Political Scholar Breaks New Ground in the Study of Latinos in Congress
When Jason Casellas began research for his undergraduate senior dissertation on Latino political participation, he was surprised by the scant amount of academic writings on the topic.
Undaunted by the painstaking hours of research, the experience of writing that dissertation spurred his interest in pursuing a career as an academic scholar.
“I was struck by how undeveloped the literature was on this topic,” says Casellas, now an assistant professor and associate director of the Irma Rangel Public Policy Institute in the Department of Government. “That’s when I realized there was a niche that needed to be filled.”
After graduating summa cum laude from Loyola University, Casellas earned a master’s and doctorate at Princeton University, where he continued his research on the political representation of Hispanic/Latino Americans.
“As the son of Latino immigrants, I am particularly concerned with the extent to which Latinos from all over the United States have been able to influence the political system,” says Casellas, 34.
Now a prominent political analyst, Casellas is often quoted in national publications, including The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, for stories about immigration reform, education policy, voter turnout and election day results.
“Jason has established himself as the nation’s leading expert on Latino representation in the U.S. Congress and the 50 state legislatures,” says Gary Freeman, Department of Government chairman. “He has played a central role in supporting original research on Latinos in Texas.”
His commitment to furthering the study of congressional politics led him to write “Latino Representation in State Houses and Congress,” the first book-length study of the political representation of the nation’s largest, fastest growing minority group. Based on his dissertation, the book illustrates how Hispanics gain mobility in public office, and why they are unable to rise to leadership ranks in higher-paying, more professional legislatures.
“Jason is the most original and productive junior scholar in the Latino politics field,” said David Leal, associate professor of government and director of the Irma Rangel Public Policy Institute. “Jason’s work on Latino legislative representation constitutes a rare achievement — the examination of a topic that is both under-researched and important.”
Investigating an area that many political scholars have overlooked, Casellas reveals a variety of factors explaining why Latinos have yet to dramatically alter the landscape of American politics. Although they are gaining more ground in citizen legislatures in states like Texas, New Mexico and Florida with majority-minority districts, they are not making much progress in professional legislatures in states like New York with more white-majority districts.
Of the nation’s 7,382 state legislators, 3.3 percent are Hispanic, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. However, in Texas, where they account for more than one-third of the population, the ethnic group occupies 38 — about 20 percent — out of 181 seats in the state legislature.
But demographics is only part of the obstacle, Casellas says. The framework of legislative institutions — a complex mixture of districting arrangements, electoral laws and campaign strategies — also plays a key role in deterring upward mobility for Latino candidates.
“You expect that as their population continues to grow, they’re going to get more seats in the state legislatures and Congress, but it’s not that simple,” Casellas says. “Institutional structures make a significant difference.”
In addition to examining the framework of American political institutions, Casellas analyzes voter mobilization. He cautions against tossing around terms like “Latino community” or “Latino voters” because there isn’t just one type of Latino who votes. “It may be convenient to lump individual ethnic identities into one monolithic group, but it doesn’t reflect the cultural differences within each community,” Casellas says.
According to the U.S. Census, more than 44 million Hispanics live in the United States. Mexican Americans comprise two-thirds of that population. Puerto Ricans and Cuban Americans comprise the next two largest groups. But there are also Colombians, Dominicans, Salvadorans and Nicaraguans.
To provide a more accurate picture of political behavior among the nation’s diverse Hispanic population, Casellas systematically analyzed the 2004 elections in a chapter in “Beyond the Barrio,” a compendium of articles penned by political scholars.
“We get most of our news about elections from ad-hoc news stories,” says Casellas, who currently serves on the Texas Advisory Committee of the United States Commission on Civil Rights. “But this book provides a complete, nonpartisan analysis of voting behavior and trends, and gives the general reader an accurate assessment of what really went on in these elections.”
Looking back at his undergraduate experience at Loyola University, Casellas, who grew up in New Orleans, says he couldn’t have picked a better career. Inspired by his grandfather, who taught Spanish literature at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, he says he always knew he would become an academic.
Now in his sixth year of teaching at The University of Texas at Austin, he has garnered a number of highly competitive fellowships, including a year at the United States Studies Centre at Sydney University in Australia.
“The beauty of this job is that I love what I do,” says Casellas “I love the interaction with students and the flexibility to research an understudied area of political science.”