Why Aren’t Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz Hispanic Enough for Whites?

It seems the media has a problem with Hispanic Republicans. Why is that?

James Lawler Duggan/Reuters

Some high-profile liberals in the media aren’t satisfied with the fact that most Hispanics—about two-thirds, according to voter surveys—are registered Democrats. The lefties have to go for broke and try to make the very word “Hispanic” synonymous with “Democrat,” which would mean that only Hispanic Democrats are genuine Hispanics.

I learned all this from watching Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC’s Hardball, who seems to believe that all the crazy talk in this election should not come just from the presidential candidates. Last week, while discussing the Republican primary debate in Milwaukee, Matthews tried to offer first-class commentary about a jab that Sen. Ted Cruz took at Sen. Marco Rubio and wound up sounding like English was his second language.

“So you’re trying to insinuate that Marco Rubio, a fellow, uh, Spanish surname, I’m not sure the right word is ‘Hispanic’ for them. Because they are Cuban nationals or whatever, or come from Cuba. But, uh, is he going to insinuate that he is still basically for what he calls amnesty?”

Did you catch the offensive part: “I’m not sure the right word is ‘Hispanic’ for them. Because they are Cuban nationals or whatever, or come from Cuba.”

Matthews is “not sure” that Cruz and Rubio should be referred to as Hispanic? Does that mean that he’s not sure that these two 2016 GOP presidential candidates—both of whom are on the upswing at the moment—really are Hispanic?

I’m not sure who died and made the MSNBC host the sacred arbitrator of who’s authentically Hispanic and who isn’t.

But I am sure that Matthews was way out of line, and that he should apologize to both Cruz and Rubio. For one thing, the former was born in Canada, the latter in the United States. Neither comes "from Cuba."

I’m also fairly sure that you’d be hearing more Latinos say so — including the Washington-based advocacy groups — if these two candidates were Democrats, and the flub had come from a host at Fox News.

This now marks the second time in six months that a national media figure seemed to be unsure of what to make of a Hispanic Republican or how to refer to him.

In May, Mark Halperin, co-managing editor of Bloomberg Politics and host of an online interview show called “With All Due Respect” wound up with flan on his face after a grilling of Cruz that was as bizarre as anything you’ll see anywhere on television.

That interview started off innocently enough with Halperin asking Cruz if he thought that Hispanics would vote for him. But, before long, Halperin made it personal with a series of questions that seemed intended to establish Cruz’s cultural credentials. What kind of Cuban food or music did Cruz like? You get the picture, Chico.

The most offensive part was the closing when Halperin asked Cruz to speak a little “espanol.” I guess the idea was to measure its quality. But, by this point in the interview, the viewer had deciphered that Halperin was so ignorant about Hispanics that he probably doesn’t know espanol from an empanada. Cruz could have rattled off Portuguese, and Halperin would have been none the wiser.

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What is going on with our journos these days when it comes to covering Cruz and Rubio? Why, the Fourth Estate acts like it’s never before seen two smart, inspiring, well-spoken, and electable Cuban-American senators in serious contention for the presidential nomination of a major political party in this country.

Ok, it hasn’t. None of us have. This is uncharted territory. And so there’s a learning curve for political opponents, who have to be careful not to attack either of these two lads in a way that might sound offensive to other Hispanics.

But the learning curve is also steep for those in the media who are trying to cover a line-up of presidential candidates that is more diverse than usual — at least on the Republican side. Suddenly, we’re learning which journalists have been exposed to Hispanics throughout the lives, and who have been more sheltered. It’s easy to say the wrong thing when you don’t know enough about a group of people to know what the right thing is.

While Rubio and Cruz are both authentic Hispanics (and, honestly, what a sad state of affairs when one has to even use such a ridiculous phrase), it is also true that they don’t identify equally with their ethnicity, heritage and culture.

Even after joining the Senate in January 2011, Rubio seems to have made a conscious attempt to maintain his culture and the Spanish language. The Floridian — this self described “son of exiles” — also took a stab at immigration reform, by co-sponsoring the comprehensive “Gang of Eight” bill that included a path to citizenship for the undocumented. When Donald Trump attacked Jeb Bush for speaking Spanish on the campaign trail, it was Rubio who returned fire at Trump.

Recalling how his grandfather kept up with current events through Spanish-language media, the senator stressed the virtues of being able to bring the GOP message to Spanish-speaking voters without relying on a “Univision translator.”

As for Cruz, the Texas senator is what I’ve previously described on this page as “post-Hispanic.” He doesn’t speak Spanish, or address Hispanic groups directly. He hasn’t fashioned a specific agenda to deal with Hispanic issues. He doesn’t seem to have much of what we might call a Hispanic consciousness.

Cruz isn’t running for president of Latino America. He’s running for president of the United States of America. Even though most Hispanics in Texas are registered Democrats, Cruz rode to victory and into a Senate seat on the strength of white voters. And he opposes as “amnesty” what Rubio proposed, and later backed way from.

So, are Cruz and Rubio Hispanic? That’s easy. It’s a blood thing. Look at the definition from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: “A person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race.”

The senators are “of Cuban origin,” even if they do come at that experience in personal and radically different ways. As tends to be the case in matters of ethnic and cultural identity, it’s complicated — more than you’d realize from listening to white liberals like Chris Matthews, who must find it increasingly difficult to explain a world they don’t understand.