30 September 2013

Brenda from Alamogordo, NM & Ben from San Antonio, TX  

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Former Republican presidential candidate and Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney was in the news recently. His "mea culpa" on CNN went something like this:

"I think my position...is not understood at the Hispanic community. I want to see immigration reform. I said that during the campaign. I want to make sure we have a legal immigration system that brings, in my view, more people legally to our country."

Romney famously lost the Hispanic vote by a margin of 71%-27% in the 2012 contest, so his "what might have been" admission is hardly surprising. Romney swept the white vote but lost every other racial demographic, which has led many Republican strategists to ask "Why?" and "How?"

Brenda and Ben are probably one of the nicest couples I've ever met. They are young, full of promise and deep in the throes of wedding planning for their February nuptials in Ben's hometown of San Antonio, TX.

"Brenda doesn't really like my mom. I keep trying to tell her that she just needs to get to know here better, but then, it did take me the better part of two decades to get to that point."

Brenda starts to get defensive but catches herself. "It's just one day. I can deal with anything for one day, especially with copious amounts of alcohol."

The two joke innocently but are completely in love. It's the kind of relationship that gives you hope for the human race. Brenda is a former collegiate soccer player and Ben is an officer in the United States Marine Corps. Brenda has found odd jobs after Ben's commissioning and generally works from home. The two hope to have a family ("She wants two kids and I want about twenty. Compromise?" Ben jokes), but not just yet.

I caught up with the two of them on the day that CNN ran Romney's come-to-Jesus as their top story. Brenda and Ben are both of Hispanic descent. Brenda is only one generation removed from her family's roots in Costa Rica. Her parents moved from Costa Rica to Alamogordo, NM, where Brenda was born. She spent nearly her entire life in that small city, nestled between Lincoln National Forest to the east and Holloman Air Force Base to the west.

"I remember a lot of poverty. I think I wore the same clothes to school for a while until my father got a better paying job at a factory in town. He wasn't happy though; the company was run by whites who hated him because he was Latino, and he worked with Mexicans who hated him because he was from El Salvador. He put up with a lot for me and my mom."

Ben was born in Cartagena, Colombia to a Venezuelan mother and Colombia father. After waiting nearly their entire lives, they moved their small family--Ben had an older sister at the time, and now has another, younger sister and brother--to San Antonio and sought US citizenship.  Ben's father worked as an office clerk at Lackland Air Force Base and worked security on the weekends. His mother found work as a seamstress just outside base, stitching up the uniforms of young airman as they began their Air Force careers. Ben remembers his early impression of the military:

"I saw all of these young guys--mostly white at the time--with their short hair cuts walking around town and talking themselves up. My mother says it's my Venezuelan blood but I always thought I could do the military thing too--fly jets, defend America, have a really cool car and a hot girlfriend. (Brenda laughs) Of course when it came time to decide what to do, I thought the Marine Corps presented the biggest challenge and now I'm firmly planted on the ground."

Ben has deployed twice to Iraq, which conjures memories Brenda is not too keen to remember. "Nobody really understands the plight of the military wife or girlfriend. We're not in combat so everyone just expects us to sit around and bake cookies or something. Really what it is is sitting around being scared out of your mind that something is going to happen to this person you couldn't possibly live without. It was like hell when he was away, but I'm so proud of him."

Talking with them about Mitt Romney's recent news was a humbling, eye-opening experience. Ben is not normally reserved about his political views ("I voted for John McCain because he's a hero. I voted for Barack Obama because Mitt Romney is a zero."), but it was actually Brenda who launched the opening salvo:

"Mitt Romney and Republicans don't understand that the Hispanic community is not a single issue. We don't only care about immigration. We put a high emphasis on honesty and family. But when Mitt Romney is asked about how he'll reach out to Hispanic people, all he says is, 'I'll explain to them my immigration plan.' I'm sorry, but those of us voting here are already citizens. Let's talk about jobs and the environment and people actually working for a living."

Ben is of a similar mind. "Most of the Hispanics living in this country are working minimum wage jobs. When we work in the fields, we are constantly being harassed about our legal status in the United States. Sometimes I feel like a professional athlete, always having to prove that I'm clean by waving around my naturalization paperwork and shouting, 'IT'S COOL, I'M ONE OF YOU!'"

Brenda again: "There is so much nuance in the Hispanic community. Cubans and Puerto Ricans have different interests; so do Guatemalans and Mexicans. It's difficult for these people to adequately assimilate to a country with a political process that asks, 'OK, what do all of you people think because obviously you're all the same?' When Democrats campaign in Hispanic areas, it isn't just about their immigration plan; it's about providing a better life from the bottom-up. That resonates with people who are sick of being just lumped in the 'brown' column."

Pollsters and pundits often question, "What does it mean to be Hispanic in America?" Rarely do we see stories that ask the real question:

"What does it mean to be American in America?"

If we are truly interested in moving beyond race in this country, it is disgraceful to insinuate that minority groups should be assigned pre-planned issues to judge candidates for public office. Brenda, Ben, and the rest of young Americans like them deserve better from the political process.

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