"More Hispanic Than Thou"?

"More Hispanic Than Thou"?

By Scott Conroy - October 6, 2014

Last month, New Mexico's Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Gary King, was at a private fundraiser when he shared an off-the-wall opinion about Gov. Susana Martinez, his Republican opponent.

After paraphrasing remarks he attributed to labor leader Dolores Huerta about the need for voters to distinguish candidates who have “a Latino heart” rather than ones with only a Hispanic surname, King added, “And we know that Susana Martinez does not have a Latino heart.”

That an Anglo politician felt comfortable making such a disparaging, ethnically tinged comment about the nation’s first female Hispanic governor -- one who happens to preside over the state with the highest percentage of Latinos in the country -- struck many New Mexicans as problematic. When video of King’s comments surfaced, the ensuing outrage was not confined to Martinez and her GOP allies.  

“Apparently, the organs of our body now have an ethnicity,” Raul Reyes wrote in a USA Today column that summed up the umbrage taken by many. “King's jab was misguided and disrespectful to Hispanics. If he wants to go after Martinez, he ought to stick to her record on the issues, not her heritage.”

University of New Mexico political science professor Gabriel Sanchez noted that by implying that he was more attuned to Hispanics than Martinez, King made an elemental linguistic mistake by failing to employ the grammatically correct term “Latina” in reference to a woman. He also said it could boomerang on the challenger.

 “That might have a small backlash effect, where some Latino voters say, ‘Hey wait a minute, I don’t know if I’m comfortable with that. That sounds a little bit like race baiting,’” Sanchez told the Albuquerque Journal. “It could be that they look at this and say, ‘I was thinking about voting for King, but you know what, I’m not comfortable with him challenging her ethnicity like that.”

Although the Republican Governors Association called on King to apologize, the unbowed attorney general sought to blame Martinez for the ensuing outcry, while doubling down on the personal invective: He compared her to an “attack dog.”  

King’s effort to de-Latinize Martinez’s heart has not paid dividends -- he continues to trail her by double digits in the polls. But as Reyes noted in his column, this was not the first time in our recent political discourse that a politician has sought to demean a Latino opponent by accusing him or her of not being “Hispanic enough,” whatever that means.

Last year, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said on ABC News’ “This Week” that Ted Cruz’s position on immigration reform was out of step with that shared by most of his fellow Hispanics.  This was a fair point, and an accurate one, too, but then Richardson meandered into dubious territory.

"I don't think he should be defined as a Hispanic,” the 2008 Democratic presidential candidate said of the Texas senator.
The next month, a writer for a Spanish-language publication invented a new political acronym in accusing Massachusetts GOP Senate candidate Gabriel Gomez of being a “LINO” (Latin In Name Only).

Those making such slurs against Martinez, Cruz and Gomez repeated the same rationalization: These politicians’ views were so out of step with the majority of their fellow Hispanics that they had lost the right to claim their own ethnicity. That this is a slanderous assertion by any enlightened measure does not mean it will go away any time soon. The question of being “Hispanic enough” has come up in other campaigns, too.  

As he gears up for his potential 2016 presidential campaign, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio already has had to respond to questions about whether his background as a Cuban-American Republican would resonate with the much larger Mexican-American electorate in the context of a national campaign.

“Dividing Cubans against the rest of the Hispanic community is not only absurd, it’s offensive,” Rubio told Politico a couple of years ago. And it’s not just Republicans who are being scrutinized through this peculiar lens.  

Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro -- who has been mentioned frequently as a potential 2016 Democratic vice-presidential contender -- is the son of a Hispanic political activist mother with extensive ties to the Latino community. But going back to his days as mayor of San Antonio, Castro has faced questions about whether his lack of fluency in Spanish would become a severe political liability. In an interview with RealClearPolitics last year, Castro seemed to acknowledge that it could:

“What I need to do one day is just to go to Mexico or Latin America for two months, but who has the time?” he said.

Blunt and sometimes disagreeable discussions about cultural authenticity in the political realm are not confined to the Hispanic community, either. During his swift rise to national prominence, for instance, Barack Obama faced questions about whether he had lived the “genuine” black experience in America, since his heritage as the descendant of a Kenyan immigrant was atypical.

But with so many Latino politicians ascending to the national stage in recent years, it is a particularly noticeable conversation within the vast Hispanic diaspora.  How this new generation of leaders conducts that conversation will say much about the extent to which it continues to be a part of the discourse.  

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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