Cepeda column: Why Latinos are cool on Cruz and Rubio
CHICAGO — Ted Cruz won the Republican Party’s Iowa caucus and the media are salivating as the rest of the GOP field trolls Marco Rubio for his discipline in staying “on-message.” But why aren’t Hispanics super excited about two Latino candidates slugging it out for a shot at a presidential nomination?
The common wisdom is that Hispanic voters aren’t going to be receptive to candidates who have harsh stances on illegal immigration, and many Latinos see Cruz, Rubio and the Republican Party as a whole as flatly anti-immigrant.
You could argue that either Rubio or Cruz might have a shot with Latinos, eventually, in the general election because, in issue polls, Hispanics do not name immigration as a top priority and instead give greater weight to jobs, the economy and education. But it seems unlikely for two reasons.
First and foremost, while few rational voters would deny the candidate who seems like the best choice for furthering their own political wish list, there are plenty who have a hard time voting for someone who behaves like a jerk.
And by many accounts, Cruz and Rubio are prickly, off-putting candidates to Latinos who may not vote primarily on immigration but still expect that the issue be approached with a respectful tone befitting a nation of immigrants.
There’s a lot of angry back-and-forth on Latino blogs and social media about whether Cruz and Rubio can even legitimately claim to be Hispanic considering their stances on immigration.
This is, of course, ridiculous. As demographer Roberto Suro put it last month in a New York Times op-ed, “[Cruz and Rubio] challenge what it means to be a Latino leader by promoting policies at odds with a majority of Latino voters, but nonetheless they are the sons of Latin American immigrants. To label them ‘traitors,’ as some activists have done, renders the term ‘Latino’ a political affiliation based on a litmus test, not an ethnicity that can claim the power of census numbers.”
That said, there is the other thing — the subtle thing that a lot of non-Latinos might not pick up on: Cruz and Rubio are not simply Hispanic. To fellow Latinos, they are first and foremost Cuban.
Cubans accounted for just 3.7 percent of the U.S. Hispanic population in 2013, according to the Pew Research Center. Add in Puerto Ricans (9.5 percent of the Hispanic population) and you’ve got a Latino community that’s 87 percent not from two islands that enjoy special immigration status (Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens by birth, and Cubans are eligible for permanent residence once they’ve been physically present in the U.S. for at least one year.).
For many non-Cuban Latinos, this is an elite status that no bootstrap mythology about fathers-who-came-here-with-nothing-but-a-strong-work-ethic can overcome.
Journalist Ed Morales encapsulated this viewpoint in a guest op-ed for the National Institute for Latino Policy: “[Cruz and Rubio] are the sons of Cuban immigrants, the Latino group that has had the most privilege granted to it, virtually no problems with immigration status. … Privileged Cuban immigrants can arguably be doubted as representing the interests of the majority of Latinos.”
I disagree with Morales about whether a Cuban-American can rise to the challenge of advocating for a diverse, foreign- and U.S.-born Hispanic community made up of the descendants of about 20 Latin American countries. I disagree probably as much as I dislike Cruz and Rubio for reasons that have nothing to do with their heritage or immigration stances — but a lot of Hispanics feel the same way about the privileged Cuban status.
For now, at least.
We’re in primary season — it’s all poll-watching and meme-sharing. If either Cruz or Rubio becomes the Republican nominee, the conversation is likely to change from whether either of them are “Latino in Name Only” to how they compare with their Democratic opponent.
Ultimately, the question of whether Hispanics will vote for someone just because they have a Latino surname won’t be answered until November — if Cruz or Rubio make it that far.
But female supporters of Bernie Sanders are declaring it anti-feminist to assume they’ll blindly vote for Hillary Clinton because she’s a woman, and author Michael Eric Dyson’s new book, “The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America,” details how political pragmatism kept the first black president from fully leaning into a racial justice agenda.
History-making or not, it’s hard to imagine Hispanic voters expecting any first Latino president, regardless of party affiliation, to be the magical fix to all that ails this country’s Hispanic community.
Esther Cepeda’s email address is email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.
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