The Latino community and the Latino vote are often thought of by politicians and described by pundits as a uniform, single-issue constituency. Senator Marco Rubio of Miami and the Castro brothers of San Antonio (state representative Joaquín and Mayor Julian) illustrate the Hispanic vote's complexity and offer a clear narrative for Hispanic political mobilization in the country over the next few years.
Rubio, who spoke at the Republican convention in Tampa and was evidently on the short list for vice-presidential nominees with Mitt Romney, was born in Miami to Cuban parents. His parents arrived in the United States in 1956 at a time of social and political turbulence when many Cubans moved from the island to South Florida, New Jersey, and other places in the U.S. Migration accelerated dramatically with Castro's — Fidel Castro's — revolution of 1959. Most who left during this exodus were direct victims of Fidel Castro's furious redistribution plan for the island: They were the landed elite, well-connected business owners and professionals, many of whom had money and contacts in the U.S.
Cubans who came to the United States — at least during the first 20 years of the ongoing revolution — received the full support and embrace of the U.S. government. Those who arrived, about 800,000 during this period, were allowed to enter the U.S. with temporary-exile status, and, after 1966, with the passage of the Cuban Refugee Adjustment Act, they could become eligible for permanent residency after a year. Thus, Cubans are unique among immigrants as their status in the United States is assured merely by reaching our shores.
Many Cuban Americans are still grateful to President Eisenhower, the Republican who closed the U.S. embassy in Havana in January 1961, and disdainful of President Kennedy, a Democrat who ordered a failed invasion of Cuba in April of the same year but refused to follow through with a bombing of Havana. To this day, hard-line Cubans living in the U.S. believe that bombing Havana would have dislodged Castro. Political alliances sometimes endure for generations, and this is one such case: Cuban Americans in South Florida have been loyal supporters of the Republican Party.
Mexican Americans, such as the Castro brothers of San Antonio, do not share the same affinity for the Republican Party due to a variety of economic and political factors. First, Mexican Americans have a much more complicated history with America's immigration system. For decades, millions of Mexicans worked as migrant workers and crisscrossed the border in concert with the demand for low-wage work in agriculture or construction.
Their numbers in the U.S. increased during the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), when more than a million Mexicans moved north. Some stayed permanently in San Antonio, Tucson, San Diego, and Los Angeles. Tens of thousands of Mexican Americans fought in the U.S. military during the Second World War; they returned to work in cities throughout the Southwest and, like the occupants of most urban centers, aligned themselves with Democratic Party politics and policies.
During the 1960s, many working-class Mexican Americans in the Southwest were animated by César Chávez, who organized workers in the Southwest and insisted on the humanity and dignity of poor agricultural workers. Chávez's followers gravitated toward the Democratic Party in America, which has been a more proactive, pro-labor, and pro-immigration party over the decades.
Marco Rubio and Julian Castro represent the next generation of Hispanics in U.S. society and politics. Nevertheless, they reflect stable political alliances that developed over generations. Rubio carries forth the Cuban-American experience, deeply rooted in Republican politics. Julian Castro, mayor of San Antonio, personifies a very different narrative, grounded in the Mexican-American story.
Both parties are fighting for the votes of "Hispanics" but the Hispanic vote should not be taken for granted or understood in monolithic, simplistic terms. The largest minority group in the nation is exerting political power in America, and both parties would benefit by taking the time to learn about the history and diversity of the Hispanic communities among us.
Bryce Ashby is a Memphis-based attorney and board member at Latino Memphis, Inc. Michael J. LaRosa is an associate professor of history at Rhodes College.