Award-winning historian Geraldo Cadava is an associate professor of history and Latinx studies at Northwestern University. In his scholarship and writing for a general public—on Latinx history, borderlands, and immigration—he has worked to make clear the connections between the past and the present. History, his work shows, is a vital discipline that helps us understand the world we live in today.
Research from his first book, 2013’s Standing on Common Ground: The Making of a Sunbelt Borderland, was featured in essays for the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Immigration Policy Center. He has written about the themes of his new book, The Hispanic Republican: The Shaping of an American Political Identity, from Nixon to Trump, in venues like the Washington Post, The Atlantic, and the Los Angeles Times.
As the COVID-19 crisis was ravaging the country, disproportionately affecting the Latino population, we spoke about why some Latinos have supported and will continue to support the Republican Party. This topic is particularly important as the 2020 election fast approaches and candidates continue to court the “Latino Vote” as a unified bloc instead of treating Latinos as an established part of the US political system with diverse viewpoints.
Rosina Lozano (RL): I don’t think Latinos were shocked to see family members campaigning for Trump in 2016 or posting their support for him on Facebook. I think almost every single person can talk about people within their own families who are Republican and more conservative. Your book really helped to explain how that could be: why somebody could support Trump, despite the rhetoric and despite so many of the values that the Republican Party has latched onto.
Geraldo Cadava (GC): Within the Latino community, we all have stories about the Republican aunt or uncle who can make dinnertime conversations uncomfortable. But we don’t really count them as part of the political history of our communities—or when we do, we view them as oddities or curiosities.
RL: That’s why I’m absolutely excited that your book The Hispanic Republican now exists. The Latino community in America is an incredibly diverse group that has very different ethnic, generational, class, and racial realities. Your book will be fantastic for people hoping to understand parts of their families better, or—if readers are not part of the Latino or Hispanic community—to understand how there is so much political support for the Republican Party among that group.
GC: My interest in the topic actually stemmed from watching my grandfather’s own political evolution, as a Democrat who voted for Reagan in 1980 for a very specific reason: that Reagan was promising to put more money back into his biweekly paycheck. Ever since, he has embraced the Republican Party wholesale on all kinds of issues: border issues, cultural issues, everything. Political scientists still argue about how that process happens, how someone moves from supporting one particular issue to embracing the party’s whole platform.
RL: Yes. I have a huge family that, I think, would mirror how Hispanics vote overall. Because close to a third of my family—across the generations—votes Republican. And this is a family in which my grandparents started off undocumented.
You show how these Hispanic Republicans begin by supporting a candidate, like Nixon or Reagan, and a particular ideology, and then go on to support the party above any one candidate. How do you think that happened?
GC: That’s right. Many Hispanic conservatives point to Nixon as the president who brought them into the party. A Chicano in the White House,1 for example, is a fascinating memoir by Henry Ramirez, who was the chairman of the Cabinet Committee on Opportunities for Spanish Speaking People during the Nixon Administration. Meanwhile, Linda Chavez has written about her time in the Reagan Administration, when she served as director of the Office of Public Liaison. She’s written two memoirs, in fact: Out of the Barrio: Toward a New Politics of Hispanic Assimilation, in 1992, and 2003’s An Unlikely Conservative: The Transformation of an Ex-Liberal (Or How I Became the Most Hated Hispanic in America).
She’s not entirely representative of Hispanic conservatism—no single person is—but her example shows that there’s a diversity of views even among Hispanic conservatives. She never supported Nixon, even in the ’70s, because she sees him as the father of the quota system. So, these are two Hispanic Republicans who served in different Republican administrations but ended up both supporting the party.
In almost every election since Nixon’s reelection, somewhere between a quarter and a third of Hispanics have voted for the Republican candidate. But, in terms of how Hispanic Republicans went from supporting individual candidates to becoming loyal Republicans, I would tie it to an important shift in their thinking between 1980 and 2016.
When Reagan was the Republican candidate in 1980, the individuals running his Hispanic campaign made the argument: “We know that the Republican Party hasn’t always represented the Hispanic community, but here, in Reagan, we have the governor of California who has appointed more Hispanics to his administration than any of his 20th-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 said in 2016. One person I interviewed a few months before that election told me that even if Hispanic Republicans didn’t love Donald Trump and didn’t feel like he shared 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 over party to party over man. Because, to me, that suggests some kind of evolution of party loyalty by Hispanics.
RL: Your book will be important not just for understanding politics but also for history as a field. It’s a reminder that there’s a history of Hispanics who have been involved in the Republican Party and have held positions of power for decades. Hispanics have been a political force since Nixon, but also, really, since 1848, if you look at political parties in New Mexico, for example.
GC: Right. There’s a lot of attention in popular media to the rising political force of Latinos in the United States because of recent demographic changes, but Latinos have been part of the fabric of the United States for a long time, and their histories don’t always make it into the sweeping reappraisals of American politics being written today.
RL: In your book, you include so many voices of individuals who spent time thinking about why the Republican Party made sense for them. At one point, you say that this process is not just about becoming Republican, but it’s also about becoming Hispanic at the same time, right?
GC: Part of what I try to do is recover a Hispanic Republican intellectual tradition, if you could call it that. This is important because if you look at the work of Latino intellectual historians like Carlos Blanton, or Ruben Flores, they’re trying to incorporate Latinos into the history of ideas. Their ideas have been in conversation with the broader picture of American intellectual history, but also with Latino history. There’s a book by Manuel Machado called Listen Chicano2—
RL: I love that name.
GC: Yeah, it’s great. It’s really interesting stuff because, as a Mexican American Republican in the ’60s and ’70s, Machado has a whole different version of Latino history than the one we tend to teach in our college courses.
According to his version, the Spanish colonizers are individuals to be admired because they brought civilization to the United States. In other words, Spanish heritage is something that Latinos should run toward instead of away from. It’s just a whole different point of departure for understanding the Latino past and present, since we now tend to think, and not without reason, that Spaniards were colonizers. I was shocked to learn that Hispanic conservatives celebrate Cortés’s arrival in Mexico.
Part of why Hispanic Republicans in general continue to be a mystery—regarded as outliers or part of the fringe—is that we haven’t taken their ideas seriously. To understand Latinos as serious political actors, you have to understand the diversity, depth, and complexity of their ideas. Even if the Hispanic Republicans are people that you disagree with, I think it’s important to recognize and wrestle with their ideas.
RL: In terms of your research, you have so many gems in the book—in part from secondary sources and a great dive into the newspapers. But I really love this image you described that really stuck with me, of Nixon’s head on the Aztec calendar stone. It was on a campaign flyer, used to recruit Hispanic voters. Do you consider this an example of what we call Hispandering today?
GC: I think the Nixon head on an Aztec calendar stone is representative of one of the myths about Hispanic Republicans that I found most interesting and perplexing: that they have a kind of white-heritage fantasy. Latino historians have called it different things, like a Faustian pact with whiteness. But the facts don’t always support it.
For example, Henry Ramirez’s book about his time in the Nixon White House is called A Chicano in the White House, and he calls himself a mestizo civil rights warrior. Hispanic Republicans like Ramirez would never say that they are denying their racial and cultural heritage as mestizos, as Latin Americans, as Hispanics; they take pride in their Spanish-speaking abilities and favor bilingual education and things like that. This was particularly true during the ’60s and ’70s, in those moments of civil rights activism where a lot of their claims for equal rights were based on self-conceptions as Chicanos and as nonwhites.
That shifted in the Reagan years, when Reagan rhetorically moved away from considering Mexican Americans and African Americans as minorities. He wanted to believe in a color-blind America, an America that didn’t see race, though we all know that that is also disingenuous.
But before then—during the Nixon years, even during the Ford years, to a degree—the Republican party was making overtures to Latinos as Latinos, as Hispanics, as people of Latin American descent. So, I think the Nixon head on the Aztec calendar captures really well how Hispanic Republicans have wrestled with their own cultural, ethnic, and racial identity, and how the Republican Party has made overtures to them as members of an ethnic and racial minority.
RL: I think this example captures the shift of politics toward western states, and the southwest in general. You have Goldwater, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan—all of these candidates had lifelong experience with Mexican American populations, as well as with Chicano politics itself. These candidates also had a sense of the divisions within the community and used that to their advantage. Ford is obviously the example of the opposite of this—when he ate the tamal with the husk on.
GC: Totally. In terms of hispandering, today many political advisors to a candidate will consider whether, in front of Latino audiences, their candidate should say a few words in Spanish or not. I think the general consensus is that, if you can’t do it well, then it can do more harm than good.
I also don’t know that the line between recognition of cultural racial identity and hispandering is so clear, you know? I think there are a lot of political gestures that can be read as both at the same time.
Whose Spanish, Anyway?
RL: It’s a lot like cultural appropriation, where there’s a blurred line. Can you talk a little bit about antiblackness, or whether prejudice against darker complexions, in general, played a role in the creation of a Hispanic Republican base?
GC: The first thing I’ll note is that the Republican Party likes to think of itself as the party that is against ethnic politics. So even in the ’60s, for example, it tended to be Republicans who would say things like, “Don’t call me a Mexican American. I’m not a hyphenated American; I want to be seen first and foremost as an American.” I definitely found it interesting that all Republicans played their own game of ethnic politics.
Some of the main arguments that Republicans made for why Hispanics should become Republicans, even though many had a decades-long affiliation with the Democratic Party, are (a) that the Democratic Party has ignored them, (b) that the Democratic Party only comes around when they’re seeking votes, and (c) that the Democratic Party is primarily concerned with civil rights for African Americans. And so Hispanic Republicans often distinguished between themselves and African Americans.
Hispanic Republicans would never say that the distinctions they made between themselves and African Americans stemmed from antiblack racism. They would say, rather, that this was the result of how the Democratic Party had divided them.
Hispanic Republicans would say that Nixon’s approach to civil rights was different from the Democratic Party’s approach to civil rights because the Democratic Party was all about “handouts to African Americans,” while Nixon was going to focus on their “economic uplift.”
Latinos also have their own understanding of ethnic and racial identity, based on the very different racial identities in Latin America, and what black, white, and mestizo mean in Latin America. It’s a more complicated hierarchical system that nevertheless marginalizes and discriminates against black populations. Undergrads are always struck by the idea that Afro Latin Americans can have dark skin and still think of themselves as white.
RL: Absolutely. It’s amazing to watch some Latino undergrads “become black” in college, while others have no idea there are different racial contexts.
GC: That just always strikes undergrads as paradoxical because it makes no sense to them in the context of United States politics and racial categorization. But that is part of the ethnic and racial history that Latinos bring with them from Latin America.
RL: And it differs depending on which nation the Latino migrant is from.
By the end of the book I could see where, at times, the Hispanic Republican community does gel, but for the most part the issue of statehood for Puerto Rico remains a separate theme, and anticommunism and Cuban migration remain a separate question, and the border and anti-Mexican rhetoric continue to divide the Hispanic community.
Do you think there are points where there is a Hispanic Republican block that the party speaks to? Or do you think that the Hispanic Republican community continues to be divided?
GC: This is certainly an issue that I wrestled with throughout the writing of the book: the extent to which Latinos come together as a group or remain individuals of different national groups. This is one of the main questions in the field of Latinx studies, which many scholars have tried to answer. I’m thinking about Cristina Mora’s book Making Hispanics,3 or Benjamin Francis-Fallon’s book The Rise of the Latino Vote.4
What Does Assimilation Mean?
RL: I actually named a class “Becoming Latino in the United States,” which frames the question of when—or even if—Latinos came together.
GC: It’s not that we consolidated. Gary Segura, one of the leading Latino political scientists in the country, has argued that in recent years, from the 1990s forward, there is actually a recognizable Latino ethnic identity, a pan-Latino ethnic identity.
I myself am a little more skeptical: I think it’s situational, or it happens in some cases but not all cases. There may not be such a thing as “a Latino voter” or “a Hispanic voter,” but there are millions of Hispanics who do vote and it’s important to understand why and how they vote the way they do.
The simplest answer is that yes, the different Hispanic Republican groups are perhaps first and foremost concerned with their particular issues—Puerto Rican statehood or anticommunism or border and immigration issues. But they are perfectly happy to support the issues that other Hispanic groups support, so long as the issues other groups care about don’t undermine their own.
You see this play out with Hispanic Republican strategists who advise presidential campaigns and administrations. They try to articulate the reasons why and how Hispanics are all part of the same group, whether it’s through the Spanish language or traditional family values or religion or their supposed work ethic.
I think anticommunism is probably the easiest way to think about this. When we think about anticommunism among Latinos, we think first and foremost about the Cuban or Venezuelan exiles in Miami. But other Latino groups have their own versions of anticommunism, whether they are the Puerto Rican Republicans who look at the 1950s Puerto Rican nationalists and independentistas as Marxists, or Mexican Americans who immigrated to the United States after the Mexican Revolution and argued that the 1917 Constitution was Marxist-inspired. Anticommunism is a good example of an issue that cuts across all Latino groups.
RL: Right, and it definitely helps explain the move toward the Republic Party.
GC: A counterargument to that, though, would be the debates about NAFTA, where the priorities of different groups of Hispanic Republicans conflicted with one another. Mexican American Republicans supported NAFTA because they thought it would create lots of economic opportunity and cross-border trade. But Puerto Rican Republicans opposed it because they thought that it would hurt business on the island. US companies have tax incentives for doing business in Puerto Rico, and if NAFTA created more incentives for US companies to do business in Mexico, it would take away opportunities from the island.
Cuban exiles in the United States had their own reasons for opposing NAFTA. During the Cold War, Cuba’s main trading partner was the Soviet Union, but after the Soviet Union’s collapse, investment in Cuba from Mexico increased. Cuban Americans and Cuban exiles in the United States wouldn’t support anything that promoted business with a country that supported Cuba.
RL: Could you talk about the role of the evangelical churches and the Catholic Church in promoting and creating Hispanic Republicans? Another question I have is about the place of veterans, because within my own family, many of the conservatives are veterans.
GC: In the book I actually wanted to kind of downplay particular issues like Catholicism or Cuban exile politics, because I thought that if I focused on them, I would miss a larger picture. If we’re able to say that Latinos are Republicans because they see themselves as white, or Latinos are Republicans because they’re Catholics, or Latinos are Republicans because of their military service, then it might lead us to believe we’ve got an easy way of explaining what is in fact a rather complicated phenomenon. Nevertheless, each of these issues is part of the story.
There are plenty of examples from the book of individuals who have military- or church- related stories about how they came into the Republican Party. For example, Lionel Sosa, an advertising executive from San Antonio, tells a story about how he didn’t serve in the military, but what interested him about the Republican Party was Dwight Eisenhower’s significance in the context of the 1950s. You know—the World War II general who helped the United States win the war and would continue to lead the United States in the Cold War. This was an important part of Sosa’s evolution as a Republican.
And I think my grandfather’s story is similar, because he became a US citizen by joining the United States Air Force after World War II. This sense of patriotism toward the United States, and the United States playing the role of a world leader promoting freedom and democracy—I think that’s a really important part of many Latinos’ move into the Republican Party.
RL: I found there to be a disconnect between large national organizations like the Republican National Hispanic Assembly (RNHA) and what we understand to be the base. At the RNHA, were they having those sorts of conversations about patriotism, or was that really how the locals on the ground seemed to have picked Republicanism up? I’m curious about the national level.
GC: Yes, for sure. The founders of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly had a narrative that what brought them together in the 1960s was their shared recollections of their service in World War II; they bonded over their military service.
And we know from other areas of Latino history that World War II was a watershed moment for Latinos, because it made them more politically active and enabled them to attend college in higher numbers than ever before, and maybe to buy their first homes. But we haven’t studied systematically how World War II and military service in general led Latinos to become Republicans.
RL: Beyond the Latino community itself, anyone who is part of the Republican Party should recognize that the ideas you write about, and the ways in which these individuals are presenting them, do change the Republican Party. I hope that other scholars will read this, hone in on one particular aspect of what you’ve described, and write more, because it definitely left me very excited to see future research on the topic of Hispanic Republicans.
GC: Indeed. I hope that with this book I will start a conversation, and that others will continue it. In terms of lessons to be learned, I think there are a couple, including for Republicans and the Republican Party. I could imagine a Republican picking up the book and coming to one of two different conclusions, or maybe even both. One would be: “Latinos are not naturally Democrats and, in fact, they have a long history of supporting the Republican Party. Everyone wants to say the Republican Party is so discriminatory and racist, but look, Latinos have been voting for Republicans for a long time.”
I think that’s the wrong lesson. A Republican may also read the book and say, “Our party has had a lot of problems; there have been times when we’ve been dismissive of this group, when we’ve seen them as political pawns and have only paid attention to them in the context of elections.” Or, “Look how far to the right our party has moved on immigration over the past 25 years and how we’ve alienated many Hispanics, who had been moving in our direction for decades.”
Hopefully Republican readers will gravitate more toward the second lesson than the first.
This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom.
- Henry M. Ramirez, A Chicano in the White House: The Nixon No One Knew (Henry M. Ramirez, 2014). ↩
- Manuel A. Machado, Listen Chicano! An Informal History of the Mexican American (Nelson-Hall, 1978). ↩
- G. Cristina Mora, Making Hispanics: How Activists, Bureaucrats, and Media Constructed a New American (University of Chicago Press, 2014). ↩
- Benjamin Francis-Fallon, The Rise of the Latino Vote: A History (Harvard University Press, 2019). ↩