By Rich Tenorio
When gas prices were at their peak this summer, Jennifer Hernandez was spending $118 to fill up her small Subaru station wagon. At $7.50 a gallon, the land use and environmental law attorney in San Francisco faced some of the highest gas prices in the country.
Nationwide, many Latinos rely on cars for their professional and personal lives. While they skew toward used cars for economic reasons, they trend toward bigger cars for cultural reasons – how else to bring abuela, the cooler, and the kids’ toys? For a great number of Latino families and workers, a car is a must-have. But in this era of record high gas prices, the cost of transportation is eroding many Latinos’ drive for upward mobility.
Raised in a Mexican-American family of steelworkers, Hernandez knows something about social mobility through hard work and achievement – attending Harvard College and Stanford Law School, serving as a lawyer for three decades and receiving honors from the likes of President Bill Clinton and San Francisco, California Mayor Willie Brown. She notes the importance of a car for Latinos in moving from poverty to the middle class or higher.
“If you have a car,” Hernandez explains, “you can get to work on time and keep your job … take your kids to school, go to the doctor, all of the Saturday errands you can’t do by bus – grocery stores, medical care. A really, really big part of this is the ability to get to work, have the economic foundation to change jobs, work your way up the income ladder.”
“The workforce that has to be at their job to be paid, whether the job site is construction work, a retail business, a hands-on business (any job requiring physical presence such as nurses and firefighters) – they’re the most impacted by high gas prices,” Hernanddez adds.
It’s a sentiment echoed in other parts of the country with significant Latino populations – including Austin, Texas. Brittney Rodriguez, COO of the Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (GAHCC), notes that car transportation is crucial for chamber members.
“As small businesses, predominantly, many of our constituents are really, really feeling the push with the fuel consumption,” Rodriguez says. “Most Latino businesses are pretty heavily dependent on transportation, especially in Texas.”
The head of a PR and communications firm, Rodriguez is a small-business owner who personally knows the pain at the pump. She drives a midsize SUV – a Jeep Grand Cherokee – that she fills up three to five times per week. With local gas prices at $4.50 per gallon when she spoke with palabra, that meant $100 for a full tank.
“The additional cost is certainly being felt,” Rodriguez says.
Fuel costs rose dramatically beginning in March, when the average price of unleaded regular was still under $4 per gallon, Reuters reported. On July 27, according to the American Automobile Association, the national average price per gallon stood at $4.30. More recently, as of August 22, prices have been falling back below $4 per gallon.
There are a lot of cars on America’s roads, and most of them are gas-powered. According to a 2021 Department of Transportation study, 91% of U.S. households in 2017 had at least one vehicle. That year, there were just 104,000 new registrations of electric vehicles (EVs) or hybrids. Additional research shows Latinos are less likely than other groups to purchase such green options. A Fuels Institute study, also released last year, cited data from 2018 that showed Hispanics in California were the least likely to buy an EV or hybrid compared to whites, Blacks, and Asians.
This puts Latinos in a tough situation when gas prices rise, according to Andrea Marpillero-Colomina – an adjunct faculty member at The New School in New York City and the sustainable communities program director for the GreenLatinos organization.
“Many, many, people in the U.S., unfortunately, live in car-dependent communities,” Marpillero-Colomina says. “They can’t go to a grocery store without getting into a car. If the price of gas goes up, they still have to go buy whatever they need to go buy … Another piece of it, too, is that for many people, gas is a cost you just have to eat. It’s not something you can cut back on.”
The most recent spike in gas prices came at the same time that inflation was going up, prompting concerns about a possible recession.
“Latinos are already paying more for groceries and consumer items than most other groups, and have faced major financial challenges due to inflation,” Marpillero-Colomina adds. “It’s hard to imagine how and where Latinos might cut back to compensate for higher gas prices since many families already live with such tight margins.”
“I would guess,” she adds, “that some families are likely choosing to stay home this summer rather than go on car-reliant vacations or to visit relatives.The result of these tough choices is less contributions made to the economy and a loss of social relationships/capital, which can impact both individual and community wellbeing.”
An uphill battle
Why Latinos drive gas-powered vehicles at a higher rate than other groups may come down to cultural factors.
“We have a bigger family than the average American family,” notes Ricardo Rodriguez-Long, head of the Hispanic Motor Press. “Our extended family, your uncle, abuela, and so forth travel with us. Thus, we select larger vehicles that more than likely are not fuel-efficient. Pickup trucks are very popular with Latinos – the Ford F-150, Chevy Silverado, (Dodge) Ram.”
Based in Los Angeles, Rodriguez-Long pays even more than Hernandez for a full tank. He drives a truck that gets 19 to 22 miles to the gallon. With prices around $8.25 per gallon earlier this summer, it could cost him more than $200 to fill it up.
For Latinos with large families, he reflects, “it’s not easy to find a fuel-efficient car, but there are options in the market now.”
The $27-plus billion Bipartisan Infrastructure Law signed by President Biden includes $5 billion for the National Electric Vehicle Initiative (NEVI), and a national network of charging stations. More recently, Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act includes tax breaks for buying new and used EVs, as well as provisions to help manufacturers boost production. However, there are stipulations to the so-called Clean Vehicle Credit. For example, qualifying new EVs must have had their final assembly done in North America, and even then, some manufacturer’s models that meet this criteria are still not eligible because of caps on the number of credits.
But Marpillero-Colomina predicts that it will take time and effort to engage Latinos regarding EVs.
“I don’t think car companies are doing a good job,” she says. “They’ve just started to market EV options outside of white markets.”
Last summer, the New York City Department of Transportation along with the local electric utility Con Edison and the company FLO partnered on an initiative to install 100 curbside EV charging ports around the city.
“The vast majority appeared in neighborhoods where there are higher incomes,” Marpillero-Colomina notes.
A self-described millennial and Tesla “nerd,” Rodriguez, the Austin business owner, praises the environmental achievements of Tesla. Yet she regrets that even though Elon Musk’s company has relocated to Austin, she can’t afford to buy one of their cars.
“I feel like a Tesla is a luxury, with electric vehicles remaining largely inaccessible to Latinos in general,” she says.
Hernandez, the San Francisco attorney, has deep doubts about EVs, mirroring her misgivings about many recent environmental policies in her home state of California – some of which she detailed in a 2021 article titled “Green Jim Crow.”
“It’s really pretty ludicrous to think that median and below-median income workers can afford a $56,000 new average-cost EV even with a $12,000 subsidy, or can pay more than $10,000 for a replacement battery array in a used EV after only 5-8 years,” Hernandez says.
She and Rodriguez-Long each spoke more positively about hybrid vehicles.
“Most of the hybrid cars today are compact-size,” Rodriguez-Long notes. “They get 45, close to 50, miles per gallon. To save on fuel and help the environment, I think it is the best option. They cost less than an electric (car), and you don’t have the infrastructure problem.”
Going carless, taking mass transit or using bike lanes are other options. But Hernandez wonders how much mass transit and bike lanes can accomplish. For example, she asks, how can a construction worker with a ladder, tools and a 30-mile one-way commute ride a bike to work?
Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has complicated taking public transportation.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, Latinos were taking public transit (out of necessity) at much higher rates than whites,” Marpillero-Colomina notes. “For context, the rate of public transit reliance among Latinos is more than double (15% vs 7%) that of white people. Data has shown that Latinos have suffered disproportionate infection and mortality rates from COVID … All this to say, it seems inarguable that taking public transportation puts Latinos at higher risk to contract COVID based on risk of exposure.”
In much of the country, public transportation alternatives are scarce.
“Once you get out of the Northeast, sections of Chicago, and some other urban and commuter suburb outliers, you have a huge percentage of the working population dependent on cars,” Marpillero-Colomina says.
But relying on a car to get to work doesn’t necessarily mean owning a car, she explains – it can mean carpooling, or the dollar vans that are a feature of life in her Brooklyn neighborhood of Carroll Gardens. (Citing her status as a New Yorker, she herself does not drive a car.) Collectively, nine out of every 10 people who rely on cars are using a gas-powered vehicle.
“The cost of those commutes is really going up,” Marpillero-Colomina says. “To a point that it is not cost sustainable.”
Part of the cost increase for Latinos can be attributed to the fact that they often have to live far from where they work, for reasons that include racism and income inequality.
“Due to both historical redlining/exclusion policies and patterns, and housing prices, Latinos tend to live further away from city centers and in neighborhoods less well connected to economic centers,” Marpillero-Colomina says. “Latinos face longer commute times, which means that if they are driving they must spend more on gas to get to work.”
In states with elevated housing costs, such as California “high gas prices literally add fuel to the fire,” says Hernandez, the San Francisco attorney.
In Texas, high housing costs have priced Rodriguez out of the state capital where she works.
“All the housing costs prevent me from purchasing a home in Austin,” Rodriguez says. “In particular, communities of color no longer can access their own city.”
She remembers Austin for its Juneteenth celebrations, its art scene – and the breakfast tacos that were recently the subject of a gaffe by First Lady Dr. Jill Biden. Now Rodriguez describes it as a city that’s adding new residents by the day, not to mention newly relocated companies such as Tesla that are joining more established corporations, including Samsung and Dell. It all has her facing increasing commute times – with the higher gas prices thrown in.
“Traffic is not unique to us,” Rodriguez reflects. “We’re still figuring out how to navigate complex situations around a fast-growing city.”
If there’s any consolation, the entire nation has navigated high gas prices before.
“In the past, we have had these gas crises, most noticeably in the 1970s, when the U.S. pretty much shut down for a couple of weeks,” Rodriguez-Long recalls. “These things do happen. It’s not surprising.
“Fuel pricing will correct itself at some point,” Rodriguez-Long adds. “But I believe that it’s not going to go back to $3 a gallon. It’s going to stay higher than what it was. And the cost of electricity will go up as well. I think it’s a reality we have to face. For the Hispanic consumer, it’s time to rethink our transportation needs.”
Ricardo Rodriguez-Long’s Tips to Reduce Gas Consumption
Clean out your trunk. “Fifty percent of people use their trunk as storage space.” Removing those 100 to 200 extra pounds can slightly improve your fuel consumption.”
Check your tire pressure. “Nobody checks it. Tire pressure is very important. It’s another really easy way to save a lot of gas. An underinflated tire can increase the car drag and reduce fuel mileage by about 3 to 4%.”
Don’t put the pedal to the metal. “Caress the throttle pedal. A slow, even, push down on the pedal lets the engine work better and does not waste any fuel going through the combustion chamber.”
Rich Tenorio is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in a variety of media outlets. He is a graduate of Harvard College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Tenorio is also a cartoonist.