Is Ted Cruz ‘Post-Hispanic’?

The right-wing firebrand Texas senator, who has been on both sides of the immigration debate, is a lot more complex than he might seem.

01.22.15 10:45 AM ET

How “Hispanic” is Ted Cruz?

If the brilliant but polarizing senator from Texas—who happens to be Cuban-American—does indeed run for president in 2016, does he have a shot at winning Hispanic votes? At a time when the GOP is hemorrhaging support from Hispanics, would nominating Cruz provide a solution—or, given his extreme rightwing politics, make the problem worse?

I have to be honest: I hate these types of questions.

It’s fair to ask whether a certain candidate stands a chance of attracting support from one constituency or another. But I wince and walk away from the table when the whole thing gets personal. And when one Hispanic is challenging another about who is el mas macho—that is, the most authentically Hispanic—it gets personal in a hurry.

During college, as a Mexican-American, I was at both ends of the spear—challenging classmates for not being “Mexican enough” only to later have them do the same to me.

You would think that a community that numbers 52 million, represents 17 percent of the U.S. population, controls $1.4 trillion in annual spending power, and maintains a strong presence in three of the five states that decide presidential elections (Nevada, Colorado and Florida) would be more secure and less petty.

You’d be wrong.

Ted knows about being attacked on a personal level. In May 2013, he was treated like a piñata by Bill Richardson. The Democratic former New Mexico governor accused the freshman senator of being “anti-immigration” and even insisted that he didn’t think that Ted “should be defined as a Hispanic.”

The slap was ugly and unfair, and I said so in a column. Richardson was out of line, and he knows better, since he has had his authenticity questioned over the years.

I’ve known Ted for more than 12 years. We’ve been to dinner socially with our wives, and we’ve talked politics on several occasions. We met when I was writing for the Dallas Morning News, and he was working for the Bush administration in an obscure post at the Federal Trade Commission. It’s hard to believe but, back then, Cruz was a loyal “Bushie” who—like the 43rd president—supported immigration reform that gives the undocumented a path to legal status.

I consider Ted a friend. But I’m not sure he’d say the same about me after the column I wrote last year chastising him for his hardline against child refugees who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border from Central America.

“As someone whose community has entered the United States on a red carpet thanks to that Cold War relic known as the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, Cruz ought to tread lightly with immigrants and refugees,” I wrote. “Instead, he comes across as Cuban American royalty telling less worthy peasants from Mexico and Central America to eat flan.”

What’s an off-handed, dessert-based insult between friends?

So how “Hispanic” is Ted? For those Americans who believe that President Obama is “post racial,” it’s tempting to say that Ted is “post-Hispanic.”

Unlike Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, my friend doesn’t speak Spanish. He doesn’t make a habit of speaking to Hispanic organizations or attending their events. While most Hispanics are Catholic, he’s a Southern Baptist. And he doesn’t pursue an agenda that is centered around “Hispanic issues.”

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Moreover, as I mentioned, during his two years in the Senate, Ted has become a vocal opponent against immigration reform, which he derisively calls “amnesty”—even though such a policy change is supported by the majority of Hispanics.

But there is another side to Ted. While at Harvard Law School, he wasn’t just a primary editor of the Harvard Law Review but also a founding editor of something called the Harvard Latino Law Review.

In the years when I’d run into him at gatherings or conferences, while he was a lawyer in private practice and before he ran for the Senate, he was always surrounded by what seemed to be his closest friends: other Hispanic Republicans.

While running for the Senate in 2012, he liked to share, on the stump, a story about a friend who asked him: “When was the last time you saw a Hispanic panhandler?” Ted responded that he wasn’t sure he had ever seen one of those. He shared the story to make a point about how self-sufficient Hispanics were, if they could be rescued from the clutches of government.

Also, while campaigning, Ted made a habit of mentioning his father, Rafael, who he calls his lifelong hero. The elder Cruz left Cuba in 1957—pre-Castro—at age 18, and is now something of a conservative celebrity in his own right. Unable to speak English and with only $100 to his name, he washed dishes for 50 cents an hour. The senator is a vocal opponent of Obama’s proposal to open up relations with Cuba.

During an interview a few hours after he was sworn in, I asked my friend how he would solve the immigration problem. This is what he said: “No. 1: We need to get serious about securing the border, about stopping illegal immigration, particularly in a post-9/11 world. But No. 2, we also need to remain a nation that doesn’t just welcome but that celebrates legal immigrants who come here seeking to pursue the American dream.”

In May 2013, Ted expressed his opposition to an amendment to the Senate immigration bill from Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama that would have restricted the flow of low-skilled immigrants who come to the United States legally. “I intend to vote no on this amendment,” Ted told colleagues on the Senate Judiciary Committee. “The reason is I think legal immigration is a fundamental pillar of our country.… I am an advocate of legal immigration. We need to remain a nation that celebrates legal immigrants around this table—so many of us are the children of those who risked everything for freedom.” So much for him being “anti-immigration.”

And just a few weeks ago, National Review reported that Ted has a plan to run for president in 2016 that builds on his Hispanic support. According to the magazine, internal polling in Texas shows that 40 percent of Hispanics support the state’s junior senator. Any Republican who gets 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in the general election will win the White House.

How Hispanic is Ted Cruz? In the end, I have no idea. That’s a personal matter. Only he knows for sure. But from what I’ve seen, and heard directly from him, he’s as Hispanic as any of us and more Hispanic than many of his critics.

Ted is obviously proud of his father, and the journey that brought him to the United States. I also think he’s proud of his heritage, culture, and community. He doesn’t wear his ethnicity on his sleeve, but he seems proud to be Cuban-American.

My friend showed off that pride in December 2013 in Johannesburg, South Africa. While attending the memorial service for Nelson Mandela, he found himself in the audience while Cuban President Raul Castro approached the podium to speak. And Ted did what most Cuban-Americans would do in that situation: He got up and walked out.

That’s what I call “authentic.”