When Civica Americana President Paul Crespo was 12 years old his parents, politically-active Cuban exiles who had fled Fidel Castro’s terror state for U.S. shores in the early 1960s, asked him whether he considered himself Cuban or American. “I said I was 100 percent American — and 50 percent Cuban!” Crespo recalled. “I thought: You can’t be half an American, you have to be all-American but that doesn’t mean you can’t have an extra 50 percent on top as gravy.”
Although born and raised in Southern California, Crespo came of age in the political and cultural milieu of a Cuban exile community fervently hoping for repatriation. “Cuban political refugees in those days were very different from regular immigrants, since most thought their stay in America would be brief and they would return to Cuba once democracy was restored,” Crespo said. When it became apparent Fidel Castro was no temporary aberration, however, Crespo’s Cuban freedom-fighting parents became U.S. citizens and full-blown Hispanic American patriots. Following this example, their son joined the U.S. Marine Corps after graduating from Georgetown University.
“I became an officer in the U.S. Marines to serve my country, fight communists and show my gratitude to the United States for welcoming my parents and allowing us all to live in freedom,” Crespo explained. “The U.S. military is a real melting pot. In the Marines we say there are no black, white or brown Marines — just different shades of Marine Corps green. That’s a great way to look at things, and should serve as a model for the rest of America.”
Crespo eventually served 12 years on active duty and in the reserves, including a stint at the U.S. Embassy in Caracas, Venezuela. Since then he has had an extraordinarily varied career, working as a kidnap and ransom negotiator in Latin America, earning Master’s degrees from both the University of London and Cambridge, hosting his own Spanish-language political talk show on Univision Radio and publishing reams of commentary in many outlets, including the Miami Herald where he was a columnist and editorial writer. Among other things, Crespo now presides over Civica Americana (Hispanic-American Civics Foundation), a “non-profit corporation which promotes Hispanic integration in the U.S. by focusing on America’s heritage and constitutional and free market ideals.” The outspoken former Marine was kind enough to speak with TAS about his latest venture.
How did Civica Americana come about and what is your vision for the organization?
Paul Crespo: I’ve been thinking about these issues for a long time, but 9/11 in particular brought home the importance of American patriotism and unity versus the “multiculturalism” and “diversity” we had been bombarded with for so many years. More recently, the increasing ferocity of the illegal immigration and assimilation debate made it clear to me that we were creating an angry and unnecessary divide between Hispanics and non-Hispanic Americans that was bad for Hispanics and bad for America. Many patriotic Hispanics told me they felt they didn’t have anywhere to go. So in early 2007 a group of us, including foreign-born Hispanic Americans, U.S.-born Americans of Hispanic descent and non Hispanics, all of us at least bilingual, began working on Civica Americana to help Hispanics integrate into the American system and culture and ensure they become good, patriotic citizens. At the same time we want the rest of America to realize that most Hispanics are hard working and patriotic and want to be Americans like everyone else. In that way we’re finding ways to bridge the gap between Hispanics and non-Hispanics in the U.S. by explaining America to Hispanics and also explaining Hispanics to America.
You believe there is a distinction to be made between “assimilation” and “integration.”
PC: Well, I think there may be a difference between what many see, rightly or wrongly, as the old, traditional concept of assimilation where you become totally absorbed by Anglo-American culture and lose any distinctiveness you may have and the idea that I grew up with, which is that you can be a patriotic, fully integrated American but also speak Spanish and be proud of your family origins and heritage, too. We’re not living in the 19th century. The fact is that today’s immigrants maintain connections with their countries of origin in ways not possible just 30 years ago. It’s unrealistic to demand immigrants totally cut themselves off. But let’s be clear: That’s still very different from today’s ideas of “diversity” and “multiculturalism,” which I really dislike because they generally ignore or discount the need to become fully American; that view of “diversity” is divisive and, in my view, un-American. Studying in the UK reinforced for me how important America’s Anglo heritage and culture is to who we are as a nation. Everyone, including Hispanics, needs to understand that.
Do you think the sort of scapegoating we’ve seen during recent debates on immigration and trade have made integration that much more difficult?
PC: Absolutely. The increasingly shrill tone on all sides of the debate has hurt everyone. Illegal immigration is a huge problem. But it needs to be separated from the bigger issues of assimilation and legal immigration, which is what we are focusing on. The illegal immigration activists lump legal and illegal immigrants together so they can claim that anyone who wants to control the borders is “anti-immigrant,” which is total nonsense. But many on the other side are doing the same thing by lumping legal and illegal Hispanic immigrants together, and bashing them all. That has been turning off many Hispanics, including conservative, patriotic ones. When being anti-illegal immigration turns into, or seems to turn into, being anti-Hispanic it makes it harder to promote integration and assimilation. It’s harder to be a patriotic American if you’re being told you’re not wanted.
But your organization doesn’t take an official position on illegal immigration.
PC: We are trying to focus on the bigger picture and looking for shared values and positive approaches. There are plenty of folks already fighting the illegal immigration battles, and yes, at some point that issue should get resolved. And no matter what your view is on how to deal with illegal immigration, we should all agree that Hispanics and all immigrants in the U.S. should become patriotic and productive American citizens. That’s our focus. We do promote legal immigration, though. Our current system is broken. Many very good people all over the world, especially in Latin America, are following all the rules yet still waiting in lines for years trying to come to America legally. That’s just ridiculous. It’s not right and needs to be fixed.
Obviously politicians are looking at Hispanic Americans as one of the few “growth markets” in votes. Yet both parties also seem intent on appealing to a caricature of Hispanics. What are some of the biggest misconceptions surrounding Hispanics?
PC: There are so many. One is that all Hispanics are illegal, or all work at picking fruit, or whatever. Clearly, those are nonsense. Another big misconception is the idea that Hispanics don’t want to learn English or become American, which most polls and studies show just isn’t true. They know that the key to success in America is education, and the key to education is English. But even as they strive to learn English many Hispanics want to continue speaking Spanish as well and hope their kids will speak it too. Sadly, some Americans don’t like that. We shouldn’t discourage that as long as the priority is on learning English first.
Are there any particular misconceptions you believe newly arrived Hispanics have about the United States?
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