Interview with Geraldo Cadava, author of The Hispanic Republican: The Shaping of an American Political Identity, from Nixon to Trump (Ecco, 2020)

Latinx Talk: Please tell us about yourself and what prepared you for the work you accomplish in The Hispanic Republican?

GC: I was born in Tucson, Arizona, not far from the U.S.-Mexico border, not far from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, where both of my grandfathers were stationed. My mom’s side of the family is white, from various European countries. My dad’s side of the family is Latinx, from the Philippines, Panama, Colombia, and Mexico. This background has led me to always think about the closeness between the United States and Mexico, bi-racialism and multi-culturalism, and how the military has shaped the lives of Latinos and working-class white Americans. My background led me directly to the subject of my first book, Standing on Common Ground: The Making of a Sunbelt Borderland, which is about the Arizona-Sonora borderland since World War II. My upbringing and Standing on Common Ground, in turn, led me directly to my interest in Hispanic conservatism. And let me just say right up front, that when I’m talking about conservative Latinos, I’ll use the term Hispanic, because that’s what they’ve preferred to call themselves.

My Hispanic grandfather served in the U.S. Air Force from the 1940s through the 1960s. He joined at the tail end of World War II, served in the Korean War and the early years of the Vietnam War, and retired in the late 1960s. He is a Republican, and I’ve debated politics with him my entire life. He voted for a Republican for the first time in 1980—for Ronald Reagan—because Reagan promised to lower taxes and put more money into his bi-weekly paycheck. My grandfather, Geraldo Cadava Jr., after whom I’m named, worked in the silver mines surrounding Tucson at the time. But after the 1980 election, he came to embrace Republican positions wholesale—everything including border enforcement, welfare, national security, and other issues. My debates with him in a very real way prepared me to write The Hispanic Republican, because, ever since I was a child, I’ve been arguing with a Latino who sincerely believes different things than I do.

Writing Standing on Common Ground also prepared me to write The Hispanic Republican. In my first book, I wrote about a department store owner from Tucson named Alex Jácome Jr. He was a conservative Republican, friends with Barry Goldwater, foe of César Chávez (the UFW leader didn’t know Jácome, but Jácome spent much ink in letters to Goldwater railing against Chávez—he was a power hungry Communist, more self-interested than interested in advancing the cause of agricultural workers). Jácome was against unions, against the Chicano Movement, against a minimum wage for the employees of his store. He believed that, like a patrón, he took such good care of them that they didn’t need such labor protections. Anyway, he was a curiosity to me: a Mexican American Republican, not a Cuban exile whose political beliefs were shaped in the crucible of the Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union. I guess I knew from my Grandpa Cadava that such people existed, but I hadn’t encountered them in an archive before. I wanted to know more. The Hispanic Republican is the result of my exploration into the broader history of the Hispanic conservatism represented by my grandfather and Jácome.

The final thing I’ll say is that, in my opinion, the field of Latinx Studies sorely needed more work on conservatism. For about 50 years, between a quarter and a third of all Latinos have voted for Republican candidates. That’s many thousands—or millions, in more recent years—of Latinos. Many books had been written about much smaller groups and communities, and I believe it’s important to understand the history of Hispanic Republicans if we want to understand the history of Latinx communities in the United States writ large.

Latinx Talk: Would you please tell us about the contribution or contributions that The Hispanic Republican makes that will be of interest to the readers of Latinx Talk?

GC: I think understanding Hispanic conservatism is essential to understanding Latinx political and cultural identity in general. When I’ve taught Latinx History at Northwestern, and have assigned the chapter from my first book about the conservative department store owner, Alex Jácome, some of my students have argued that he shouldn’t even be considered a Latino. I find that so interesting, because it implies that Latinx identity, at least in part, depends on someone’s political beliefs, instead of social, cultural, or biological markers of Latin American descent, spoken Spanish, religious practice, mestizaje, food or music, or any of the other things that have been considered as constitutive of Latinx identity. In their view, political beliefs were part of what constituted their latinidad. In this sense, I think the figure of the Hispanic Republican is challenging for the field of Latinx Studies as a whole, because it forces us to wrestle with the ideas of people we don’t agree with but with whom we presumably share some connection; it’s part of the ongoing argument about the boundaries of the field, and what kinds of subjects should and should not be included. For many, it simply remains inexplicable that so many Latinos could support a party that seems to care little about them, and that these days seems to many to actively want to do us great harm.

Latinx Talk: What motivated you to do this kind of work?

GC: A couple things motivated me to write this book. First, I believe that politicians need to take Latinos seriously as political actors, instead of taking their votes for granted. Both Republicans and Democrats have called Hispanics “natural” Democrats, or “natural” Republicans. But I don’t think political identity or partisanship are natural at all. I think political identity is developed over time, in conversation with family, in particular places, as part of an individual’s and community’s sense of what’s right and wrong in the world. Part of why I wanted to write the book is to show that Hispanics have had serious ideas about politics for a long period of time.

I also wrote The Hispanic Republican because I think politics is so divided right now in part because we don’t spend much time trying to understand the perspectives of people whose experiences and beliefs are different than our own. In writing about Hispanic Republicans, I wanted to take them seriously and understand their perspectives. It comes naturally to me because my grandfather—whom I love and believe to be a sincere and decent man—is a Hispanic Republican and, as I’ve already said, I’ve had debates about politics with him my whole life. When people come together, I don’t necessarily think they’ll come away from the meeting in agreement, but I’d hope it’d be harder for them to caricature the position of the other side. After listening to the viewpoints of others, even when parties disagree, all sides have to believe in democracy, that people will then go and make informed decisions when they vote or otherwise engage politically.

I think this is a premise that many scholars in our field wouldn’t agree with because, I think they’d say, there’s no reason to talk to people on the other side of the divide; they’ve been complicit in the violence committed against our communities, and they don’t really believe in democracy, because their side is invested in the suppression of voices and votes. This is true, of course, and it’s why I wrestle with my own position. But it’s what I believe, possibly because of my upbringing as the child of divorced parents, a kid who was always trying to negotiate peace between mothers and fathers and grandparents and others. I respect and appreciate other visions for how change is accomplished, because I would never want to abandon any form of discourse or action that could lead to a better world. Ideally, I believe actors with different approaches to change could work together and push in the same direction.

Latinx Talk: What aspect of the Latinx Talk project does your book most align with?

GC: Well, I’ve just outlined my belief in dialog as a path toward mutual understanding and perhaps a better world, even at the risk of being a little too unguarded about my own personal views! It seems like this is the spirit of Latinx Talk!

Latinx Talk: Your book takes up Republican Party courting of both Cuban and Central American immigrants in the latter half of the twentieth century. How might your book be in conversation with two recent essays we’ve published on Latinx migration literature, i.e. Geovani Ramirez on “Latinasian and Black Latinx Migrations in Literature” 3/20/30 and Regina Marie Mills’s piece “On the Tattooed Solider and What We Carry in Migration” (3/16/20)?

GC: The Hispanic Republican is both similar to and different than Geovani Ramirez’s article on Cristina Garcia’s book Monkey Hunting. It’s similar in that it tries to expand understandings of latinidad, to include the stories of Latinos who don’t often get written about. It’s different in the sense that mixed-race Latinx identities—Latinasian, Black Latinx—isn’t a subject that’s often discussed or acknowledged by Hispanic Republicans. One Hispanic Republican said in 2008 that Americans wouldn’t vote for a Black President. Others talk with pride about their family’s migration from Spain to Latin America, but I haven’t heard any of them tell similar stories about the migration of some of their ancestors from Africa or Asia. I’m not saying those stories don’t exist, but they’re not ones that I came across while researching The Hispanic Republican. Many might want to read this silence through the lens of the anti-blackness of Hispanic Republicans and other Latinx peoples. There might be something to that, but the Hispanic Republicans I’ve written about would be more likely to distance themselves from African Americans by invoking a kind of respectability politics, the idea that African Americans take to the streets and protest loudly for their civil rights, whereas they make their case respectfully and quietly, if persistently.

I think The Hispanic Republican is like Regina Marie Mills’s excellent essay in two respects. In a general way, my book, like Tobar’s novel, according to Mills, defies the conventions of a particular genre of writing. Tobar resists writing about migrant lives in the way that many others have done, and tries to make their lives relatable, just as I’ve also taken a topic that’s largely unfamiliar in the annals of writing on Latino politics, and have tried to at least make it understandable. In a more particular way, Tobar’s novel is about the migrants displaced by the anti-communist, right-wing regime in Guatemala, whereas The Hispanic Republican tells the opposite story: the migrations of conservative Latin Americans who narrate their displacement as an exile caused by left-wing authoritarianism. In both cases—Mills’s essay and my book—we take seriously the transnational roots of Latinx identity formation.

Latinx Talk: Our last question always asks authors to discuss their project/work in relation to another voice/piece on the site.

GC: The Hispanic Republican has obvious points of connection to one of your most recent essays, by Itzel Reyes: “Mothering a Latino Boy in the Trump Era.” Her essay draws our attention to a reality that Hispanic Republicans have been reluctant to acknowledge; namely, that Donald Trump, and his insistence on a version of U.S. history that’s more in line with the one held by white supremacists than Obama’s version of a United States that has been multiracial and multicultural from the beginning, for example, has done grave damage to Latinx communities. I’d say that more Hispanic Republicans need to stare in the face some of the realities that Reyes describes: that Trump—certainly not the first racist President of the United States—has enabled violence that has caused great suffering.

Author bio: 

Geraldo Cadava is Associate Professor of History at Northwestern University.

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