Will Mexican-Americans Vote for Cuban-Americans Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz?

PHOTO CREDIT:  AP images
PHOTO CREDIT: AP images

In an election of firsts, there is something else unique, sensitive, and awkward beginning to stir controversy that could shape the Latino vote. With Cuban-American senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz in position to win the Republican nomination, many Hispanic voters may be presented with a novel choice: a Latino candidate for president, but one who probably doesn’t share their family’s cultural background.

While Rubio and Cruz’s fight last week over immigration policy — and their immigration records — were the main event at the last debate, there’s a demographic dimension that is beginning to surface as progressive activists and others begin leveling harsh accusations at both candidates partly informed by shared Latino backgrounds, but fueled by divergent cultural experiences.

Close to two-thirds of Hispanics are Mexican-American, while only 3.7% are Cuban. That disparity, and the ways Mexicans and Cubans have historically been treated by the U.S. government when they reach American soil, have created historic tensions between the two groups — and distinct political experiences. In 2013, when Pew Hispanic asked about leaders in the Latino community, Cuban-Americans identified Rubio, while Mexican-Americans ranked Sonia Sotomayor and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

And that has already begun to fuel ugliness. Just a day before the debate, for instance, tucked away in a room at the East Las Vegas Community Center, past a handful of white senior citizens playing casino card games, national Democratic and progressive groups and local Nevada activists argued that Rubio and Cruz are no different than Donald Trump.

Both candidates were assailed for opposing President Obama’s executive program DACA, which deferred deportation for undocumented youth who came to the country as children, and last year’s DAPA, a similar policy aimed at parents, as well. (And, of course, those present also lambasted the Republicans for standard progressive fare: their stances on raising the minimum wage, labor issues, and climate policy.)

It was definitely a partisan gathering — Democrats yelling about Republicans. But the tears and anger flowed from local activists, the kind who play a big role in Nevada politics, and resemble other Latino-based advocacy in other states.

At the head of the table, Dolores Huerta, 85, who worked alongside Cesar Chavez, called Rubio and Cruz “sellouts” towards the end of the event, who had turned their backs not just on the Hispanic community, but the rest of the country.

Then she went further.

“These men may speak Spanish, they may be Latino, but they don’t have Latino hearts,” Huerta said. “They are traidores (traitors), they don’t represent our community.”

National Review called it “The Ugly Attempt to Paint Cruz and Rubio as Traitors to Their Ethnicity.” The Washington Post interviewed one of the organizers of the event, Cristobal Alex, head of the Latino Victory Project, which has since released ads aimed at both candidates, and basically offered a way for him to explain himself: Are Hispanic progressives really charging Rubio and Cruz with “ethnic treason?”

Alex demurred. And most have avoided direct language.

At the event, Alex had said of Rubio and Cruz, “These two candidates, when they got to the top of the ladder, they kicked it down, so the community couldn’t climb anymore.”

In a swing-state like Nevada, the Latino breakdown of the country is even more pronounced: 78% of Hispanics are Mexican-American (like Huerta and many of the activists at the table), while just 3% are Cuban-American.

Candidates can bridge that cultural divide — though immigration looms large. Rubio’s cousin, Mo Denis, for instance, is a Nevada state lawmaker. “Most of my Hispanic supporters are Mexican and Central American,” he told BuzzFeed News.

“The real big thing about does a Cuban appeal to a Mexican or Central American is it depends where you stand on issues that are important to them,” Denis sad. “Being Hispanic and being able to speak to them is important, but at the same time if you oppose immigration or you’re not strong enough on education it doesn’t matter what you are.”

He pointed to Nevada’s popular Republican governor, Brian Sandoval, who originally supported Arizona’s divisive SB1070, the so-called “show your papers” law in 2010, before embracing immigration policies unpopular with the national party in subsequent years. Working together with Denis, who was the state senate majority leader at the time, the two passed driver’s authorization cards for undocumented immigrants and an increased English-language learning initiative, with a budget of $50 million in 2013 and $100 million in 2015.

There was no Nevada governor exit poll in 2014, though Democratic pollster Latino Decisions saw Sandoval’s numbers with Hispanics go from 15% in 2010 to 47% on the eve of the election in 2014.

An operative who has worked with Sandoval and Rubio said the Nevada governor has opened the door for Republicans in the state.

“The Hispanic population votes 70-75% Democrat but Brian Sandoval changed that and Marco Rubio can change that,” the strategist said. “Rubio has that potential of changing the normal Republican take, we don’t have another candidate, another Republican running, who can do what he can do in Clark County or in Las Vegas.”

Click here to read more.

SOURCE: Buzzfeed News, Adrian Carrasquillo