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The Hispanic Republican

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Historian and political commentator Geraldo Cadava offers insight into the complicated dynamic between Latino liberalism and conservatism. (Image credit: Steve Castillo)

Humanities Center fellow Geraldo Cadava, an associate professor of history at Northwestern University, recently finished a book about the history of Hispanics and the Republican Party since the 1960s, which will be released this month. 

Originally from Tucson, Arizona, Cadava received degrees from Yale University and Dartmouth College. He is the author of Standing on Common Ground and his essays on this topic have appeared in the Los Angeles Times and the NACLA Report on the Americas, and on,, and

Your book argues that Hispanic Republicans evolved from a long history with the Republican Party. How did the Republican party court them? 

I’m going to use Hispanics here because that’s what most Latinos who identify as conservatives call themselves. And it has presented interesting publication questions where journals, for example, are adopting new style guides to use the term “Latinx.” But I’ve had to insist in this context with Hispanic conservatives it’s important to still call them Hispanic because that’s the term that they prefer. 

Anyway, the first Republican president to make a serious effort was Richard Nixon in 1971. He appointed the first Hispanic Treasurer of the United States, a woman named Romana Acosta Bañuelos. In fact, he appointed several Hispanics to his administration, and as a result he won somewhere between 30 and 35 percent of the Hispanic vote. 

Ever since then somewhere around a third of Hispanics have voted for the Republican candidate. And I wouldn’t tie it to any particular issue. I know that Catholicism, traditional family values, military service, even lighter skin color, or comparative wealth are issues that some analysts have pointed to in order to explain why Hispanics have been Republicans, but I would tie it to an important shift in their thinking between 1980 and 2016. 

When Ronald Reagan was the candidate in 1980 they were saying, we know that the Republican Party hasn’t always represented the Hispanic community’s interests, but here, in Reagan, we have the Governor of California, who has appointed more Hispanics to his administration than any of his twentieth-century predecessors. So in 1980, the logic was vote for the man not the party. 

And that’s 180 degrees different from what Hispanic Republicans were saying in 2016. One person I interviewed a few months before the election that year told me that even if Latino or Hispanic Republicans didn’t love Donald Trump and they didn’t feel like he truly represented their values, they were going to vote for him because they weren’t going to let one man ruin a movement they’d built over a long period of time. The logic was party over man.

That’s really the transformation I’m trying to map out in the book. How it went from man to party to party to man, because to me that suggests some kind of evolution of party loyalty by Hispanics.

What does it say about the different cultural sensibilities of, say, Mexicans, Cubans, or Central Americans?

It’s true that individual national groups have their own issues that they care most about. I mean, foremost for Mexican Americans is the border and immigration. For Cuban Americans and Cuban exiles, it’s anti-communism. And for Puerto Ricans, it’s the territorial status of the island.

But part of what I found is that each group is more than happy to go along with the interests of other groups so long as they don’t undermine their own interests. So Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans have their own version of anti-socialism, anti-communism. Puerto Ricans are happy to go along with building a border wall or restricting immigration from Mexico because that doesn’t directly threaten their citizenship status because all Puerto Ricans are citizens of the United States. 

And I found it interesting, too, that Hispanic Republicans who worked for different Republican administrations were all invested in articulating their own version of a Hispanic identity. Reagan's Hispanic advisors, for example, were viewing this as Spanish-language, traditional family values, belief in the free enterprise system. These were all kind of core Hispanic characteristics that united members of all of the different national groups.

What surprised you writing this book?

Oh my, so many surprises. 

It’s almost become a tradition for Republican presidents to tap Hispanic women to serve as Treasurer of the United States. As I said, that began with Nixon when he appointed Romana Bañuelos. Then Ronald Reagan appointed Katherine Ortega, a Mexican American woman from New Mexico, George H. W. Bush appointed a woman named Catalina Vasquez Villalpando, who was a Mexican American woman from Texas. George W. Bush appointed Rosario Marin. 

U.S. Treasurer-designate Romana Acosta Bañuelos in 1971 with President Nixon. (Image credit: WHPO-7305-17a)


Likewise, I was surprised to learn that the first Hispanic to run for President of the United States was a Mexican American Republican named Benjamin Fernandez, who was born in a railroad boxcar in Kansas City in 1925 and had a real up-by-the-bootstraps mentality. So it surprised me that Hispanic Republicans claimed these different firsts instead of Hispanic Democrats.

Another surprise was learning that the Hispanic Republican movement is much broader than just the fierce anti-Castro Cuban exiles in southern Florida. I think it’s easy to kind of put the whole topic of Hispanic conservatism in a box by saying, it’s just limited to the exile community. 

But there are millions of Mexican American conservatives in California and Texas. I remember interviewing one who had been involved in Republican Party politics since the 1960s when he was an undergraduate at USC canvassing for Richard Nixon. He told me that the Cuban Americans didn’t gain influence in the Hispanic Republican movement until 1980, when Reagan kind of brought them into the fold. So it surprised me to learn that the Hispanic Republican movement really started among Mexican Americans in the Southwest, and in California in particular. 


"I think it’s easy to kind of put the whole topic of Hispanic conservatism in a box by saying, it’s just limited to the exile community." 


And then finally, I had just assumed that it would be the Hispanics who have an ethnic and racial self-conception of themselves as white, and who were wealthy, to be the ones who identify as Hispanic Republicans. But I was surprised to hear that people like Henry Ramirez, who served in the Nixon administration as the Chairman of the Cabinet Committee on Opportunities for Spanish-Speaking People, described himself as a Chicano and as a Mestizo civil rights warrior—someone who didn’t deny his indigenous Mexican roots, but still considered himself to be a conservative and a Republican. 

It made me realize that Hispanic Republicans had many different entry points into the party. And it wasn’t just the wealthy. It wasn’t just the white. It wasn’t just the Catholic. It wasn’t just the Cubans.


In the lead-up to November, is it a warning for Democrats?

Absolutely. I think that it’s continued to be a surprise to many observers of politics that a third of Latinos continues to support Republican candidates. 

Everyone wants to know why and how that can be, especially with a Republican like Donald Trump who initiated his campaign by railing against undocumented Mexican immigrants. I think part of what studying the history of Hispanic Republicans demonstrates is that it shouldn’t be so surprising because their loyalty to the party has developed over a long period of time. 

President Reagan picking up an eight-year-old girl at the Nicaraguan Refugee Fund. (Image credit: Diana Walker/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images) | Hispanic supporters of Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush cheer after the Texas governor won 31.3% of the Republican Party's unofficial "straw poll" in 1999. (Image credit: LUKE FRAZZA/AFP/Getty Images)


Starting in the 1960s, Hispanic Republicans were trying to convince other Hispanics, who maybe had allied themselves with the Democratic Party ever since Roosevelt and the New Deal in the 1930s, that the Democrats took them for granted. The Democratic Party only shows up every four years when it needs their votes, but otherwise doesn't pay attention to Hispanic issues. 

So I do think it’s a warning to Democrats, but I wouldn’t leave it at that. I would say that it’s also a warning to Republicans, who over the past 25 years have taken a sharp-right turn on some of the issues that Hispanics care about the most like immigration and border issues. Cuban Americans have also expressed frustration over the years, because they’ve sometimes thought that Republicans talk tougher on Cuba than they act. And Puerto Rican Republicans continue to be frustrated that the island has not yet become the 51st state, which they’ve fought for for almost a century. At some point, these issues could shake their faith in the Republican Party.


Has anything changed given the current situation?

Just as one initial observation, it’s kind of blown my mind that we’ve spent three years thinking that the upcoming election would be about impeachment and the Mueller investigation, and the Muslim ban and all of these other polarizing issues, but all of a sudden they seem to not matter. In many ways, the election is only going to be, it seems, a referendum on Trump’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, and whether he or Joe Biden will offer the best path toward recovery.

But I actually think that story is unwritten. I don’t necessarily assume that the story could only go in one direction that is unfavorable to Trump because Republicans are of course invested in spinning his handling of the coronavirus crisis as heroic work. Like he very early on blocked travel from China. He has given the governors of New York and California everything they’ve asked for. So the Republican spin machine is hard at work trying to argue that Trump has been the best response to the coronavirus. And I don't know that that won’t work. 

We’ll see how that plays with Latinos. In some ways, I think a lot of it has to do with partisan identities already being kind of baked into the equation and I don't know that many Hispanic Republicans or liberals are going to change their views over the next few months.