Rubio and Cruz, 'Latino' candidates at odds with their own community

Rubio and Cruz, 'Latino' candidates at odds with their own community

Two Republicans of Hispanic descent who take a hard line on immigration are running for the White House this year, an irony not lost on a community that helped elect Barack Obama, a Democrat, seven years ago.

"It's bittersweet," says Cristobal Alex, head of the Latino Victory Project, an association that seeks to expand Hispanics' political influence in the United States.

"On the one hand we want to celebrate the success of our community in reaching a milestone. But on the other hand these are two Latinos who quite frankly have turned their back on their community." He was referring to the freshmen Senators Marco Rubio and Rafael Eduardo "Ted" Cruz, sons of Cuban immigrants vying with billionaire Donald Trump for the Republican presidential nomination.

The contest has narrowed to a three way race, and for the first time in US history two of the candidates are Hispanics, the United States' largest minority with 57 million people.

Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials, says it is "an indicator of the political progress of the Latin community." But the Latino community is very diverse.

The Cuban community is a world apart from other Latin American immigrants in the United States.

Marked by Washington's anti-communist struggles and forged by waves of anti-Castro refugees, it has outsized political power.

Although six out of every 10 Latinos are of Mexican origin, only the Cubans, with a population of just two million, are represented in the US Senate where they hold three seats.

The terms "Latino" and "Hispanic" were given currency by US census-takers to refer broadly to immigrants from Latin America or Spain or people of Latin descent born in the United States.

But those terms hide important cultural, political, migratory and geographic differences: Mexicans predominate in the Southwest, the Cubans in Florida and Puerto Ricans mainly in New York.

On the campaign trail, Rubio and Cruz talk ceaselessly about their parents' struggles to achieve "the American dream," a narrative that has resonance for many Latino families.

Rubio chose the title "An American Son" for his 2012 memoir, proclaiming himself the son of immigrants a year before he made a push for immigration reform in the Senate.

But the senator, who was born in Miami in 1971, has since hardened his position on immigration policy and now competes with Cruz for support from conservatives demanding more deportations.

Most Hispanics, in contrast, support legal status for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, most of them Mexicans.

"We care deeply about the way candidates or elected officals are talking about immigration. It affects us at a very personal level," said Jose Calderon, leader of the Hispanic Federation, stressing that the issue is crucial for Latinos in deciding whom to vote for.

But historically, different groups within the Hispanic community have had different migratory experiences.

Cuban immigrants have long benefitted from fast-track immigration treatment under Cold War-era US laws that set them apart from many Mexican or Central American families who are no strangers to life in the shadows of American society.

The preferential treatment given Cubans and the Republicans' staunch anti-Castro politics have "often meant a much greater support for the Republican Party among Cuban immigrants and Cuban descendents," said Ali Valenzuela, a professor of Latino Studies at Princeton University.

Mexican immigrants and their descendants, on the other hand, are much more strongly Democratic because of that party's greater support for immigration reform, he said.

That will create problems for Rubio or Cruz if either wins the Republican nomination, because they would then have to woo Hispanics, who were crucial to Obama's two White House victories and who are expected to number 13 million voters in November.

"Our Latino voters know and recognize the importance of considering not just a candidate's name but also his positions," said Janet Murguia, head of the National Council of La Raza, the largest Hispanic group in the United States.

But the Hispanic vote is relatively insignificant in the Republican primaries, and Rubio and Cruz have played down their cultural heritage. Except on occasion.

In the last debate, Rubio, who speaks fluent Spanish, goaded Cruz into proving his command of the language of his fathers, with less than favorable results for the ultra-conservative senator.

"Rubio is much more willing to embrace his immigrant heritage," said Valenzuela. "To my ears he sounds much more comfortable in his Latino skin. You don't hear much of that by Ted Cruz."

This website is best viewed using the latest versions of web browsers.