LAS VEGAS — 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 said. “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."
If Sandoval has helped the Republican cause in Nevada, a Republican candidate may also have to contend with the aftermath of Donald Trump.
Trump has been fond of invoking the policies of presidents past to give cover for his most controversial proposals — like Dwight D. Eisenhower's "Operation Wetback," a 1954 program that forcefully sent Mexican nationals as well as U.S. citizens back to Mexico. The U.S. and its southern neighbor share a checkered immigration history that goes back much further, however.
During the protectionism of the Great Depression, the U.S. deported more than 2 million Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. By World War II, an agricultural labor shortage resulted in the 1942 Bracero Program, an agreement between the two nations that led to 4.5 million Mexicans crossing the border.
They would eventually wear out their welcome, ushering in "Operation Wetback," a term that has been in the news because of Trump, but is now regarded as a slur.
The U.S. government treatment of Cubans differed, and was shaped by a geopolitical context: the Cold War and the Castro regime.
A decade after Eisenhower’s deportation program, Lyndon B. Johnson declared "to the people of Cuba that those who seek refuge here in America will find it. The dedication of America to our traditions as an asylum for the oppressed is going to be upheld." The government relaxed immigration laws for Cubans, including the rules governing permanent residency. The 1990s revision of the law developed the “wet foot, dry foot” policy that allows fleeing Cubans who reach American soil (dry feet) to stay, and apply for permanent residency after one year.
Five academics who spoke with BuzzFeed News from across the country said Cubans are viewed as the most pampered Latino immigrant — that other Hispanic groups “chafe” at their special immigration status.
Geraldo Cadava, a Northwestern University professor writing a book on Hispanic Republicans said "tensions between Cubans and Mexicans threatened to tear apart" the leading advocacy group for Latino conservatives, the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, in the 1970s and ‘80s. He said beyond immigration, issues of race and class were also present because Cuban-Americans have traditionally been more upwardly mobile.
Mark Hugo Lopez of Pew Hispanic said he has found that among Latinos, Cubans are among the most educated and more likely to own their home, while Mexicans experience higher poverty rates and bigger families.
Anna Ochoa O'Leary, the head of the University of Arizona's Mexican-American Studies department, argued there is a “privilege” that accompanies Cuban political candidates.
"Cuban candidates speak from a point of view of privilege where they haven’t struggled like other Latinos," she said. "They come from a very different background and I would say they’re less likely to vote for those candidates after watching them fight over who slams the door the hardest."
But even if Democrats think this cultural history may prove challenging for Republicans, many of them worry about Rubio’s broad appeal: The fully bilingual Republican, equally at home on Fox News or on Telemundo, could speak directly to Hispanics in a way the GOP has previously only dreamt. These Democrats worry their mother or grandmother might like the handsome politician on their television and help remake the Hispanic vote, or at least help shape it for the future in more favorable terms, after Mitt Romney’s untenable 29% in 2012.
"He is best positioned to relate, to connect with the Latino community," said the LIBRE Initiative's Daniel Garza. "Once you relate people trust you and people like you. He certainly has the biggest advantage by far when it comes to the Latino vote."
Garza, who declined to be part of a group of Hispanic Republicans that considered criticizing Ted Cruz in Colorado in November (and blasted him last week in Vegas), has since changed his mind after Cruz ruled out any form of legalization at the debate.
"I was taken aback by his policy position taken during the debate going against what he has said in word and deed," Garza said. "We liked his position two years ago” he said, referring to Cruz in 2013 backing a 500% growth in H1-B visas, “but it's clear that he has changed it and we’re disappointed."
In fact, the change from Garza, whose group is backed by the billionaire Koch brothers, is the latest sign that Hispanic Democrats and Republicans believe he will have no support from community leaders at all — and based purely on his policy positions.
Fernando Romero, who the Bush campaign once included in a list of prominent Latino supporters before he publicly stated that he was actually supporting Rubio, said he knows hundreds of Hispanics in Nevada and none of them are supporting Cruz. And he treaded into the sensitive ethnic space.
"Ted Cruz in our eyes is more dangerous than Donald Trump," he said. "When it comes to the Latino community, he is is someone we cannot trust because he’s so anti-everything we stand for. I don’t think many people even look at him as being Latino."
In the eyes of these Latino Republicans, conversely, Rubio shined.
Jesus Marquez, a conservative radio host in Nevada who supports Bush said that when he talks to Mexican Americans all they want is a permit to work, the ability to visit their family in Mexico, and then come back and work again.
"Most Latinos here in Nevada, the feedback I get, not just from my radio show but also from my grassroots canvassing — most Mexican-Americans favor Rubio over Cruz," he said.
BuzzFeed News has learned that Democrats are considering polling on Hispanic attitudes towards Rubio. Democratic pollster Fernand Amandi said that Republicans would suffer if they ran a Cuban-centric Latino campaign, but a pan-Hispanic approach could do well.
"A positive for Rubio or Cruz is that they would potentially be the first Hispanic president of the United States. That may be something to poo poo right now but let's not forget how important it was for black Republicans back then," he said, referring to the historic nature of Obama's candidacy, where commentators often wondered if African-Americans would identify with his life story. "It certainly was enough to sway Colin Powell.”
Yvanna Cancela, the political director of the majority Hispanic 55,000 member strong Culinary Workers Union in Nevada, is Cuban-American and was one of the activists at the Vegas event. She said there’s a shared sense of Latino values that transcends country of origin, like focus on family.
This opens the door for Latino candidates to have a conversation regardless of ethnicity but "if you’re not talking about the issues in a way that advances those values I don’t think it makes a difference," she said. "Rubio and Cruz are talking in a way about immigration and the economy that doesn’t open the door for Latinos to be middle class, so you’re not really speaking to Latino values."
While much of this will come down to the issues the candidates support, as appears to already be the case with Cruz, it is also true that it is in the best interest of Democrats to derail any appeal Rubio or Cruz may have among Hispanics, as the left-leaning professor Cadava mused.
"As liberal Latinos, in most areas of our lives, we are speaking solidarity with one another. We want to talk about our common culture, or worker's solidarity, this idea that workers should find solidarity despite different backgrounds," he said.
"But as soon as there is a specter, a threat, of a Latino conservative running and appealing to Hispanics we want to carve up the Latino electorate."