For several months, I’ve been thinking about why Robert Francis O’Rourke—who goes by “Beto” when he is nibbling tacos in West Texas but was “Robert” when he attended prep school and Columbia University—bugs the hell out of me.
I may have finally figured it out.
And not a moment too soon. The Hamlet of West Texas—who recently retired from Congress after somehow managing to lose a Texas Senate race against an opponent with sky-high negatives despite raising more than $70 million from a national donor base, and then went on a “listening tour” across America to find himself—recently acknowledged that he is trying to make up his mind about whether to spend 2020 running for president or taking another stab at the Senate by challenging Republican incumbent John Cornyn.
My guess is that O’Rourke will ultimately travel whatever road is lined with the most television cameras. Of course, vanity—even to the point of narcissism—is not a disqualifier in a politician. It’s practically a job requirement.
But cultural appropriation is another matter entirely.
To be fair, at least as far as I know, Robert Francis has—in a political career that took him from the El Paso City Council to Congress to who-knows-what’s-next—never gone out and told a group of Mexican-Americans that he was a member of the tribe.
But from what I’ve seen in both the Senate race and its aftermath, he doesn’t mind if some Latinos jump to that conclusion and vote for him because of some misplaced sense of ethnic loyalty.
And judging from the mail and tweets I get when I write about O’Rourke, I can tell you that many Latinos think he is one of us. Perhaps they can’t imagine that anyone would—in Donald Trump’s America—volunteer to be Latino if they weren’t born that way.
About this cultural confusion, I’m sure Beto would shrug and say: “Está bien.” That’s fine.
By the way, he also speaks Spanish, though rarely to white audiences. What’s the point of that?
It’s all part of Beto’s storyline as a cultural enigma.
Take the name, which he switches on and off like a light switch. He was “Robert” at birth, “Beto” in childhood, “Robert” again in boarding school and at Columbia, and “Beto” again when he returned to El Paso to run for office.
Either this guy has an identity crisis the size of Texas, or he is just crafty enough to try to have his flan and eat it too—becoming Latin, or a white male, whichever is more convenient.
The urban legend has it that O’Rourke came by his nickname the ol’ fashioned way—by having it bestowed upon him by Latino friends in El Paso, who thought he was pretty decent for a white guy, dubbed him an honorary Mexican, and declared that, from that day forward, he would be known as “Beto.” According to this narrative, O’Rourke became Latino simply by rubbing shoulders with Latinos. It’s like how you get poison oak.
Now, this is not unheard of. The original Robert Francis—as in Robert Francis Kennedy, or as my grandma called him, “El Bobby”—was welcomed into East Los Angeles in the spring of 1968 like he was one of our own.
Besides, I sort of like this idea that you can become part of a tribe by simply being in close proximity to them.
Sign me up. If I wasn’t Mexican-American, I’d be Armenian because I grew up around lots of Armenians near Fresno. Or I’d be Irish because I went to college in Boston (well, Cambridge, close enough).
While we’re on the subject, do you know who else is Irish? Beto! And yet, a few months ago, when former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley endorsed Robert Francis O’Rourke for president in 2020—despite the fact that O’Rourke hadn’t even entered the race yet, and still hasn’t, we did not hear howls about the scourge of “identity politics” by the likes of Fox News’ Tucker Carlson.
As for the legend about the name, it might carry more weight if his father hadn't told reporters years ago that he was the one who came up with it because he thought it would be politically advantageous for his son, given that Texas is now about 39 percent Latino.
I don’t see Beto as Latino. I see him as a chimichanga, a U.S.-born invention of something that then gets passed off as authentically Mexican. He’s that Mexican restaurant that white people like because the salsa doesn't burn.
If he takes a pass on the Senate and runs for the Democratic nomination for president in 2020, Beto will be that “Mexican” candidate who appeals to white liberals who want to say they voted for a Mexican without having to take the chance of actually voting for one—like say, Julian Castro, the former Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, who has already entered the race.
You see, some say, you have to be careful when voting for a real Mexican. You just don’t know what they’ll do if they get a little power. Why, they might give Arizona back to Mexico—only to have our neighbor reject the offer with a friendly: “No gracias.” But with Beto, there’s no risk. White people pretty much know what he’s going to do. Because he’s one of them.
He can tell a reporter that, not only does he oppose Trump’s proposed border wall, but he’d go so far as to “tear down” whatever barriers we have now. He later backed off that sort of open border nonsense.
About Castro. And I knew we were going to get here. The fact that I don’t have a lot of nice things to say about O’Rourke has nothing to do with my friendship with Castro, whom I have also been critical of on occasion. It has more to do with the fact that so many people in the media seem so intent on pitting these two guys against each other.
A few weeks ago, I was doing a radio interview with a station in the Rio Grande Valley. The host asked: “Doesn’t the battle between Julian and Beto come down to the Latino vote, and who gets it?”
“Why is that?” I asked.
Who sets up these paradigms? Oh yeah, white people. Why not ask if Beto can compete for the African-American vote with Kamala Harris or Cory Booker?
That’s silly, right? Beto isn’t black. And he’s not Mexican either. Now you’re getting it.
All of which brings us finally to what it is about Beto that bugs me. It’s that he’s that dude, that dude I knew in college. He’s the dude who got in on his daddy’s name, partied all the time, and breezed through the four years without going to class or getting good grades or breaking a sweat. He embodied white privilege before we even had a name for the concept.
So what if he got arrested twice—once for breaking into the University of Texas at El Paso, and once for drunk driving? He grew his hair long and joined a rock band, and all was forgiven. He majored in English and then channeled Jack Kerouac to hit the road in search of America. And folks called it charming.
The dude flips his hair, and grins. And it’s all good. The next time a poll comes out, he’ll be high on the leaderboard.
In short, Beto is no Mexican. Those people—my people—have to work twice as hard, and we can’t make mistakes. We spend our lives trying not to agitate white people by getting all radical on them. There is no privilege for us, and no guarantees. There’s only the vague promise of something better around the corner if you’re willing to pay the price.
I bet that Beto has no idea what I’m talking about.