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Rubio and Cruz diverge in approach to their Hispanic identity

MIAMI >> One candidate, Marco Rubio, nurtured by the sprawling Cuban-American community here, bounces effortlessly between two cultures — fritas and hamburgers, Spanish and English — in a city so comfortably bilingual that news conferences pivot between the two languages.

The other, Ted Cruz, is partial to cowboy boots, oversize belt buckles, hard-right politics and the fire-and-brimstone style of the Baptist Church. Cruz, a rare Cuban-American outlier in a state where Hispanic usually means Mexican-American, attended overwhelmingly white Christian schools in Houston and prefers Spanglish to Spanish.

Together, Sens. Rubio and Cruz, of Florida and Texas, represent a watershed moment in American politics: Two Hispanics running as top-tier candidates for president, and increasingly gunning for each other, in what one Latino conservative has dubbed “the yuca primary,” referring to the popular Cuban staple and an acronym for young urban Cuban-American. Their collisions on defense, immigration and other issues formed one of the main story lines at Tuesday’s Republican debate. The two have emerged as perhaps the leading alternatives to Donald Trump.

But this year’s campaign tale has not been the kind of Hispanic coming-of-age story many Latinos had expected, particularly given their growing numbers and influence in the polls.

Three years after Republicans vowed to do a better job courting Latinos in the wake of their 2012 presidential defeat, the party has done the opposite as immigrants come under repeated assault by Trump.

The harsh tone and the increasingly restrictive policies on immigration that have been floated have complicated the prospects of Cruz and Rubio who, as Latinos, had a head start with Hispanic voters.

“If you don’t have a positive, constructive tone, you will have a hard time getting support from Latinos,” said Alfonso Aguilar, the executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, who also said that the two men, and Cruz in particular, must do more to address Latino sensitivities. “Hispanics won’t vote for someone just because they’re Hispanic.”

This week, two liberal Hispanic groups rolled out radio and online advertisements tethering Cruz and Rubio to Trump and criticizing them as anti-Latino, a tactic Democrats hope will dampen Latino support for them in the general election. To win the White House, candidates probably need to capture about 40 percent of the Hispanic vote, political analysts say; in 2012, Mitt Romney stumbled with 27 percent.

Hispanics in the United States are far from monolithic, although most vote for Democrats. As conservative Republican Cuban-Americans running for the presidency, Cruz and Rubio, both 44, represent the diversity of Latinos in the United States and the degree to which their voters are not pledged to one party. The two, who make a point of playing down their ethnic identity, offer a departure from the more familiar Hispanic narrative of, say, a Mexican-American Democrat from Texas.

Some view the fact that they appeal to conservative voters in places like Iowa and New Hampshire, where few Latinos live, as progress.

“We’re in a new phase now — in some sense, ideology appears to be trumping ethnicity,” said Henry Cisneros, a Democrat and the former mayor of San Antonio, who served as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development in the Clinton administration.

The similarities between the two candidates are striking. Both men are first-generation Americans of Cuban descent, born five months apart. Both come from staunchly anti-Castro families that fled Cuba before the revolution. And both embrace conservative positions on issues including abortion, guns, the minimum wage and health care.

But the differences between the two candidates, shaped by geography, upbringing and community, are at least as compelling. In their style, policies on immigration and approach to their Hispanic identities — traits that can make or break their success in courting both Latino and non-Latino voters — the two sharply diverge.

Many of Rubio’s formative years were spent in bicultural Miami in the 1970s and 1980s; linking arms with his Cuban-American identity came naturally to him. Miami is home to the largest Cuban-American population outside Cuba, and its presence transformed the city into the unofficial capital of Latin America. A majority of Cubans here are Republican and fiercely anti-Castro — positions that are evident in the anti-engagement Cuba policies of both Rubio and Cruz.

Tyranny, to them, is personal.

Rubio’s father and mother married in Cuba when they were young and arrived in Miami in 1956, hoping for better — better jobs, better prospects and better dreams for their children, a common immigrant sentiment. Fidel Castro’s revolution in 1959 dampened plans to return home, Rubio said in his 2012 book, “An American Son.” So they stayed. His father had a career tending bar, and his mother worked as a maid.

For Rubio, assimilation meant embracing his American and Cuban sides with equal gusto. Celebrating Noche Buena with lechon asado — Christmas Eve with marinated pork — and then watching the Miami Dolphins on New Year’s Day. Speaking Spanish on Univision, English on Fox. Riffing on rap and dancing to Cuban music.

Papá, his grandfather, who tended to Rubio’s Cuban side during the family’s six years in Las Vegas, made an endless stream of cafecitos, or Cuban coffee, told him about Cuban history and had Rubio read a Spanish-language newspaper aloud so “I would learn to speak his native language correctly,” Rubio wrote.

Nelson Diaz, a former aide to Rubio and now the chairman of the Republican Party in Miami-Dade County, said of Rubio: “He is American 100 percent, but he is very in touch with his Cuban background.”

In West Miami, where Rubio began his political career and lives surrounded by Hispanic immigrants, he showed his cultural dexterity at a recent rally by joking that he would bring a Cuban pork roasting box to Washington. “Vamos a llevar una Caja China a la Casa Blanca,” Rubio said. His wife, Jeanette, who is Colombian-American, stood nearby.

It is this version of Rubio that has drawn Latinos to his corner, even as his tap dance on immigration continues to dampen enthusiasm. “He clearly understands and has lived the story of the immigrant,” said Javier Palomarez, president of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “Marco gets it.”

With so many here touched by the vagaries of immigration policy, most in Miami want to improve the law. Recognizing this, Rubio joined Democrats in writing an immigration reform bill in 2013 that created a path to citizenship and fortified border security. For this, Rubio earned widespread praise.

After fierce backlash from conservatives and Tea Party supporters, though, Rubio quickly distanced himself from the bill and moved to emphasize border security and enforcement as a priority. This angered Hispanics who viewed it as an attempt to placate the conservative base. They also have criticized Rubio for failing to defend Latinos more robustly from Trump’s attacks.

Cruz, who unlike Rubio won his Senate seat with relatively tepid Latino support, faces an even more arduous task wooing Latino voters. His positions on immigration and his reluctance to embrace his Latino roots have hurt him among Hispanics from both parties, political experts said. Cruz supports squeezing out unauthorized immigrants by tightening enforcement, temporarily freezing immigration levels and changing the 14th Amendment to end birthright citizenship for the children of unauthorized immigrants.

Even Latino Republicans have been unsparing in their criticism of Cruz.

“I don’t think that Latinos in Texas think that he identifies strongly enough as a Latino himself, even though he is,” said Lionel Sosa, a Texas media consultant and an influential Hispanic Republican who said he would not vote for Cruz. “I’m not sure that Hispanic Republicans really believe that Ted Cruz represents them and their values and their issues.”

Cruz grew up in the 1970s and 1980s in Houston, where he attended schools and lived in a county with scarcely any Cuban-Americans. A self-described “geeky kid,” Cruz changed his Spanish-sounding name, Rafael Edward Cruz, as a teenager.

In his autobiography, “A Time for Truth,” published in 2015, Cruz described how, growing up, Rafael turned into Rafaelito and then Felito. “The problem with that name was that it seemed to rhyme with every major corn chip on the market,” Cruz wrote. “Fritos, Cheetos, Doritos and Tostitos — a fact that other young children were quite happy to point out.”

His preference for Ted, a suggestion from Cruz’s Irish-American mother, infuriated his father, Rafael, who in 1957 fled Cuba for Texas after being arrested and beaten by agents for Fulgencio Batista, the Cuban dictator. “He viewed it as a rejection of him and his heritage, which was not my intention,” Cruz wrote. For two years, his father refused to call him Ted. Today, his father serves as his son’s Spanish-speaking surrogate.

The name change is but one example of how Cruz has de-emphasized his Latino identity. Unlike Rubio, Cruz had only his father and a few relatives to connect him to the island, its language and traditions. Once his father became a born-again Christian, religion, not ethnicity, appeared to dominate the Cruz household.

“His approach to all the people with whom we interacted was who they were, not what they were,” said David K. Panton, Cruz’s former roommate at Princeton University and Harvard Law School.

On the stump, Cruz has embraced his Cuban father’s story, more for what it says about America than what it says about immigrants. His father fled Cuba with $100 sewn into his underwear and worked as a dishwasher to help pay tuition at the University of Texas at Austin. “America, quite simply, saved my father,” Cruz wrote.

The story is a poignant one, but many Latinos have said it falls flat for one reason: The pride Cruz feels for his father is not one he extends to the larger immigrant community.

“He doesn’t do anything to suggest to people that he is a Latino senator from Texas and that he is representing the Latino constituency, the majority of which is Mexican-American,” said state Sen. Jose Rodríguez, D-Texas. “He doesn’t identify with the Mexican-American community. The Mexican-American community doesn’t identify with him.”

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