Beto and the Spanish name-game in the Texas governor’s race

<span>Photograph: Veronica Cardenas/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Veronica Cardenas/Reuters
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Within hours of former congressman Beto O’Rourke announcing his intent to run for governor of Texas against incumbent Greg Abbott, the Republican party apparatus began tweeting about “Robert Francis O’Rourke.”

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It harkened back to the days the GOP referred to “Barack Hussein Obama”. But instead of suggesting to the American people that Obama might be some kind of foreigner, the recent GOP maneuver has the opposite goal: reminding voters of O’Rourke’s all-American, all Anglo pedigree.

“Robert Francis O’Rourke thinks it is ‘dangerous’ for you to have a gun to defend yourself,” Abbott tweeted of the Democrat on his campaign account after the acquittal of murder suspect Kyle Rittenhouse in Wisconsin. “Texans know that self-defense is a fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution. We won’t let dangerous progressive policies hijack your God-given rights.”

It should be an interesting maneuver by Abbott who, pre-O’Rourke, was waging an aggressive anti-immigrant campaign that many view as anti-Hispanic. Now, with O’Rourke in the race, Abbott appears to be following the Ted Cruz campaign model of trying to appeal to Hispanic sentiment by accusing the Democratic challenger of cultural appropriation.

To be sure, there is an element of anger that can arise among Hispanic voters who view politicians as cynically trying to appropriate elements of their culture for votes, particularly the tired attempts by candidates of appealing to Hispanics by saying a few broken lines in Spanish during stump speeches.

I can recall many debates about cultural appropriation that I had with fellow Hispanics when O’Rourke was challenging Cruz for the US Senate in 2018. I always fell back on what I call “Guero’s phenomenon”, named after a popular Austin Mexican restaurant, favored by Bill Clinton. After his first meal there, the wait to get into that restaurant was upwards of three hours, something I experienced when out-of-town visitors asked to eat there when I lived in that city. What I noticed when we were finally seated was that the vast majority of the clientele at this Mexican restaurant was Anglo. The only Hispanics that I could see in the dining room were serving food and bussing tables.

I had to ask: “Was this restaurant popular, in part, because it was a place to get decent Mexican food without Mexicans?”

That’s the type of cultural appropriation that is always on many Hispanic radars. It’s akin to Abbott proudly boasting that his wife, Cecilia, is the state’s first Hispanic first lady in history. Yet, when he was attorney general seeking his first term as governor, he compared Hispanic south Texas to third world countries. And this year, as he takes advantage of Joe Biden’s immigration problem, his invasion-styled rhetoric is offensive to many Hispanics.

So going after O’Rourke for being more in step with the Hispanic culture that dominates his home town of El Paso is an interesting twist in the political landscape that marks Texas, but it may be the most honest aspect of the state GOP mentality. As Hispanics move toward becoming the majority demographic in Texas, there are many whispers of Anglos maintaining their power by appealing to white sentiments.

For the record, I first became aware of O’Rourke in 1983, when he was 11 years old. As a young reporter in El Paso, I covered his father, former El Paso county Judge Pat O’Rourke. The late county judge – an avid bicyclist who was killed by a car while cycling one morning – was as personable as his son is today. And like any parent, O’Rourke spoke often of Beto. Not Robert, not Bob, not any other name. Culturally, in a border town like El Paso, no one ever made an issue of a gringo using the nickname for the Spanish name Roberto.

For Abbott and Texas Republicans to make an issue of that demonstrates how out of touch they are with bicultural, binational border communities where Spanish nicknames are the norm and where Anglos like O’Rourke can speak Spanish with the best of them.

Cruz, whose father is Cuban, appears to be one of those. Immediately after O’Rourke secured the Democratic nomination for US Senate in 2018, Cruz made an issue of Beto’s nickname, posting an ad with a countryfied jingle that went in part, “I remember reading stories, liberal Robert wanted to fit in. So he changed his name to Beto and hid it with a grin.”

The irony is that Cruz was guilty of the same thing, as a Boston Globe reporter pointed out that year in a tweet: “As long as we are talking about names...Ted Cruz was listed as ‘Rafael E. Cruz’ at the Harvard Latino Law Review, as ‘R. Ted Cruz’ at Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, and ‘Rafael “Ted” Cruz’ in the yearbook.”

Still, any debate over cultural appropriation during next year’s gubernatorial race will serve Abbott well and will test O’Rourke’s ability to stay on message, a Democratic party elder statesman who served in the Clinton administration told me recently.

“This race is not about whether Beto can win; it’s about whether Abbott can lose,” he told me. Given the strict anti-abortion bill that Abbott oversaw, the freedom of choice on whether to use masks as the pandemic pushed up the body count, the transgender sports bill and the total failure in February of the state’s electrical grid, it benefits Abbott to talk about side issues such as cultural appropriation.

But if O’Rourke can keep on message and remind the electorate of Abbott’s hard turn to the right over the last few years, Abbott may end up losing, the political adviser told me.

The real challenge may not lie with O’Rourke staying on message, however. If Abbott and his $55m war chest can alter the direction of the debate during next year’s campaign, it provides O’Rourke with an opening. If Abbott’s cultural appropriation attack seems hollow while his attack on Hispanic migrants seeking political asylum grows more rhetorically potent, the issue of race and ethnicity moves to the forefront – with all the volatility and unpredictability that marked last month’s gubernatorial contest in Virginia.

In the early days of his campaign, O’Rourke has not been shy about reminding voters that the get-tough-on-invading-immigrants rhetoric has already had tragic consequences. In El Paso in August of 2019, a gunman walked into a Walmart and opened fire on Hispanic targets, killing 23 and wounding 23 more.

Abbott and Texas Republicans may need to think twice before questioning the cultural appropriateness of a rival candidate who grew up as a minority in the border region.

Carlos Sanchez is director of public affairs for Hidalgo county, Texas. He was a journalist for 37 years and has worked at the Washington Post and Texas Monthly magazine, as well as eight other newsrooms. He can be reached at