On the morning after the election, news media marveled about the pivotal role of Latinos in President Obama’s victory over Mitt Romney. For years, pundits had speculated about the effect rapidly shifting demographics would have on American electoral politics. It seemed like their decisive moment had arrived.
Republicans immediately began to consider how they might appeal to Latinos by crafting domestic social and economic policies that appealed to them. Moreover, comprehensive immigration reform, one of the issues that Latinos said mattered to them most, was framed as a domestic issue rather than one that also affected cross-border relations with Mexico. Missing from the conversation, I felt, was an analysis of how Latinos also cared about U.S. foreign policy towards Latin America, and how immigration reform would be an international undertaking by the United States, Mexico, and other Latin American countries. This idea prompted me to write, and The New York Times published my piece four days after the election, on November 9, 2012, under the title “Migrants Are Also Neighbors.”
It all happened so quickly. What impressed me the most about the process of writing the piece and getting it published was how editors at the paper kept pushing me to stay ahead of the news cycle and think about what I was saying in the broadest possible terms. I had my simple idea about Latinos and U.S.-Latin American relations. This topic played to my strengths, since these are my areas of research and teaching. On the Wednesday after the election, this seemed like a unique angle, but by Thursday and Friday, the news had shifted from simply noting that Latinos had played a significant role in Obama’s re-election, to reports that comprehensive immigration reform would be a priority of the President’s second term.
Editors remained happy with the brief history of U.S.-Latin American relations I’d offered, but what, they increasingly asked as the week wore on, did it all have to do with how we, as a country, should approach immigration reform? Beginning on Thursday, the paper ran articles about the prospects for comprehensive immigration reform, and how Republicans had begun to change their harsh tone—their positions had “evolved,” as Sean Hannity put it. So it became clear to me that this was the conversation that the Times wanted to push, and it was, therefore, the conversation I had to engage in my piece.
For me, the ultimate lesson was about how to make op-ed pieces timely, and how to say the biggest thing you can. It wasn’t enough for me to frame my point in negative terms, by observing that politicians were talking about domestic social and economic issues, while ignoring foreign policy considerations. I had to take the next step and frame this point in terms of the main questions on everyone’s mind when it came to Latinos and Latin American immigrants: was comprehensive immigration reform possible, and what should it look like? It’s a lesson I’ll remember the next time I write, and it’s one that Michelle Weldon, E.J. Graff, and others at the Op-Ed project will continue to help me work on.
Geraldo Cadava is an OpEd Project Public Voices Fellow at Northwestern University. Assistant Professor in the Department of History, he specializes in United States history, with particular emphases on the the United States-Mexico border region and Latina and Latino populations.