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Why Hispanics and Republicans Need Each Other
By Leslie Sanchez
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2007 Leslie Sanchez
All rights reserved.
someone like me
U.S. Senator Mel Martinez, on the November morning after he was named Chairman of the Republican National Committee.
I came here as a child. I was nurtured by the compassion of American families as a foster child. When my parents came here [later, from Cuba], I relived the immigrant experience. Because my parents were in their late forties, they didn't know the language, they didn't know the customs or how to go from A to Z living in America. I was acculturated; I'd learned the language and understood what America was about so I became head of the household.
I helped my father get a job and find a home for us to live in. I was the one who was taking them around, showing them how to shop, showing them how to organize their lives.
I taught them how to make it in America, being responsible and having car insurance—since that's such a big deal in our households. They were making ends meet by paying rent, but just as soon as we could we wanted to own a home. We didn't think it was possible, but I helped give my dad the gumption, the idea that "yes, we can have a mortgage."
Years later, ... my dad would say things like "Tenemos casa propio." [We have our own home.] You know? "En los Estados Unidos, una casa propio!" It meant, we've arrived! It really was his way of saying "We're far away from home, but we're back to where we were."
I was a Democrat most of my adult life. I didn't leave my party, and we're not suggesting you leave yours. I am telling you that what I felt was that the leadership of the Democratic Party had left me and millions of patriotic Democrats in this country who believed in freedom. Walk with us down that path of hope and opportunity, and together we can and we will lift America up to meet our greatest days.
—Ronald Reagan, September 19, 1984
Is it true what they say about Latinos? In a word, Si!
Hispanics are affectionate, hard working and loyal. We drink too many cervezas, eat chicharones, and wear tight, brightly colored Spandex so that we look thin. We never eat a meal without queso, we consider heavy cologne and layers of gold jewelry to be fashion essentials, and we bear the face of Jesus and la Virgen on our tattoos and bumper stickers.
We are all bilingual, never on time, watch Spanish telenovelas and drive lowriders. We are overly affectionate (did I mention that already?) and we value big families. We make the sign of the cross in desperate situations and we spend more money than we make.
Yes, everything you know about Hispanics is true—we are the Omero Simpsones of American culture.
That is, until you actually meet us.
I'm a fifth generation Mexican-American. I eat organic chicken, not arroz con pollo. I speak to my mother in English and she answers in Spanglish—a language best described by comic Bill Santiago as having "two vocabularies and half the grammar." Folks in my family are the last to find Iraq on a world map, but also the first to join the Army when our country is in danger. We pray religiously and perhaps curse a bit too religiously as well.
I don't have one identity but many: I am a conservative, a lover of chocolate and a practitioner of yoga. I am a Tejana, an assimilated small business owner, a political hack, a friend, a shopper and a Latina who always calls herself American first.
But that was all cast into doubt the day I moved to Washington.
It was a bitterly cold evening in January 1994 when I boarded a Continental flight to Washington, D.C., holding two personal checks and a rosary, and wearing jet black cowboy boots. In the Latino way of eternal optimism, I had failed to appreciate what it would mean to land in a blizzard. Catapulting sideways down an icy runway in pitch darkness with the screeching sounds of metal and ice beneath you, it's amazing the things you think of. I grabbed the hand of the woman beside me and held it tightly.
"If we go, at least we'll be together," I said, only half-kidding. It was the instant shake-and-bake way Latinos form relationships. I knew that if it was our time, at least we'd be going as familia.
Moments later, still thrilled to be alive, I followed a trail of weary passengers through the late-night silence of the airport terminal. I watched as the people ahead of me huddled together, then leaned forward to trigger the automatic doors. One, two, three ... go! It looked like a Nordic ski jump competition as the frigid wind burst through.
Now let's not be dramatic, I thought. How bad could it be? The doors slid open and a blast of ice, wind and snow tossed me sideways onto another stranger. I'd walked into a life-sized snow globe!
Frantic at the bitterness of Washington's blustery winter, I flagged down one of the few cab drivers bold or delusional enough (I don't know which) to drive through the sea of white that had settled over the ground that night. As we made our way slowly through the slush, the driver tried to reassure me, "Good thing we have enough weight in the back to keep us steady."
Did he really say that? But I've been dieting!
Determined not to lose the euphoria of surviving my near death experience, I kept smiling. "Yep!"
Throughout the slow, dark ride to my final destination, I thought about my decision to come to Washington. I had just sold all I owned to get here, and I wasn't going back. There was nowhere else I wanted to be.
This step was my life's greatest undertaking yet, at the age of 24. My trip had a purpose beyond just finishing my education and landing a good job: I had to believe that someone like me could make it in Washington. People like me could become the advocates, the champions for a stronger, better America—something all of us could share.
My trip to Washington came after four years of selling P. F. Collier encyclopedias. It may sound odd, but my time as a salesperson had crystallized so many of my beliefs and so much of the optimism I had for our country's future. I had sold books to rich families and poor ones, newlyweds and families with children. Some lived in trailer parks and others in mansions. All told, I sold books in 23 states and more counties than I can remember.
It's not a glamorous job, and nothing you would do for the sake of stability (we were paid straight commission—you don't sell, you don't eat). You had to have a passion for it, though, because you can't sell what you don't love. Dogs would bite you, kids would kick you. It was all about the heat, the late-night truck-stop cuisine, the cheap hotels, the time away from home (about 20 days a month), the worn-out shoes and the constant need to perform.
Yet I really considered it an indoor job. I loved the families and their willingness to be open about their most private hopes, aspirations and perceived personal shortcomings. Talk of education built our bonds. Regardless of race, financial circumstance or geography, we shared the value of what a quality education provided—a better life for ourselves and for our families. I felt I was selling hope, so that these families could dream bigger dreams for their children.
When I stopped selling books and jumped into politics I found the same calling. Selling candidates is much like selling books, only the payoff is different.
After working for two dozen Republican political campaigns in Texas, I learned about an internship program in Washington with a conservative think tank that trained young leaders. I applied and was accepted. This was my break. I also scrambled to apply to The George Washington University, to finish my education. "G-Dub," as it is known locally, was close to my internship and accessible by public transportation. With 26 community college credit hours on my transcript, I sent in my application, sold all my belongings, set a small savings account aside for my mother and grandmother and boarded a plane to Washington. I did not even know if I would be accepted to the university, but I knew I was not returning home.
And there I was, sliding about in the back of a cab in Northern Virginia. After what seemed an ice-covered eternity, the cab driver took all of my worldly possessions, which I had packed into two over-stuffed suitcases, and dropped them at the front door of my new home, an intern house in northern Virginia. As I attempted to traverse the treacherous ice toward the door in my cowboy boots, it occurred to me that my idea to arrive as a confident Texas woman could backfire.
I managed to get out of the car and cling precariously to the icy fence post, struggling to keep my balance and kicking up ice and snow with myboots as I did so. Standing at the front door, with a look that could only be construed as bewilderment, were my new house parents, an impatient cab driver and a growing crowd of fellow interns.
Seconds before I finally crawled on my hands to the front door, I yelled, "Hi! Nice to meet you! This isn't quite what I expected."
From the looks on their faces, I could tell that they thought the same. In South Texas, we expect floods or hurricanes, but not ice storms—and I'm not talking about the weather.
* * *
I was the first of two children born to Mexican American parents at the tail end of the 1960s. We lived in Corpus Christi, Texas, a town translated from Latin to mean the "Body of Christ," which is considered the gateway to the Texas Rio Grande Valley. My father worked in maintenance, my mother as a store cashier.
It was an age of cultural liberation. Seventy million children from the postwar baby-boom generation had moved away from the conservative 1950s to witness growth in the NASA space program, the start of the modern gay-rights movement with the Stonewall riots in New York, Woodstock, and the first military draft lottery in the United States since World War II.
Isolated from the main cultural centers north of our city boundaries, we lived like other Mexican American families throughout the southwest. With little to distract us, education became our top priority. Our mothers would walk us to one-story elementary schools where we would speak in English but learn words like pájaro (bird) and árbol (tree) in Spanish class one hour a day.
Like many Tejanos, our parents dreamt in brown and white, with their economic reality intertwined with their aspirations. On Saturday afternoons, Mom would pack our family into our canary-yellow Toyota Celica to drive along the winding coastline on Ocean Drive, where the "rich" people lived. We'd gaze at their spacious art-deco homes.
"Here's where the doctors live," my mother would say, as if no other profession were worthy. We would sit in silence, wondering what it was like inside.
I think of the work and jobs that defined us. One of my father's seven siblings, Uncle Julian, owned a carpet store and drove a red Lincoln Town Car. Our compradres—godparents—owned a used car lot and lived in a large brick home, which was in itself a sign of success. Uncle Robert, my father's twin, worked at the naval air station. Every man in the family was a military veteran.
In the early 1980s, Robert did what was unthinkable to us and divorced his first wife. Later he wed a young, voluptuous, conservative-minded Latina named Blanca, who was one of the hardest working women I would come to know. The fair-skinned beauty was funny, with bright eyes, a broad smile and wore no fewer than half a dozen gold crucifixes around her neck. A devout Catholic (except, ahem, for the Catholic rules on divorce), Blanca kept a mammoth glow-in-the-dark Rosary with beads the size of billiard balls hanging in a closet near the bedrooms. At the age of 12, I stayed the night at their house. Late that night, groping through the dark for the bathroom, I opened the wrong door, only to be startled by an enormous, glowing crucified Jesus. For just a moment I was sure that the Second Coming was upon us!
Blanca balanced two jobs to make enough money so their two boys could attend Catholic school, the first staple of Latino economic success. Raised poor, she had eventually become the primary breadwinner for her family. Years later, she confessed that as a young teenager she used to care and clean for wealthy, older white women in their homes.
"It was work you never want to do," she would tell me, and then she would look me dead in the eye: "Finish high school."
I remember feeling that Blanca did not fit in with the family. She was a renaissance Latina, bold and opinionated. Other women whispered about her clothes and makeup when she walked by. She did not care, and that alone may have sparked more curious gossip. But Blanca was committed to her family, and pressed me particularly to push ahead, despite the machismo of the culture we lived in.
Mexican machismo—you can't escape it. It's the thump-your-chest, testosterone-driven male chauvinism of which Spanish-language telenovelas (soap operas) are made. To some men of Mexican descent, it's a badge of honor to be called machista. It's not the kind of thing young Hispanic girls talk about, but it's woven into our society.
Years later, I had the privilege of attending a luncheon in Washington with Marta Sahagún de Fox, the former first lady of Mexico, and I asked her, with all of her successes in promoting early childhood education, what were her biggest challenges. Her answer? To get families who live in the rural parts of Mexico, particularly the fathers, to buy notebooks and pencils for their daughters and send them to school. For boys, school was a priority. For girls, it was not. Removed by hundreds of miles and five generations from Mexico, old ways died hard.
Our mothers and aunts, with limited education, traditionally worked as teachers' assistants, cafeteria managers and bank loan officers, or sometimes at the late and weekend shifts at the HEB grocery. I think of the countless times I would be checking out of the line only to see a face I knew.
My mother, a 25-year employee at JCPenney's, was asked one day to give the store-closing announcement, which required repeated warnings to customers to head for the check-out. The sales associates could not stop grinning at her thick accent—every five minutes she kept saying, "Thank you for ch opping at JCPenney's."
When it came to politics, our family was decidedly Democratic. My second grade class was once asked to compile a collection of sentimental pictures and bring them to class for a special craft project. Mom cut out a large picture of the Carter family—Jimmy and Roselyn, smiling with a young, red-haired girl sitting on their laps. It had likely come straight from the pages of the holiday issue of Good Housekeeping.
"Here, mija, look ... for your class!" She said. "See, her name is Amy. She's just like you!"
"But Mom," I objected. "Our house doesn't look like that!" (Come to think of it, this may have been one of the early traumatic experiences that made me a Republican.)
Two days later I came home with my creation: a padded seat made of two brown grocery bags glued together, stuffed with newspaper and decorated with the pictures we collected. We covered the seat in thick plastic and then stitched the seams with thick brown string. On one side were the photo clippings I had collected: Raggedy Ann, a large cutout of Sesame Street's Mr. Snuffleupagus, a family photo from my birthday party and an image of Benji, our new golden-haired puppy. On the other side was the photo my mother had given me, the smiling Jimmy Carter and his family. Out of respect for Mom, but still having no idea what I shared in common with these people, I decided that's the side I'd sit on.
We were a Democratic family, and so it was only natural that I would rebel and announce at the age of 16 that I was a Republican—at least that's the way my father saw it. The day I announced to him my chosen political affiliation, he had one of those looks of disbelief: "She's either gone mad or she just needs a swift kick in the pants."
My friends and acquaintances did not respond much better. "You were cool. I thought I liked you."
But, for me, being Republican came naturally. The face of the Democratic Party I knew was Gov. Ann Richards, the loud, abrasive white-haired lady with a sharp tongue. It was rare to see her and not think she was picking a fight with someone. Democrats, I'd come to believe, were sour pusses.
The other active Democrats I knew of always overwhelmed me with their sense of entitlement. I have early memories of Democratic events in Texas, at which a group of Hispanics or "Chicanos" would sit together on one side of the room commiserating about how bad life had come to be. "'They' need to be doing more for us." My mom would use that term often: "Mija, that's what 'They' are wearing." But who was this mysterious "They," and why were we depending on "Them"?
To be sure, my family probably could have used a little help from "Them," or anyone else. As a teenager, I lived the American dream in reverse. I went from middle class to working poor in the blink of an eye when, after 23 years of marriage, my parents divorced. Dad got the house; mom got a one-bedroom apartment. Having seen my father leave my mother, I was not about to do the same. I asked him if I could live with her until she was established, and he responded by packing all of my belongings into Hefty trash bags and leaving them on the driveway.
Just like that, I had been cast out of a middle-class existence and into poverty. We were so poor that I came to know many of the local repo men personally. (That came in handy the day "Big John" let me finish my cereal before he hauled away the kitchen table.) And the worst part was that, in the Latino tradition of denial, Mom would never let us know this was going to happen, so as not to upset us until the latest moment possible. So every three months or so, movers would show up at the door in matching t-shirts that barely covered their beer bellies and demand their merchandise.
We had our own way of paying for things, termed "Latino" financing. The electricity was disconnected almost monthly, our car repossessed with alarming frequency. In my stubborn persistence not to switch from the good school to the inferior one, the drive back and forth from the rich neighborhood (where my school was) to the poor neighborhood was a constant reminder of how hard life had become.
Excerpted from Los Republicanos by Leslie Sanchez. Copyright © 2007 Leslie Sanchez. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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