WASHINGTON The new year began with an avalanche of Republican retrospectives: What went wrong? What must the GOP do?
In attempting to navigate my own thoughts, I keep bumping into advice my father gave me a long time ago: “Learn Spanish. You will need it to survive in the world you will inherit.”
Living in Florida then, the trends were becoming obvious. They were literally in our neighborhood, where in 1960 a recently arrived Cuban family moved in a few doors down. We became close friends and eventually, as much out of fascination and affection as pragmatism, I did learn their language – and they mine.
What was clear to my father even then is that our hemisphere could not long be segregated by language. Nor, apparently, can we be kept apart by borders, no matter how many fences we build or drones we deploy.
Meanwhile, and not incidentally, our new, 113th U.S. Congress has welcomed 31 Hispanic members. Three are in the Senate – two Republicans and one Democrat.Of the 28 Latinos in the House, all but five are Democrats.
Why so few Republicans? Therein lurks the relevant question for the GOP and perhaps the most important answer to the puzzle: Learn Spanish.
I offer my father’s imperative not literally but as metaphor. When even some of the Latino candidates don’t speak their forebears’ tongue, one needn’t feign fluency. Though endearing at times, nothing sounds more ridiculous – or inauthentic – than a politician pandering with a faux accent or foreign phrase.
Metaphorically, learning Spanish means learning people. Knowing them as human beings, not as statistics on a game board. Recognizing their humanity and finding new ways to talk about immigration that don’t alienate entire swaths of the population.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said it best shortly after the November election: “If we want people to like us, we have to like them first.”
Jindal, an Indian-American, should know. The unlikeliest of good ol’ boy governors, he has managed to transcend race and ethnicity in his home state to become incoming chair of the Republican Governors Association.
The GOP was always a natural home for Latinos, who tend to be conservative and Catholic, though decreasingly so. Fewer than 60 percent of second-generation Latinos are Catholic, according to the Pew Research Center.
Even so, the Republican narrative of hard work, entrepreneurship and personal responsibility would seem to appeal to recent immigrants who are attracted by those very opportunities. Why aren’t Hispanics hearing the GOP call? Because this aspirational language is drowned out by the rhetoric of rejection.
You don’t need a dictionary to translate the following: Last June, Obama, who won 71 percent of the Hispanic vote, announced reprieves from deportation of young immigrants who were here illegally, while Mitt Romney promised to end the reprieves if elected.
Whatever the legitimate arguments on either side, one shows heart and the other doesn’t. Recognizing this deficit of spirit, rising non-white Republican stars are beginning to form a constellation of “opportunity conservatism.” The ideas aren’t lacking, they say, but the messaging has been disastrous.
Whether these new ways of communication ultimately can change the complexion of the GOP remains to be seen, but the future is clear enough: Lose the Hispanic vote, and you lose.
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