The Old Gringo: Jeb Strives for Unearned Hispanic Identity

AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

Potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush may be the third Latino to jump into the GOP primary, at least according to his 2009 voter registration, where he ticked the “Hispanic” box. While Bush has laughed this off as an error, the scion of one of America’s wealthiest families has a track record of adopting a generic “Hispanic” identity that crosses the line from appreciation to appropriation.

According to a 2013 Washington Post profile on Bush’s “Hispanic consciousness” (?), political allies refer to him as so engrossed in Latino identity that his credentials trump those of American Latinos. “Culturally, Jeb is even more Hispanic than many in the young generation of Hispanics in America today,” claimed former American Conservative Union (ACU) chairman Al Cárdenas, adding that Bush’s “cultural affinity [is] seamless with us.”

Who the “us” in this scenario may be is never explained in the piece. Cardenas is of Cuban extraction, while Bush’s Latino credentials include living in Venezuela and marrying into a Mexican family. He is referred to in the piece with Dominican slang, “gringo aplatanado,” which translates to “plantained-out American“: an American who has adopted Dominican culture. Calling a Mexican a “plátano” is the equivalent of calling a Californian a “Hoosier,” so what Cárdenas means here is open to interpretation.

This recurring idea that “Hispanic culture” is a monolith and that Jeb Bush has “seamlessly” adopted it strikes at the heart of what is inappropriate about this approach to a group. In sloppily attempting to rebrand not as Hispanic-friendly, but more Latino than actual Latinos, he commits a gross offense.

Latino Americans, as all ethnic groups do, carry within them a history passed down from family that went through Hell and back to get them here. Someone without the experience of oral history from Latino relatives, who did not grow up eating the food or speaking the language or working out the various traumas their grandparents clearly carry from their travel here, cannot waltz into that identity. Bush may be fortunate enough to afford anything, but this immutable trait is not something he can buy.

This should be self-evident. No one should have to explain to Jeb Bush that he cannot wake up one morning and decide to adopt an immutable characteristic. No one had to explain that to Mitt Romney, whose father actually was Mexican, yet his son never exploited that fact to look cool among his peers or attract Latino voters’ attention.

Bush’s Latinidad sparks the same National Conversation America has been having for weeks about Australian rapper Iggy Azalea turning a cornerstone of American black culture, its music, into a personal cash cow. Black American rappers have expressed resentment towards Azalea’s self-appointed “rap queen” title in light of her neophyte status in the genre and lack of public understanding of the history of black American hip-hop, one full of a very distinct tragedy foreign to anyone outside the group. Appropriation, not appreciation.

At least, unlike Bush’s cronies, no Azalea fan argued that Iggy was blacker than “many in the young generation” of black people in America today.

Azalea responded by calling sexism. Perhaps Bush will respond to his criticism by decrying the “liberal media,” though liberals have been committing the same kind of cultural theft even more egregiously for years. That diversion will not work on those born Hispanic, who can’t “take off” the Hispanic when they enter a private donor’s meeting, never mind “put it on” for amusement or political gain.


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