The Curious Case of the Hispanic Republican

There are few participants in American politics taken less seriously than the Hispanic Republican. He or she, skeptics insist, is either a dimwitted traitor to the cause, or a figment of the imagination produced by Republican operative Houdinis. Plenty of people have taken the mention of a Hispanic Republican as the perfect cue to crack a joke. "Latins for Republicans -- it's like roaches for Raid," quipped comedian John Leguizamo at 2004 Democratic Party fundraiser.

Despite the snickering, Karl Rove and company have been serious the past few years about netting more votes from the community that once adopted the slogan "Viva Kennedy." Four months after Leguizamo's controversial comment, their efforts yielded a surprising six-point increase in Hispanic votes for President Bush.

Prior to this spring's nasty battle over immigration reform, the Republican Party had directed more funding into Spanish-language advertising, struck a conciliatory tone on creating a guest worker program, and put Hispanics in visible local and national positions of power. Their inclusive approach seemed to be slowly chipping away at a base Democrats assumed was safe.

Now here's the shocker: If you thought the recent extremist rhetoric coming from some Republicans on immigration would finally prove the party to be a haven for racists and Hispano-phobes, a new survey by the Pew Hispanic Center indicates otherwise. It found that Republicans hadn't suffered a "significant slippage" in affiliation with Hispanics and no discernable increase in the number of newly registered Hispanic Democrats. Other surveys have shown a slightly more negative response to the GOP. While this polling offers a surface-level perspective of the changing relationship between Hispanics and both major political parties, a new book by Bill Minutaglio is somewhat of a case study.

"The President's Counselor" is a careful biography of Alberto Gonzales, the nation's first Hispanic attorney general and a confidante of George W. Bush. Minutaglio has the challenging task of charting the life of a man who is not only tight-lipped with the press, but also with his closest friends. As a result, the author pieces together a life story based on speeches and memos, interviews with ancillary characters and articles penned by other journalists. Though it sometimes borders on repetitive and two-dimensional, "The President's Counselor" is important at this crossroads in American culture because in its analysis of Gonzales, it pins down and tries to understand the supposedly fictional creature that is the Hispanic Republican.

Son of migrant workers

The son of migrant workers and a brother to seven other siblings, three of whom never finished high school, Gonzales went on to attend Rice University and Harvard Law School, eventually joining a prestigious law firm in Houston and handling cases for Enron. In every immigrant -- or son-of-immigrant -- Horatio Alger story there are details that become shorthand for the person's improbable success. When political parties use them in tear-jerking convention speeches, they often give way to codified Hallmark sentiments that lose all sense of texture and nuance. In Gonzales' case, Minutaglio lists the following buzzphrases: worked in the fields with parents, sold cokes at Rice football games, and grew up "impoverished" in a two-bedroom house (remember the seven brothers and sisters) without hot water and a telephone line.

With knowledge of these telling details, to which close friends of Gonzales aren't privy until President Bush begins mentioning them publicly, Gonzales' gravitation to the Republican Party begins to make sense. It's too easy to argue that Gonzales betrays a legacy begat by union organizer and farmworker César Chávez when the promise of money and prestige are dangled before him, though Minutaglio suggests the incentives may have been a factor considering Gonzales' desire to "maximize earning potential."

Rather, Gonzales' resistance to embracing the disadvantages of his former life is in line with the Republican credo that focuses less on one's hardships and more on successes. "It's clear," Minutaglio writes of Gonzales, "... that he had come to view his life as often being almost entirely self-directed -- that he had put himself in the right place at the right time to break free of his miserably impoverished upbringing."

Democrats, on the other hand, tend to emphasize the adversity narrative, seeing it as an impetus to effect social change and awareness. But some Hispanic Republicans view the Democratic approach to racial politics as insulting. Jim Lopez, chair of the California Republican National Hispanic Assembly and a former Democrat, once said, "When [Hispanics] tell me, El partido Demócrata es el partido de los pobres," -- a popular refrain from the labor organizing days that means the Democratic Party is the party of the poor -- "Yo les respondo, 'Sí y así nos quieren mantener, pobres y confundidos.'" (I respond to them, 'Yes, and this is the way they want to keep you, poor and confused.'")

It is a shame for minorities of all stripes that Gonzales has yet to candidly discuss his political leanings in the context of his ethnic identity, and also that Minutaglio stops short of giving a concise answer. The author does, however, hint at how assimilation -- a process ethnic minorities can't avoid no matter their political affiliation -- may have made Gonzales feel more at home in the Republican Party. He shaves his mustache to appear less Hispanic, trades Catholic mass for an evangelical service, and ceases to speak Spanish. There are even rumors that he hired his brother to mow his lawn.

While these changes may entrench him deeper in GOP culture, it is his alliance and friendship with Bush that solidifies his loyalty to the party. In a 2004 commencement speech at Rice University, Gonzales asked, "How would you live your life differently, starting today, this very moment, if you knew that one day you would befriend a president?"

This is a heady question for anyone, much less a second generation Mexican-American.

Wholehearted footsoldier

In 1990, Minutaglio writes, the formerly discreet Gonzales was a "wholehearted GOP footsoldier" handing out campaign literature. The following year, his professionalism caught the attention of Ken Lay, who handpicked Gonzales to serve on the legal team for the Republican National Convention that Houston hosted in 1992. It wasn't long before both Bush Sr. and Bush Jr. recognized Gonzales' potential to be a faithful servant and a visible poster boy for Hispanic Republicans.

In 1995, he agreed to join then Gov. Bush in Austin as his general counsel. After that, Gonzales' career moves forward at a dizzying pace. In a span of five years, Gonzales goes from general counsel to secretary of state to Texas Supreme Court justice. When Bush moves to the White House, Gonzales follows as his general counsel, amidst talk that he might become the nation's first Hispanic Supreme Court justice. Eventually, of course, he becomes attorney general.

This son of migrant workers has no delusions about the fact that his ethnicity and background catapulted him to the front of the line, though Bush and fellow like-minded Republicans who see the value of having a Hispanic in power, never treat him as an affirmative action candidate.

"Like most ethnic minorities, I probably have been hurt and helped by my ethnicity," Gonzales once said in an interview. "And the way I look at it, hopefully those things even out in the end. Whatever the reasons I have been given an opportunity, what is more important is what I do with it."

What is most disheartening about Gonzales' tale is that he uses his unthinkable opportunities to expedite executions and justify torture. Watching him in action, working "slavishly" for Bush, as Minutaglio puts it, really dispels the notion held by most liberals that ethnic minorities cannot have conservative beliefs because of their presumed life experiences.

It's also troubling when this line of thinking leads to stripping someone like Gonzales of his ethnic identity -- calling him a "coconut" (brown on the outside, white on the inside) because he defies liberal conceptions of how a Hispanic should behave and vote. The point of courting Hispanic voters, which both parties seem to be missing at the moment, is to understand and address their complex needs instead of just trying to rack up and hoard their votes. As for Alberto Gonzales' story, only time will tell if it is a harbinger of things to come.

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