In the aftermath of the horrific Valentine’s Day shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in South Florida, a new movement has emerged that constitutes the strongest voice for changing laws about automatic assault weapons since the Columbine massacre of 1999.
Emma González, the face of this movement, took a leadership role with a passionate speech in front of the Broward County Courthouse, where she criticized President Trump and other politicians for accepting donations from the National Rifle Association.
But while González and her fellow students David Hogg and Cameron Kasky represent a youth protest movement that may finally lead to more gun control, Emma stands out as an emblematic challenge to the old ways of Cuban-American voting preferences in Florida, one of the most important swing states in national elections. She also portends a new generation of Latino youth who have the potential to be major political players through their ability to straddle different constituencies and mold a coherent message for change.
The daughter of Jose González, now a lawyer who arrived from Cuba in New York in 1968, Emma is unwavering in her embrace of her identity. “I’m 18 years old, Cuban, and bisexual,” she says in the lead paragraph of her recent essay published in Harper’s Bazaar. While Univision reported that she does not speak Spanish, she doesn’t shy away from her Cuban identity. And though The Sun Sentinel has reported that her short buzz-cut is for practical reasons — “Hair is just another sweater I’m forced to wear,” she demurred — her participation in her school’s Gay-Straight Alliance and recent self-outing resounds with queerness.
Yet, while Emma juggles the many roles of her active adolescence, she is able to focus clearly and resolutely on an endemic problem that is threatening U.S. politics and its democracy. “What matters is that the majority of American people have become complacent in a senseless injustice that occurs all around them,” she writes in Harpers Bazaar. “What matters is that most American politicians have become more easily swayed by money than by the people who voted them into office.”
Ana María Dopico, associate professor and director of the King Juan Carlos Center at New York University, says González calls to mind legendary Cuban revolutionary José Martí. “As someone who has written about José Martí, who was a teenager when he became a political prisoner and went on to be a poet and political star, watching Emma González is absolutely fascinating,” said Dopico. “Her open-hearted self-exposure, the mourning over martyred friends, the claim for youth as leaders of history, the call to the future, the remaking of citizenship, all these are part of Cuban and U.S. political history.”
González, who now has more followers on Twitter than the NRA, last week participated, with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R), in the most-watched town hall on CNN. During the event, Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, refused to say whether he would accept further donations from the NRA, instead offering a confusing argument that contributions from the group are not the issue, instead what matters is that voters “buy into my agenda” of supporting the Second Amendment.
González represents a trend that has been happening for years in Florida. As the hard-right agenda formed by the original exiles from Fidel Castro’s Cuba age and fade in political significance, Cuban voters have consistently moved away from Republicans and toward Democrats. Rubio has struggled to straddle the two groups. In his last election, exit polls showed he performed best with older voters and Cuban Americans than he did with voters under 40 and other Latinos.
Trump won 54 percent of the Cuban American vote in the 2016 presidential election, according to Edison Research, which conducts exit polling for the major news networks. Latino Decisions, which focuses on Hispanic voters, reported a slightly lower 52 percent. Hard-line anti-Castro Cubans may have supported Trump because of his desire to roll back former president Barack Obama’s policy of openness toward the communist country. But compare the Trump numbers with the 78 percent of Cuban Americans who supported George W. Bush in 2004. The Pew Hispanic Center said in 2014that this trend has been shaped by younger Cubans who were born in the United States.
Emma González not only represents a younger Cuban American demographic that is changing its views toward engagement with Cuba, but also is sharing the political shift toward progressive ideals characteristic of millennials and the upcoming Generation Z.
The older end of the millennial spectrum began the shift when they realized that, after the 2008 recession, their prospects for a stable career and the ability to afford a home were dwindling rapidly. Now a teenager-driven youth movement demanding changes in gun-control laws is becoming active out of a desperate fear for their lives in an environment that was supposed to protect their innocence and safety.
While there are valid comparisons between the movement Emma is helping to lead and youth movements in other parts of the world, like Chile, the dramatic threat to the nation’s students has sparked a political paroxysm that could best be concerned with the activism that helped end the Vietnam War. In those days, students marched because they objected to being sent to Southeast Asia and face death in a war whose worth was not clear. Now they march because they face death in their own places of learning.
A year and change into the Trump presidency, many groups — women, Muslim and Latino immigrants, African Americans — have been attacked and belittled, not only by the president’s callous behavior but also by the tenacious tactics of the Republican right. As a student, Emma represents not only youth but women, Latinos and the LGBT community.
“It’s interesting that she chose to say she belongs to multiple communities,” said Jorge Duany, a professor of anthropology and head of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University. “It was a recognition of shared interests between communities.”
NYU’s Dopico said that Gonzáles’s “queerness connects her both to a U.S. politics of social justice and to Cuban and Cuban American struggles for queer rights. She is part of a generation that feels freer about claiming identities and loyalties.”
Can Emma González be the future of Latino politics in Florida as well as a new intersectional movement among America’s youth to roll back conservative political trends decades in the making?
Even though Emma claims, in her Harper’s Bazaar essay, that “I’m so indecisive that I can’t pick a favorite color,” perhaps it’s not all that much of a drawback. By acknowledging all her varied spaces and identities, she has found the strength to draw them together to advocate for a single issue that might define a generation.