children have always been seen as a liability rather than an asset. And we see demographic shifts that are taking place. The white population is now declining. The report that a colleague and I did showing that there are now more white deaths than births in 26 states. This is a pattern that's going to be increasing over the next few decades and Latinos and people of color are going to be a greater part of the, of the labor force, the consumer markets and so forth. And it's very important to invest in those rather than treating them as people that aren't part of the country, and I think that for politicians, as long as they continue seeing Latino children and African-American children and other as their children instead of our children, there is not that empathy where you push to make life better for kids. And I think that that's what's missing, particularly in this climate of hate, divisiveness, and so forth. It's easier and easier to remove people and be seen as other people's children rather than our children or people that really don't belong here. And if you have that view of people, it's very easy to just neglect them, to put policies that hurt them and things like that because you really don't see them as part of the fabric of this country.

NICIE: As the saying recently went, "I don't really care, do you?"

SAENZ: Oh yeah. I was speechless with that, yeah.

NICIE: Really unfortunate. Well Dean Rogelio Saenz, thank you so much for spending time with The MidPod. We really appreciate it.

SAENZ: Thank you very much, Nicie.

NICIE: That was Rogelio Saenz, Dean of the College of Public Policy at the University of Texas at San Antonio. That's it for this week. Connect with us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @TheMidPod, and visit us at themidpod.com. Thanks for listening, and see you next time.


Eunice Panetta