(By – Ken Minster)TL;DR: It took me two months to read an anthology of 70 years of history about Hispanic Republicans. I was inspired reading about the heroes that have pushed the movement forward despite significant political and cultural obstacles in their way. Cadava’s book has reinforced for me that Hispanic people must be a central focus of our movement in the coming years.
I honestly can’t read. I can listen to podcasts, read news articles, and even binge a hundred-page wiki on Skyrim video game deep lore about elvish customs 4,000 years ago, but sitting down and reading a literary work is just not something I am adept at. I might simply be out of practice. Like many public school graduates, I haven’t read casually since like 8th grade. So, you get to hear me shout from the rooftops that I’ve read basically one book in… a long time and it took me basically two months. Yay!
I was inspired by my erudite wife who made a goal to read a book a month in 2021 and is ahead of schedule by one book already as of today. So, I decided to read a book I heard about while listening to the (absolutely unmissable, by the way) Megyn Kelly Show. A guest spoke glowingly of “The Hispanic Republican: The Shaping of an American Political Identity from Nixon to Trump” by Geraldo Cadava so I ordered it on Amazon and, like magic, it got to my doorstep less than 8 hours later. It took months of fighting for reading moments during Little Kenny’s naps and late at night with my little book light Monica bought me but I was able to complete it.
Cadava’s book was important to me because (even though you’ll never see me declare it on a government form), I am ¼ Hispanic. I wanted to know more about the history that made “Reagan Democrats” out of my grandmother Erminia Madueña Barrett and great-grandmother Sally Estrada Lopez. Additionally, my second language is Spanish, learned in the streets of Compton and Long Beach, California as a Mormon missionary for two happy years. As I ministered to people there, I became enamored with the simple, beautiful Spanish language and the incredible people who spoke it.
Reading this book has made me realize how crucial it is for us as Republicans to spare no expense to get Hispanics firmly inside of our camp. These people are patriotic, stellar Americans who just want prosperity and success for their families. Hispanics are in the deepest throes of a decades-long fight for attention, relevancy, and power in the party and America itself. At a time when President Trump has tested the limits of political boundaries and initiated a significant shift in the previously established party bases, now is an incredible time to commit to doing everything possible to help Hispanics understand that there is one party that will fight for their families, their ways of life, and their futures: the Republican Party.
Below are some thoughts I had while reading this excellent, fully cited, 340-page anthology.
Hispanics Have Endured Decades of Political Exploitation, Yet Soldier On
Hispanics being used as a political football by both Democrats and Republicans is nothing new. As they became a larger part of the electorate, shrewd politicians from Nixon to Obama have made significant promises to Hispanics and then pulled the rug out from under them when times got tough. Numerous examples throughout the book show politicians who made big promises and then sadly underdelivered. From George H.W. Bush never delivering Puerto Rican statehood to utter silence from multiple Presidents when Hispanics requested proportionate recognition for their hard work to get them elected, to betrayal when it came to true immigration reform across the decades, it always seemed like Hispanic priorities took a disproportionate backseat to other legislative priorities.
With that history, it would be easy for them to get discouraged. Thankfully, heroes throughout the book and heroes today continue the fight. What I love about the Hispanic Republicans that I know personally is their optimistic, persistent mentality toward Republicans and America itself. Ramona Bañuelos, a Hispanic woman appointed to be (a moderately controversial) US Treasurer by Nixon said, ”Our votes are tremendously important [because they] are the tools that can build the kind of country we want.” Even though this country and this party has been profoundly unfair to Hispanics in the past, Hispanics fight for it nonetheless. I relate significantly to this optimism as it is central to my philosophy on staying involved with the Republican Party even in times of trouble.
Hispanics in America Are Politically Diverse Even Though They Are Linguistically Similar
Hispanics across America are as diverse politically and intellectually as any group in the country but the values many of them share are pretty universal: family, patriotism, and hard work. I can’t think of any more American values than those. People from every Spanish-speaking country are key constituencies we must consider when growing the Hispanic Republican movement. They each hold differing priorities and approaches to policy and care deeply about things centered around their country of origin. I’ll review a few of them below to show their diversity.
Cubans are fiercely anti-communist as they are still close to the horrors of Castro’s Cuba. Recently, they have insisted on the necessity of American intervention in Cuba due to the suffering under the current regime. While there is ample evidence of suffering, decades of American intervention in Cuba and all over South America paints a checkered record of helping people in the end. I think military intervention to topple another regime, no matter how oppressive, is a difficult sell to an American society that is expressly invasion fatigued from the Middle East and can barely muster the resolve to combat a virus properly. Nationbuilding is a 100+ year commitment of rebuilding a nation after deposing its leader. I support efforts to bolster freedom fighters on the island, but the American government has filled out its “Depose 10 Dictators, Get 1 Free” punch card as fast as I fill out a Yogurtland Buy 12 Get 1 Free punch card. (That’s fast, in case you’re wondering.)
Puerto Ricans have been engaged in a struggle for statehood (or independence depending on which Puerto Rican you talk to) for decades. They’ve gotten so close to the fulfillment of their American Dream only to see it slip away at the last moment as often happens when moments begin and end in politics. Their moment will come and I hope Republicans are the ones that make it happen. I understand that Puerto Rico’s indebtedness has given people reason to be against statehood in the past, but I feel we should be excited to welcome people to the union when they want to be a part of it. Patriotism and a love of America are in short supply these days and whether it is in Spanish or English, I welcome anyone who loves our country.
Let me posit a little further: As Republicans, shouldn’t we be fighting every day to extend the abundant blessings of the American experiment to as many humans as possible? It seems to me that annexation and acquisition should be an American ideal that we pursue on a regular basis around the world. As with any business acquisition, we should perform cost-benefit analyses and focus on acquiring places that benefit us and them, of course.
Currently, we invest in Israel’s future because they are a beacon of hope and liberty in the otherwise authoritarian Middle East. Thousands of Americans in Miami are giving of their personal wealth to help forward freedom in Cuba. America gives billions of dollars each year to develop infrastructure and economic opportunity across the planet (though China is kicking our ass at this). Yes, there will be costs in the interim, (like paying off their debt or realigning their economy and current laws with ours) but isn’t that a good use of taxpayer money instead of acquiring land by conquest or violence as has happened since the dawn of man?
There is a sneaking feeling in my brain that today’s Republicans only oppose adding states and immigrants from other countries because they think these new Americans will be against us electorally. Not only is that a silly assumption, but a selfish one as well. Unlike these defeatists, I believe Republican ideals are strong enough and true enough that we can win the hearts and minds of these potential new voters, make them Republicans, and win them over just like any other demographic.
I’ll abdicate that the only argument against this idea of acquisition is that most companies who make acquisitions are in great fiscal shape and simply ready to quickly expand to a new area or lateral. In America’s situation, we’re a bit tapped out on cash right now, and might not be able to put Puerto Rico on our credit card even if it IS a good long-term investment. Maybe we can revisit when we’re in less debt. *chokes*
Central Americans hold distinct views that are inexorably marked by decades of American intervention in their own countries. From immigration restrictions to American installation of new leadership in the sixties and seventies, Central Americans are admirable Americans because, despite the United States’ well-intentioned but flawed (and sometimes downright sloppy) meddling in their countries of origin, they love America nonetheless. Now, they see their cousins, friends, and relatives forced to endure great risk to seek refuge and work in America only to see them vilified as political bogeymen, demeaned, mistreated, and without viable path in sight to a solution.
While they are more than just immigration voters, Republicans will someday have to come to terms that Mexican-American voters in particular want to see fair and compassionate immigration reform for their fellow countrymen that includes modernized, effective border security measures, visa reform, streamlined and plentiful legal immigration, a permanent solution for DREAMers, and a just pathway to citizenship for certain immigrants. Building a wall and failing to address the root causes of the problem is as ineffectual as doing nothing at all.
Unfortunately, past immigration reform bills like IRCA and IIRIRA were partisan messes that failed to deliver real, long-term solutions for immigrants. Even though the Biden administration doesn’t want to admit it, there is a humanitarian crisis at the border and it is going to take all the political capital available to fix the very complex issues that need to be addressed there. When serious policy discussions that break partisan barriers are better funded or better accepted with our voters over fearmongering and catchy taglines, this group will begin to overcome their doubts about our coalition and be ready to listen to the rest our policy priorities.
Our Pathway to Victory with Hispanics Involves Borrowing a Little from Everyone
Each Republican President had their own strategy when it came to inviting Hispanics into the party. These ideas should inform our future efforts.
Dwight Eisenhower’s Republican Party employed the advice of a Republican consultant named Stuart Spencer who asked Republicans to “avoid phony gestures” toward their community by investing money and spending time in their communities for years, not cycles. Even a simple barbecue, he argued, where Republicans can “show an interest in their everyday living”, “make them feel important and wanted”, and “ask for their opinion” on issues. Right now, the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity organization is doing this nationwide. Community events that connect people in inner-city neighborhoods to resources like job fairs, college fairs, and actually fun outreach events and paid opportunities for tons of Hispanic young people have cemented their place in our communities and has them perfecting the long-term work of building a Republican adjacent generation of young people that we should be doing as a party as well.
Richard Nixon’s heavy-handed patronage politics created a generation of Hispanics with lifelong loyalty to Republicans. His Cabinet Committee on Opportunities for Spanish‐Speaking People (CCOSSP) and “Brown Mafia” of friendly Hispanic leaders funneled over $60 million in federal grants and contracts “…with an eye toward recruiting Hispanics to support Nixon,” according to Cadava. The former Senator from California turned President led unprecedented outreach to Spanish speakers. This aggressive inclusion should be considered the gold standard for elected Republicans. His work would eventually lead to the creation of the formidable Republican Hispanic National Assembly, a political force still active today. While we should not ever pursue unethical or illegal patronage, sharing the spoils of winning elections with Hispanics in the community is a concept that makes a ton of sense.
Rather than buying votes through patronage, Ronald Reagan brought an aspirational Republican ideology to them that would inspire a generation of Hispanics and Democrats to become Republicans. Many Hispanic people immigrate to the US to provide for their families and claim their part of the American Dream. Reagan was the embodiment of that: Good and plentiful jobs, rampant pro-freedom and anti-communist politics, and a strong vision of America that fought for the little guy. This was embodied in Reagan’s speech to Hispanic business community members at the time. Reagan said, “To every cynic who says the American Dream is dead, I say: Look at the American of Hispanic descent who are making it in the business world with hard work and no one to rely on but themselves.” That rugged individualism may seem outdated to today’s liberals and leftists, but for many Hispanics, life is about carving out success no matter the cost and most of the time, must be done on your own. Ronald Reagan provided outsiders with a man that they could trust, even if they couldn’t trust the party itself. To put a deeper historical significance on this pitch, Daniel Garza, President of the LIBRE Initiative, a sister organization to Americans for Prosperity, used the opposite strategy when it came to President Trump. During the Trump years, Garza made the case that people should vote for the Republican party as an institution, not for the man himself.
Finally, the George W. Bush strategy cashes in on the “just show up” ideology. Republicans partially fail to win over Hispanics because we just… don’t show up. We think of them as a lost cause and focus on other communities or initiatives. Historically, that is a bad assumption. The genuineness and presence of all members of the Bush family in the Hispanic community truly had a major influence on their success. Jeb was ingrained in the Florida political community for years before running for office and is still widely respected in Hispanic communities across the nation. Bush, Sr. had a strong affinity for Puerto Rico’s plight and made it a central part of his time as President. W was a compassionate Texan with a history of Hispanic inclusion in his government in Texas and the United States. While diversity and inclusion has a negative connotation for some, I feel comfortable advising fellow Republicans to make a concerted effort to follow the Bush model and seek out Hispanic Republicans in their circles, consult with them often to get their unique perspective, encourage them to run for leadership positions when they’re ready, and just be welcoming to them without being fake. While the Bush family’s wide-spanning influence is not just because they were friendly, of course, they have built credentials and trust within the Hispanic community for decades, not just election cycles, and it starts with a warm handshake, a friendly conversation, and just showing up.
Hispanic Republicans Owe Their Success to Trailblazers Like Ben Fernandez Who Gave His Sweat and Fortune to Advance Their Cause
While reading this book, I was acutely interested in the story of Ben “Boxcar” Fernandez. Ben was a businessman born in poverty inside a literal boxcar (hence the nickname) in Kansas to undocumented immigrants who would go on to become the first Hispanic to ever run for President. Ben was a small but important moment in time for Hispanics even though his influence peaked in 1980, a year that would become overwhelmingly known for Reagan and not much else.
Ben was a larger-than-life character who rode into the Republican Party with big dreams, big talk, and a big smile. He was likeable, determined, and a proud Republican. While his hopes didn’t turn into political success, he was an unforgettable part of this book for me. This incredible man gave his heart and soul to the Republican Party during his brief run for President and the years leading up to it. He believed in the party and gave significantly of his personal wealth to elevate Hispanics in the eyes of Republican voters.
“Ben Fernandez is America” was his pitch. He wanted to show fellow Americans that anyone could capture the American Dream like he did. He worked hard to galvanize a national Hispanic identity and also help them be included in the American identity. I love his slogan because each one of us IS America, just like he said. Our freedom allows us to share a part of America’s destiny. Ben really believed that.
Sadly, like Marco Rubio in 2016, Ben’s story was lost to the influence and connections of a Bush. George Bush, Sr. was the spoiler to this Hispanic pioneer’s campaign, using his time as a fixture inside the RNC and intelligence community paired with his family’s established Hispanic bona fides to spoil Ben’s value add in a crowded 1980 primary field. Ben was a man who ran in the wrong year and ended up only garnering 25,000 votes or .2% of America before exiting the race. Even though Ben never became President, Hispanic Republicans have a lot to thank him for and in another world, he could have been Vice President or President years before anyone would have seen it coming.
Ben is one of many bold, passionate Hispanic voices that the book details. Luis Ferré, Fernando Oaxaca, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Daniel Garza, Ramona Bañuelos, and Manuel Luján are just a few of the numerous incredible Hispanic figures that have made America that deserve at least a Google search!
So… What Now?
As we round out 8 months under Joe Biden, we find ourselves with a group of brand-new voters of all races and creeds activated or brought in by President Trump looking for a new north star to follow in a world that seems much more like the Carter administration than FDR. The country is plagued by high inflation (a functional tax increase on the lower and middle classes), a stalled post-pandemic economic recovery, crime as high as ever, and consistently crumbling inner-city school systems with no end in sight.
Contrary to popular belief, Trump garnered nearly 30% of the Hispanic vote in 2016, and did even better in 2020, getting 32% of their vote. In 2020, Trump only lost the heavily Hispanic state of Nevada by only 2%. So, while some anti-Trump Republicans might be grateful he is gone, they should realize that not only is Trump not going anywhere, but that he was a transformational figure for many voters across every demographic and political compass.
Hispanics who responded to Trump’s anti-establishment, macho man attitude and vehemently pro-America stance might not respond to a Republican retread or a friendly neighborhood Jeb Bush in the future. Along those same lines, Trump DID lose in 2020 and the conventional wisdom tells us that if he runs again, it won’t be a better showing either. I hope a more disciplined public figure with a solid leadership record that worries less about culture wars and more about legislative victories can be our next party leader in 2024. I also hope that Republicans will focus on capitalizing on the gains made during the Trump years and focus less on the loss in 2020. We’ve got a lot of work to do to make that happen.
Similar to Ben Fernandez and Ronald Reagan, Hispanics loved Trump’s embodiment of the American Dream. Hispanic Republicans saw past his media fiascos and terrible tweets and saw someone they could admire that did it his own way. They saw a burgeoning economy and a pathway to keeping their businesses open during the pandemic. It worked for him. But as Republicans prepare to rebuild with Trump out of power, we need to make sure we welcome Hispanics into the fold by being the party they think we are. Rather than chase the approval of President Trump, Republicans should seek to find their own issues to lead on that matter to them, not copy what he focused on. We win when we focus on smart policies that lift up regular people, bring opportunity for those that need it, and focus on what makes America good. I believe that common-sense immigration reform might be difficult for our “core constituencies” for a while but it is an important issue for many Hispanics that, once we become the solution for it, will become a catalyst for receiving future potential support from them. We know we are the party of safe streets, strong families, a strong economy, and we must also be the party of open arms as well.
In conclusion, Hispanic Republicans are key to the future of our party. We must continue to include them, learn from and listen to them, and fight to make sure there are more of them. (When I say include them, please make sure you have a functioning County-level Republican Party first before bringing them around. Maybe start with a local club or something?) Hispanic Republicans are also a unique group of people as they are driven by an optimistic patriotism that focuses them on how they can make the world better in the future, instead of being mired in the wrongs of the past. Their loyalty to America and the Republican Party throughout the years is remarkable even though both of those institutions have not always been on their side.
This book also taught me that Hispanic Republicans of each of these eras defined and shaped the conversation of their time and changed its trajectory. Hispanics today must do the same and understand that they are vital to the shaping of America’s future. They must stay involved, stay vocal, and, when things might seem bleak, know that the beauty of America is in each person’s ability to change America (and the Republican Party, as an extension) for the better despite its past.
I want to leave you with this thought sent to me by a Hispanic friend of mine that I highly respect. He said, “We [as Republicans] are missing an opportunity to bring in a group of people who have experience with the evils of communism and socialism, cronyism and corruption and a culturally engrained desire to pursue the American Dream. Even those who came to this country illegally did so at great risk to themselves and their families just for the opportunity to (in many cases) take jobs that many Americans aren’t interested in doing. They have pride in ownership of their outcomes, work hard, and have strong family values. Republicans need to go where they are at in their communities and preach the values we already share with them over and over again.”
I couldn’t agree more.
As a bonus, I wanted to share these fun, fast facts I loved learning during my read-through:
Did you know that the Democrat Party platform in 1996 said, “…we cannot tolerate illegal immigration and we must stop it.”?
World War II was important for Hispanics because thousands of them returned home from fighting with their fellow Americans in the trenches to the same GI bill education and housing benefits as everyone else. This helped elevate them more as equals in many Americans’ eyes.
Richard Nixon’s Cabinet Committee on Opportunities for Spanish‐Speaking People (CCOSSP) and “Brown Mafia” group of Hispanic associates and bureaucrats opened several government positions to loyal Hispanics and funneled over $60 million in federal grants and contracts “…with an eye toward recruiting Hispanics to support Nixon,” according to Cadava.
Richard Nixon appointed more Hispanic appointees to his administration than any President ever up to that point.
Many scholars still regard “The Great Tamale Incident” in San Antonio during the election of 1976 when Gerald Ford tried to eat a tamale with the corn husk STILL ON as a pivotal moment that led to his loss to Jimmy Carter that year.
Ronald Reagan nominated Katherine Ortega to be the thirty-eighth Treasurer of the United States and made her the first Hispanic to deliver a keynote, primetime speech at either major party’s national convention in American history in 1984. While her speech “failed to inspire”, millions of Americans saw her speak and Reagan’s support among Hispanics increased after that.
During the Clinton administration, Californians pushed “Proposition 187”, a bill that would halt all federal benefits to illegal immigrants. This was meant to curb illegal immigration and is regarded as a “poison pill” to the future of the GOP in the state.
George W. Bush appointed Alberto Gonzalez to be Attorney General of the United States which elevated him to the highest executive position ever held by a Hispanic person in US history.
George W. Bush won more than 40% of the Hispanic vote in the 2004 election.
Many people don’t know that George W. Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox were working with congressional leaders to pass historic legislation that would have healed the relationship with Mexico and become the most comprehensive immigration reform package ever … in the months leading up to the tragedy of 9/11 that shook the nation and sucked the political air out of the room for the rest of his administration.
Donald Trump won almost 30% of the Hispanic vote in 2016. He did even better in 2020 by winning 32% of their vote.
A SIDE NOTE
There is a debate in the political world surrounding whether to use the word “Hispanic” or “Latino” when referring to these people of Central and South American descent. The book referred to them as Hispanics throughout. Most people of Spanish-speaking culture who are Republicans prefer to be called “Hispanic”, those who are left-leaning Democrats prefer “Latino”. To be clear, my usage of the term in this article is with all due respect and affection when referring to people of Latin American descent and culture.
In my estimation, neither adequately reflects the full spectrum of cultures, traditions, peoples and experiences that make up this group of 60-ish million Americans, but it is the best we’ve got for now. Regardless, my understanding is that most Hispanic people identify with their country of origin much more than considering themselves to be part of the larger groups of “Hispanic” or “Spanish speaker” or whatever the latest political jargon tries to categorize them as. I’ll also note, though, that the author completely skips over the term “Latinx”, and for good reason it seems.
Both of those terms enshrine the Spanish/European colonial influence in their South American culture, which might be problematic for some. I acknowledge that many explorers who came to America from Cortés to Columbus committed atrocities on their people and they were subjected to European culture through conquest and, in some cases, genocide. This is a deeper discussion that I am not fully qualified to tackle in this article.
You can read more of Ken’s articles on his blog, New Media.