“It started with this book. I read this book, and I wrote to the author, and he said ‘come and meet me’,” says Eva Longoria, recalling her political awakening. The book is “Occupied America” by Rodolfo Acuña, a firebrand professor of Chicano studies, (as some call Mexican-American studies, notably since 1960s and among the West Coast left). His book is a densely argued blast written to awaken his students to centuries of colonial oppression and white racism. Longoria met Acuña, and he suggested that she should take his introductory course. “I was so unfamiliar with the word ‘Chicano’. Growing up in Texas where ‘Tejano’ was the term. And also ‘Chicano’ was a very politicised term.” She took Chicano 101 and only became more curious. “So then the next semester he said, you should take a Chicano feminism class, so I took Chicano feminism, and Chicano art.” At the time, Longoria was filming “Desperate Housewives”, then the biggest TV show in the world. “From the set of ‘Desperate Housewives’ I would drive an hour to the school, take a class from seven to ten at night, then be on set at six in the morning. I would be doing my homework behind the sets.”
Even in today’s Hollywood, where liberal politics is de rigueur and activism fashionable, Eva Longoria is unusual. She has campaigned for Democratic presidential contenders since 2004. In 2012 she was a co-chair of President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign, speaking at the Democratic National Convention, and, at the height of the campaign in Florida, she addressed seven cities in one day.
Political types, Longoria says wryly, call every election the most important of their lifetimes. But in 2016 she is sure that the stakes are unusually high. This time one of the Republican front-runners, Donald Trump, says he would build a wall on the Mexican border and make Mexico pay for it and claims – fantastically – that his government would deport the estimated 11m immigrants in America without legal papers. His chief Republican rival, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, whose own father arrived as a penniless student from Cuba, has promised to rescind the executive orders with which Obama has shielded millions of migrants from deportation, notably those brought to America as children and educated in the country.
But the election will also be a test of confident predictions that Hispanics will soon be a demographic block capable of deciding who occupies the White House. The Pew Research Centre, a non-partisan think-tank, predicts that a record 27.3m Hispanics will be eligible to vote in the elections of 2016 – with enough of them concentrated in a series of battleground states to swing the election results in places such as Nevada, Colorado and Florida. Yet Hispanics have, so far, failed to realise their potential power. Turnout among Latinos is woeful.
Longoria hopes to change that. She has endorsed and campaigned for Hillary Clinton in her drawn-out primary contest against a left-wing rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. She is the co-founder of the Latino Victory Project, which is trying to build a pipeline of Hispanic candidates in elections at all levels of government, and ideally from both parties, so that Democrats and Republicans alike have an incentive to think about what concerns Latino voters.
Attend a Trump rally, or listen to angry nativists snarling on conservative talk radio, and the world seems very categorical: borders are boundaries that can never be too secure, as they fortify all that is precious at home from a frightening, alien Other. American identity itself is presented as fragile and threatened by newcomers with foreign ways who will not speak English.
Growing up in south Texas, Longoria learned from an early age that labels and borders can be surprisingly arbitrary. A favourite family outing when she was young involved daytrips to Mexico – shopping and lunch, then a short walk across the bridge back to America. Passports were not needed in those innocent times, just a toll fee of a few coins and a confident declaration of two magic words – “American citizen” – to the waiting border guard. Longoria remembers gazing at a different line of travellers that moved more slowly. Why do they not say the magic words, she recalls asking her father, not understanding that these were Mexican nationals, unable to breeze through the border controls. They cannot, they were born on the other side, her father would explain. Why were we born on this side? Longoria would retort, prompting the grave answer: “Because we were lucky.”
Longoria’s ancestor, Lorenzo Suárez de Longoria, reached the New World in 1603, and in 1767 Pedro Longoria moved to what is now Texas. She is too polite to note that this makes her more American than Trump, whose grandfather emigrated from Germany to New York only in 1885. Her family owned a ranch that has been governed by six different powers – Spain, France, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, the United States and, during the civil war, the Confederate States of America – without ever moving from the same patch of sun-beaten Texan land. “My family never crossed the border, the border crossed us.”
She arrived in Los Angeles at the start of a “Latin explosion” in the entertainment industry, as Hispanic stars such as Ricky Martin crossed into the mainstream American market. Longoria ran foul of Hollywood’s desire to label and categorise, being told she was not Latino enough. Like many Tejano children of her generation, Longoria grew up speaking only English. Her parents – her father worked on an army base and her mother was a teacher – spoke Spanish to one another, and her grandparents little else. But her elementary school had told them that as their daughters would not be allowed to speak Spanish in class, “don’t speak it to them at home”. At auditions Longoria was asked if she could speak with an accent or if she could get a tan.
Growing up the youngest of four sisters little Eva never stopped asking questions, and the habit has lasted. In her first years in California, “before I was famous”, Longoria was taken up by a group of Mexican-American activists, among them Dolores Huerta, a pillar of the Hispanic civil-rights movement since the 1960s. In her early days, Huerta was often overshadowed by crowd-pleasing men, as she organised farm workers into a trade union with her colleague, César Chávez, and campaigned alongside Robert F. Kennedy. These days Huerta is lionised on the left. Even as Longoria chased bit-parts on TV shows, she peppered her new friends with questions about Mexican-American civil rights and the Chicano movement. Raised in conservative south Texas, she says that she arrived knowing little about the fights hailed as landmark battles in Chicano history: the struggles over conditions for Mexican farm workers in the Bracero guest-worker programme that ran from 1942 to 1964, or the federal government’s mass deportations of Mexican-Americans during the 1930s, some of them American citizens. “I would be the annoying kid, I would ask ‘why?’” she says. She began fund-raising for farm workers’ legal-defence funds, and attending activist meetings. Then Huerta suggested she read Acuña’s book, and she started to study seriously.
Lots of successful people have libraries lined with smart but unread books. Some of them dabble in politics. Longoria’s study is a messy, paper-strewn workplace. Her volumes of anthropology, immigration policy, Chicano poetry and Latino politics bristle with colour-coded Post-it bookmarks, and their pages are dense with highlighter pen notes. In 2013 she received a Master’s degree in Chicano studies and political science from California State University, Northridge. This was not an honorary degree, but one earned by three years of study, including a Master’s thesis on the obstacles that keep young Latina women from studying science, mathematics and engineering.
At times, the contrast with her Hollywood career – the job that pays for this large house on a quiet, wooded hillside – can feel jarring. The year 2006 saw her researching labour conditions in the citrus industry of Florida, speaking to members of Congress about higher-than-usual death rates among Latino children with cancer – and appearing in a tiny bikini on a giant replica magazine cover staked out in the desert outside Las Vegas, on a scale supposedly visible from space. The cover strapline, for Maxim magazine, had her greeting aliens as “TV’s sexiest Earthling”. Her private life – she has been married and divorced twice, to a soap-opera actor then to a professional basketball player, and is engaged to a Mexican television boss – has filled many tabloid columns.
In her study on a spring morning in 2016, a large mounted poster of her stands to one side of her desk. The poster, still in its clear delivery wrapping, advertises her latest network TV show “Telenovela” (described by its makers, NBC, as a “big, fun and flashy” comedy, in which Longoria plays the star of a Spanish-language soap opera). In the poster she wears a scarlet ballgown and stands with one leg wrapped around a co-star, flanked by bouffant-haired rivals. The real-life Longoria, a shade over five foot tall in jeans and a sweater, ignores her TV incarnation as she pushes the poster aside to reach for a thick book on the Aztec empire, talking all the while about a mini-series she is making about the Spanish conquest of Mexico. She has brought a pile of Chicano textbooks to this interview, most of which is conducted at an outdoor dining table next to her swimming pool.
FOR A CLEARER UNDERSTANDING OF LONGORIA’S POLITICS, HER MASTER’S THESIS IS A SURPRISINGLY USEFUL STARTING-POINT
Longoria’s brand of politics throws up puzzles. She proudly reads aloud the inscription inside her dog-eared copy of “Occupied America”, in which Acuña tells her: “It is refreshing to have an actor not run away from the Chicano identity.” But as a Democratic Party activist Longoria has made different choices. She has endorsed Hillary Clinton. Her closest friends in politics include a trio of young, publicity-savvy moderates: Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, and identical-twin brothers from Texas, Julián Castro (who was mayor of San Antonio, now serves in the Obama government as housing and urban development secretary and is a possible running mate for Clinton) and Joaquín Castro, who is a congressman for San Antonio. Die-hard leftists, such as those allied with Sanders, distrust Booker and the Castros. They see the trio as representatives of the pragmatic, pro-business Clinton wing of the party (though Dolores Huerta is a long-time Clinton ally).
For a clearer understanding of Longoria’s politics, her Master’s thesis is a surprisingly useful starting-point. It is sprinkled with the academic jargon of the campus left, at one point “examining the intersectionality of race, gender and class” through the framework of “Critical Race Theory” – the belief that, after years of entrenched white, male privilege, it is not enough to call on the world to become race-neutral, gender-neutral or colour-blind. But Longoria’s interviews with young Latinas in the fields of science and engineering – conducted in between shoots for “Desperate Housewives” – ring more with common sense than dogma. The actress records the sexism faced by her interviewees, as they tell her about the professor who comments on their bodies when they stand in front of the class to solve problems at a board, or the male students who ask why they are not studying a woman’s profession like nursing. Longoria hears about the students’immigrant parents who never finished school, and how they struggled to help their clever daughters succeed in their studies (one interviewee, a mechanical engineer, recalls her all-but-unschooled mother testing her on her times tables in the car, as her only way of helping).
The thesis ends with pragmatic recommendations: it would help to have more women professors, Longoria suggests; schools should understand when under-educated parents want to be supportive but do not know how. In 2012 she founded a charitable outfit, the Eva Longoria Foundation, to promote entrepreneurship and education among Latinas. Among its works is a scheme offering micro-loans so women can start small businesses – a project co-funded by Howard Buffett, a farmer, philanthropist and son of the investor Warren Buffett. Another offers Hispanic parents nine-week courses in navigating their children’s schooling, including how and why Americans ask to meet a child’s teacher and how to help with homework.
Longoria takes a similarly practical approach to the work that will consume a good chunk of her 2016: finding Latinos eligible to vote, registering them and then persuading them that they need to go out and cast ballots. The Latino vote is at once a source of gleaming-eyed excitement to political scientists, as they contemplate its potentially large impact on American democracy, and a source of gloom to those whose job it is to ensure that they turn out. Some 800,000 Hispanics come of age every year. Latinos make up around a sixth of America’s population; by mid-century they will make up a quarter. But at the last presidential election, only 48% of those eligible to vote made it to the ballot box compared with 67% of blacks and 64% of whites. Longoria loathes the phrase often associated with the growth of the Hispanic population: that “demography is destiny”, as if Hispanic voter power is pre-ordained. She fears apathy among politically active Latinos, who boast that they’re going to decide who is the next president. “No, we’re not, if we don’t show up,” she says crisply.
Politicians have to adapt campaign messages to Latinos, Longoria urges, filling them with personal stories that resonate. Her voter drive involves compiling “Firsts” – stories told by Hispanics about being the first in their family to attend college, or to finish high school. “Sharing narratives is extremely inspiring to Latinos. They like to see me on the screen, because they go – if she can do it, I can do it.” That means finding more figures like the Castro twins to put in front of voters, she thinks. Young Latinos are activists more than they are voters, and need to be shown that causes can be won and lost at elections. Before the 2012 Democratic National Convention, she was sent a speech to deliver – “the campaign writes everybody’s speeches” – and to her it sounded like celebrity bombast. She persuaded Team Obama to let her talk about her days as a college student selling fast food to pay the bills at college, as a way of criticising Republican tax cuts skewed to the rich. “The Eva Longoria who worked at Wendy’s flipping burgers, she needed a tax break. But the Eva Longoria who works on movie sets does not,” she told the convention.
Some commentators, watching Mexican-American voters smashing piñata models of Donald Trump and seething at the tycoon’s allegation that Mexico sends rapists and other criminals to invade America, predict that persuading Hispanics to vote this time will be easy. Longoria worries that such predictions of a “Trump effect” are a little unrealistic. Anger is not enough, she says, a candidate also needs to explain that “this is the future we are going to build.”
Asked if she might enter elected politics herself, Longoria says not, and offers an explanation that speaks of inside knowledge: it is tricky for politicians to “hold true” to their own opinions and values. Even at her rarefied level of activism – a world of fund-raisers in Los Angeles mansions and meetings for Latino leaders hosted by the president – labels intrude. “Sometimes people go, you’re an actor, stay out of politics. And then I go, well you’re a dentist, stay out of politics.”
Suddenly her band of all-women assistants is calling her – she is running late for lunch with a network–TV boss, and the house is in motion. Small dogs are being shooed out of the way, helpers are brushing invisible specks from Longoria’s clothes. “Your occupation is what you do, not who you are,” she says as the interview nears its end. “Who I am is an American, and I do have something to say.” On paper the words look a bit diffident. In person, Longoria is all doe-eyed, disarming charm, but there is steel in there. Appearances matter a lot in politics as in Hollywood, but they don’t tell the whole story.