The new year has begun with an avalanche of Republican retrospectives: What went wrong? What must the GOP do? 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. In 1960, a recently arrived Cuban family moved in a few doors down. Having just escaped Castro's Cuba with only a few coins sewn in the hems of the mother's and daughters' dresses, this family of six spoke little English. We became close friends and eventually, as much out of fascination and affection as pragmatism, I did learn their language — and they mine.
My father's advice was prescient, if somewhat exaggerated. I haven't needed Spanish to survive, though being bilingual has helped. A lot. Meanwhile, and not incidentally, our new, 113th U.S. Congress has welcomed 31 Hispanic members. Three are in the Senate, including GOP superstar Marco Rubio of Florida and Republican Ted Cruz of Texas, as well as Democrat Robert Menendez of New Jersey. All are Cuban-American. Of the 28 Latinos in the House of Representatives, 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. Though endearing at times, nothing sounds more ridiculous — or inauthentic — than a politician pandering with a faux accent or foreign phrase. (Think Barack Obama droppin' his g's in the South, or Hillary Clinton's rendering of James Cleveland's freedom hymn at the 42nd anniversary of "Bloody Sunday" in Selma, Ala.)
Metaphorically, learning Spanish means learning people. Knowing them as human beings. 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. Anti-Latino rhetoric is especially unwelcome in post-Katrina New Orleans, where most will admit that the growing Latino population rebuilt the city. Instead, dinner conversation during a recent visit with local leaders centered around the state's evolving cuisine, which is becoming a Cajun-Latino hybrid.
Upon waves of immigrants are new palates born. And, potentially, storm-tossed political parties.
Seemingly natural fit
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. 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.
Last June, Obama, who won 71 percent of the Hispanic vote, announced reprieves from deportation for hundreds of thousands 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," to borrow Cruz's term. 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. And the message to Republicans, if they want to survive, should be obvious.