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?
PC: Many just don’t understand how the U.S. works. They come from societies that are very paternalistic, centralized, and statist and don’t understand that the United States was intended to be run from the bottom up instead of from the top down; that individual citizens can make things happen; that citizens have responsibilities as well as rights. But then again, that’s something a lot of Americans don’t understand. When I moved to Miami a few years ago, I started teaching U.S. politics at the University of Miami part-time. Most of my students didn’t know the most basic things about our country’s founding or constitutional principles, federalism, separation of powers, etc. And these were bright, middle and upper middle-class, non-Hispanic college kids. When I later fell into Spanish language media, I realized there was an even greater need for learning about basic American history and principles in the Hispanic community.
How important — or unimportant, I suppose — do you believe it is for Hispanics not to be viewed as a single, massive bloc?
PC: Hispanics are incredibly diverse, so it’s tough to say all Hispanics are this way or that way. While many vote Democrat, Hispanics are increasingly registering as independents, and, generally speaking, tend to be culturally and socially conservative. Hispanics are primarily Christian and religious. Catholic, mostly, but also evangelical increasingly. Nearly 50 percent of Hispanic Americans own their own homes. They are also entrepreneurial. There about two million Hispanic-owned businesses in the United States, far more than any other minority group. Hispanics join the military in large numbers, too. American history is filled with Hispanic military heroes, including 42 Medal of Honor winners. Those aren’t exactly Democrat demographics — something both parties should keep in mind. George W. Bush received more than 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004. Other Republicans have done equally well. Arnold Schwarzenegger carried 39 percent of the Hispanic vote in his re-election race in California and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison won 44 percent of Hispanics in Texas.
On Capitol Hill recently you argued, “You can be a patriotic American and also speak Spanish.” Why do you think language is such a flash point for controversy and how do we get beyond that?
PC: It’s a bit of a cliche, but we fear what we don’t understand. I also think many see it as part of a “takeover” of the U.S. by Hispanics. And it’s not just Sam Huntington at Harvard or Lou Dobbs at CNN who talks about it. Jorge Ramos of Univision TV calls it the “Latino Wave.” Univision, the global Spanish-language network, is one of America’s largest networks and the Spanish media is growing daily in the U.S. But even if I think the fear is overblown, I still wholeheartedly understand the concern. Many Anglos in Miami felt forced to move north because Spanish has become so prevalent here. I can sympathize when someone says, “Why do I need to speak Spanish to order dinner at a restaurant in the United States?” They shouldn’t. Hispanics have to learn English, respect and adapt. Period.
At the same time Spanish is one of the world’s richest languages and the third most widely spoken language in the world after Chinese and English and ahead of Arabic. It’s spoken by nearly 400 million people worldwide, including 30 million in the United States. Why would we want our citizens cut off from that? In today’s global economy we have a tremendous asset in our Spanish-speaking citizens. Being fluent in Spanish helped me immeasurably when I was posted to Venezuela as a U.S. military attache and later as an international consultant. We need to make sure everyone learns English but also ensure all Americans have some understanding of a second language, especially Spanish. It’s not so scary if you’re at least familiar with it, and Spanish is a whole lot easier to learn than Chinese or Arabic!
Traveling in Venezuela last year I found that for every red-festooned Chavista lecturing about U.S. imperialism there were two who would ask what life was like here and even for tips on how to immigrate. I see Civica Americana plans to “promote and explain America’s values in Latin America and Spain.” What will your work in the international arena be like?
PC: Our international component is very important. I was at the U.S. embassy just before Chavez was elected for the first time in 1998 and went back to Venezuela numerous times afterwards as a consultant and warned constantly about Chavez’s communist and authoritarian leanings and rabid anti-Americanism. Chavez is funding a massive anti-American propaganda effort throughout the region that builds on the extensive network Fidel Castro and the Soviets constructed over the past 50 years to exploit historic and latent anti-“Yankee” sentiment. Civica Americana hopes to help counter that propaganda with programs and partnerships in Latin America and Spain that will provide accurate, straightforward education about America’s history, founding ideals, and political and economic system. We are unique in that we will be using successful, bilingual Hispanic Americans as goodwill ambassadors. It’s a lot easier to sell America in the region as a Hispanic immigrant or child of immigrants who made it in America.
What would you most like America to know about Hispanic immigrants and vice versa?
PC: America should understand that over time most Hispanics become just as American as everyone else. We need to encourage that process, not retard it by unnecessarily harsh rhetoric. Meanwhile, Hispanics need to know that we can all be proud of our countries or cultures of origin, but we have to appreciate, understand and respect that this country was based on an Anglo culture and tradition that helped shape its institutions and that’s why it works as well as it does.
American Spectator Contributing Editor Shawn Macomber is writing a book on the Global Class War.