COLUMBIA, SOUTH CAROLINA – Ted Cruz could be the first Hispanic president in U.S. history, but that’s not how he wants to be known.
Cruz, whose father was born in Cuba, admits that his Spanish-speaking skills are “lousy.” He offers only the occasional “muchisimas gracias” on the campaign trail.
His positions on immigration, including ending birthright citizenship and building a border wall, put him at odds with many Hispanic voters and advocacy groups.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio shares some of the same conservative positions on immigration, some of which antagonize the Hispanic community — an increasingly powerful demographic in American elections.
In appealing to conservatives in mostly white Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states to vote in the race to collect delegates for the Republican Party’s nominating convention, it wasn’t necessary for Cruz or Rubio to appeal directly to Hispanic voters.
But that will change quickly in Nevada on Feb. 23, where Latinos make up 28 percent of the population, although they made up only 5 percent of Republican voters in the 2012 caucuses.
Cruz’s top strategist, Jason Johnson, says the Texas senator can win the general election by capturing just 30 percent of Hispanics, or not much more than the 27 percent Mitt Romney got in his failed 2012 White House bid. Cruz is counting on bringing out millions of mostly white evangelical Christians and working-class voters who sat out the past two elections.
“In the Democratic Party, you’re the Hispanic guy, you’re the African-American guy, you’re whatever your little bloc is, you’re pigeonholed and simply a quota representative,” Cruz told The Associated Press in a November interview. “One of the reasons I’m a Republican is because we treat people as individuals. … When I ran for Senate in Texas, I didn’t run as: ‘Vote for the Hispanic guy.'”
As a teenager in Cuba, his father, Rafael Cruz, joined an uprising against Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, during which time he was arrested and beaten. In 1957 — two years before Fidel Castro took power — the elder Cruz fled Cuba for the U.S.
Ted Criz told AP that nothing sums up why he ran for office more than his father’s journey.
“Being the son of an immigrant who has fled oppression makes you appreciate how precious and fragile our freedom is, and is integral to who I am,” Cruz said. “But I think a great many of Hispanics in this country are tired of being stereotyped or taken for granted by the Democratic Party.”
Cruz was born Rafael Edward Cruz in 1970. His parents spoke only English when around him. Cruz changed his name to Ted when he was 13, infuriating his father.
By distancing himself from his cultural heritage, Cruz is opening himself to criticism from the other Cuban-American in the race. In last weekend’s debate, the fluent Rubio criticized Cruz for not speaking Spanish. Cruz lashed back in heavily accented Spanish.
Alfonso Aguilar, president of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, said Cruz “doesn’t fundamentally understand the Latino community.” The Washington-based group of national conservative and Republican leaders has criticized Cruz for his opposition to legalizing people who are in the county illegally.
Cruz and Rubio “have turned their back on our community” and are catering to the anti-immigrant fringe of the Republican Party, said Dolores Huerta, a longtime civil rights activist.
“We can’t vote for somebody just because they happen to be of Latino descent,” Huerta said.