Estrada Courts, a small housing project in eastern Los Angeles, looks about as Hispanic as half of southern California today. The symmetrical rows of low-income housing along East Olympic Boulevard, a 10-minute drive from downtown Los Angeles, are home to immigrants from Latin America, especially Mexico, but also El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
Laundry flaps in the wind on long clotheslines between the buildings, barbecue grills used to make churrasco, Latin American grilled meat, stand in front of the doors, and when school is out large numbers of children play outside. Spanish is the language they speak at home. The elaborate murals painted in bright colors on bare walls in the area tell the story, in their own way, of why Mitt Romney couldn't win the 2012 presidential election in the United States.
Estrada Courts, a development of 414 residential units in two- and three-story row houses, was built in the 1940s, and was soon filled with war veterans and their families. The residents those days couldn't have imagined that the walls would once be decorated with ornate images of the Virgin Mary, kitsch from the Cuban Revolution, complete with pictures of Che Guevara, and all the other brightly-colored art of Chicano painters.
Until the 1960s, the surrounding neighborhood of Boyle Heights was far more mixed and less Hispanic than it is today. Jewish immigrants lived there, as did a large Japanese community. There were immigrants from Yugoslavia, Armenia, Russia and even a few Irish.
Bit by bit, they moved away to better neighborhoods, were displaced by urban renewal projects or simply died off, leaving behind no or too few descendants, and Mexicans moved in to fill the vacuum. They came across the nearby border in growing numbers, legally or illegally, searching for a new and better home. Today, about 100,000 people live in Boyle Heights, and 95,000 of them have Hispanic roots. President Barack Obama's reelection was decided in places like Boyle Heights.
'Most Diverse Nation on Earth'
Obama knows that he is indebted to them. On election night the president, who sometimes gave the impression during campaign appearances that vying for votes was beneath his dignity, regained the lofty tone of his great speeches from the past. He said: "This country has more wealth than any nation, but that's not what makes us rich. We have the most powerful military in history, but that's not what makes us strong."
And then came Obama's bow to those who had given him the majority vote: "What makes America exceptional are the bonds that hold together the most diverse nation on Earth."
Seven out of 10 Latinos voted for Obama, and because they now make up 10 percent of all American voters, their political preferences are beginning to play a decisive role.
There are large Latino minorities in various parts of the country, and Obama captured 58 percent of their vote in Florida, 66 percent in Virginia, 80 percent in Nevada and 87 percent in Colorado. What applies to the Latinos also applies to the significantly smaller population of Asian-Americans, and it clearly applies to African-Americans, with 93 percent of them voting for Obama.
It will take further analysis to clearly understand the full impact of these numbers, but one thing is already clear: The 2012 presidential election illustrates, in a completely new way, how sweeping the forces of change are that are underway today in America. There is talk of the end of white America, and of the rise of immigrants to form a social force in their own right, and of demographic shifts that will forever change the political landscape.
A Shrinking White Majority
The Republican Party was hit by a "demographic time bomb," commentators on the television network NBC said last week. This may be true, but it would be wrong to suggest that this was a surprise, when in actuality it was not surprising at all.
Statisticians and demographers have long predicted that white Americans will no longer constitute the majority of the population in about 30 years. But the surprise is that last Tuesday it suddenly became clear to the entire nation what this future America will feel like.
The white majority is shrinking in many US states. This is evident in Los Angeles, California, the country's second-largest city, which also happens to be the biggest Thai city outside of Thailand and the world's second-largest city of Spanish-speakers.
It's evident in Queens, New York, where interpreters for Spanish, Chinese, Bengali and Hindi are provided at even minor panel discussions at the city library, and where audiences can look like the United Nations General Assembly.
In America's cities, the terms "multicultural" and "immigration society" have a broader connotation than they do in Europe -- and, as it appears, than in the imaginations of conservative America. On Wednesday, after their own strategists had led them to believe that their candidate Mitt Romney could, and was even likely to win the election, Republicans woke up to a world that seemed upside-down to them.
In many affluent suburbs of major cities, an America suddenly became visible that, while closely resembling the American dream, no longer coincides with old political patterns. Now there was talk of young, up-and-coming couples, often immigrants from Asia and Latin America, with good incomes, a good education and excellent prospects for the future. Yet these people did not vote for the Republicans, but for the Democratic candidate, incumbent President Obama.
Obama owes his reelection to the success of these immigrants in the suburbs of Washington, DC, Denver, Miami, Los Angeles, and Raleigh, North Carolina -- the birthplaces of former President Ronald Reagan's America, where whites today are beginning to feel marginalized. Republicans will spend a long time looking at these numbers, because they signify the end of truths they had believed to be certain.
Fast-Growing Hispanic Population
Since the Reagan era, the Republicans' biggest successes were always the result of their ability to draw away traditional Democratic voters, especially white, blue-collar workers. They were able to do so, once again, on Tuesday, when 71 percent of white male voters chose Romney. But it was no longer enough to help the party succeed. Gaining the support of the majority of the shrinking white majority is no longer enough to win national elections in America.
That's why demographics was the dominant topic in the days after the election, especially concerning the Latinos' newly important role. Americans with Hispanic roots are currently the country's fastest-growing group of voters, with 50,000 Latinos turning 18 -- and becoming eligible to vote -- every month.
The Democrats understood this trend better and earlier. At their convention, they portrayed themselves as the "party of openness." Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a man with Hispanic roots, said the convention "will be the most diverse in history, and we're very proud of that. You'll see people from every walk of life: rich, poor, black, white, Latino, Asian, Christians, Jews, Muslims … we're all here celebrating this great vision of ours."
African-Americans and Latinos spoke during prime time at the Democratic Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. They included the African-American governor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick, seen as a potential successor to Obama, California Congressman Xavier Becerra and Julian Castro, the young mayor of San Antonio and the son of Mexican immigrants, who is one of the Latinos' biggest hopes in the Democratic Party.
The delegates, too, were more diverse than those at the Republican Convention. While 98 percent of the Republican delegates were white, 60 percent were white at the Democratic Convention, 27 percent were African-American and 13 percent were of Latin American descent. The world of the Democrats is "a noisy and ebullient carnival," wrote the Washington Post.
Obama's campaign team, which the president praised as the "the best in history," recognized early on that America's demographic development could be the Democratic incumbent's best campaign tool. After taking a cool look at the numbers, they calculated that America's unique mix of skin colors and countries of origin was changing to their benefit, especially in the important "swing states," which sometimes vote for one party and sometimes for the other.
Because Obama had already lost the support of many white male voters four years ago, his advisors left nothing to chance when it came to forming a new "rainbow coalition." The president visited Las Vegas so many times that it practically became a second campaign headquarters, and he also spent a lot of time in Miami and Denver.
He also rarely came alone. Latina actress Eva Longoria, a popular cast member on the hit TV show "Desperate Housewives," campaigned with him in Las Vegas, and Obama sang along with the Mexican cult band Maná at a campaign rally there. First Lady Michelle Obama also did her part, appearing in a radio and TV ad with TV host Cristina Saralegui, as famous in the Spanish-speaking world as Oprah Winfrey is in the United States.
Obama's campaign team opened hundreds of offices, staffing them with volunteers who were often minorities. The Obama Administration hired three bilingual PR experts at the White House, so that each and every memo and press release could also be published in Spanish.
Representatives of the Spanish-language media are always invited to an exclusive, off-the-record luncheon with the president. Team Obama produced more than twice as many Spanish-language TV ads than their rivals did at Team Romney.
'Whiter, Older, Angrier'
"Adelante, Estados Unidos", or "Forward, United States," was the name of one of the websites created by the Obama 2012 campaign. Another Obama site characterized the politics of Romney and his running mate, Congressman Paul Ryan, as "a step backward." The Obama campaign also created Internet sites that enabled Spanish-speaking voters to calculate their taxes, in Spanish, of course.
Against this strategy, the Republicans looked whiter, older and angrier than ever before in their history. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, a Republican presidential contender in 2008, said on election night that the Republicans had done a "pathetic job" of reaching out to minorities. That was putting it mildly.
During the Republican primary, some of the things the candidates said about immigrants were downright toxic, including calling for criminalizing illegal immigrants. Romney, hoping to appeal to the right wing of the party, was notable for his especially harsh rhetoric on immigration.
Romney coined the ugly term "self-deportation," which he used to express his hope that foreigners who had come to the country illegally would simply leave of their own accord. Joining forces with the country's most radical governors, he supported the unrelenting pursuit of illegal immigrants, which included isolating them socially and doing everything possible to prevent them from getting paid jobs. As is now evident, his position also turned off "legal" US citizens of Hispanic origin.
'Enough is Enough'
There was no other place where Latinos had a better reason to go out and vote -- and vote for Obama -- than in Arizona. The state, which borders Mexico, had enacted precisely the kind of immigration law that right-wing hardliners see as a model for future federal legislation. The law requires Arizona police officers to always check the immigration status of people they stop on the street, if they are suspected of being in the country illegally.
Because almost all illegal immigrants came to the country across the Mexican border, the law is potentially directed against all Latinos, who, in the worst case, run the risk of being arrested at any traffic stop until their legal status is cleared up. For understandable reasons, they perceive this to be racial discrimination. As a result, the Arizona law set off a heated debate, going all the way to the Obama Administration's challenge of the law in the U.S. Supreme Court.
The law, which Romney supported, feeds on exactly the fears that always appear in times of demographic change. The rapid increase in the Latino population in Arizona awakened a vague fear of foreign infiltration among many whites. The law, whose supporters chanted slogans like "Enough is enough," was passed in record time.
Romney could have won the election if he hadn't ignored all the warnings from his own camp. Jeb Bush, the brother of former President George W. Bush, who is married to a Mexican-American and was a two-term governor of Florida, warned his party not to strike too sharp a tone in the immigration debate, but he was unsuccessful.
Another prominent Republican from Florida, Senator Marco Rubio, a son of Cuban immigrants, also advocated reaching out to Latino voters instead of constantly pushing them away. Rubio felt that they could become loyal Republican voters, but that nothing would come of it with "people who think you want to deport their grandmother."
Rubio, who likes to be seen as the crown prince of the Tea Party movement and espouses deeply conservative views on many issues, is undoubtedly correct. Even before this election, there was talk here and there that immigrants from Central and South America, who are usually Catholic, traditional and high achievers, could also find many reasons to identify with the Republicans' conservative principles.
When it comes to the Democrats' progressive view of women, their liberal positions on contraception and abortion, and their commitment to same-sex marriage, all known as "social issues" in the United States, Obama cannot expect a great deal of support from Hispanic immigrants.
But that's also painting with a very broad brush, because, of course, a person's ethnic background, religious affiliation or skin color do not automatically determine his or her political views. Just as white Americans in 2012 are not necessarily religious, married, enthusiastic about guns or xenophobic, today's Latinos are not wedded to the principles and values of any particular party.
Nevertheless, if the Republicans hope to remain a decisive force in American politics over the long term, they will have to gain the support of more Latinos, and to do so they will need a completely new immigration policy, one that is based on the real situation in the country, and not on nostalgic ideas of what it should be.
According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, there were almost 11 million "unauthorized immigrants" living in the United States in 2010, of which 6.6 million were from Mexico. Solutions beyond "self-deportation" must be found for these people.
The Republican Party was further along than it is today in the days when George W. Bush campaigned as a "compassionate conservative," in 2010, and paid special attention to issues intended to appeal to minorities.
Hoping to win over immigrants, Bush promised to reform the country's immigration laws, institute healthcare reform and fight poverty. He tried to form a new coalition of the center, and in doing so he sought to portray the Republicans as the party of tolerance. But then he failed, thwarted by members of his own party.
Obama's record on immigration policy is by no means flawless. In the last four years, the US president focused mainly on his healthcare reform and was relatively half-hearted in pursuing major immigration legislation, called the "Dream Act." The law would pave the way to citizenship for young immigrants who came to the country illegally with their parents, but later managed to graduate from school. There are many hurdles, but at least the law would offer an approach.
Obama did not aggressively pursue the Dream Act, a fact that he readily admitted during the campaign. On the day after his reelection victory, Latino groups went to the White House to demand that he use his second term to make up for what he hadn't achieved in his first.
Now the reform of immigration laws is at the top of the president's list of priorities. He will have to prevail, if only to put an end to a double game he has been playing for the last four years. Although he consistently and publicly touted the country's open-mindedness, assured immigrants of his support and, in June, issued an executive order creating a two-year moratorium for potential Dream Act candidates, he also had nearly 1.2 million other undocumented immigrants deported -- even more than former President George W. Bush did during his tenure.
In this sense, the speech following his triumph on election night was also a sign of a bad conscience. But it will resonate and become a new hymn to the multicultural, colorful and tolerant states of America, and it will also be heard in the buildings at the small Estrada Courts housing project in East Los Angeles.
There, in a place where wall murals represent fantasy and the future, where Spanish is spoken and where the laundry flaps on long lines in the wind, residents could use an advocate to protect their interests and to promote their futures, so that one day they will no longer have to paint their dreams on walls, but will be able to live them instead.
By ULLRICH FICHTNER, HANS HOYNG, MARC HUJER AND GREGOR PETER SCHMITZ