Texas A Growing Center For Hispanic Tea Party Members
July 31, 2011

Photo by Hernán Rozemberg
San Antonio Tea Party President George Rodríguez.
George Rodríguez is in his element on a balmy July night in San Antonio. He’s pacing the room and offering firm handshakes to members of a local Hispanic conservative group that invited him to speak. Returning to the Alamo City following years in Washington, he has already made a name for himself as the first Hispanic president of a major-city Tea Party group in the country.

For him there’s no shame in displaying both his heritage and his politics.

“I’m very, very proud of being an American of Mexican extraction,” he said. “But I’m equally proud beyond belief that I was born in the United States and that my history and culture here reach to Philadelphia and to Plymouth Rock. I get goose bumps when I start to think of my country.”

Rodríguez honed his conservative skills working for former President Ronald Reagan. After working on the successful 1980 campaign, Rodriguez joined the new administration. He delved into the touchy issue of immigration working for the former Immigration & Naturalization Service (INS). It’s still one of his top priorities as president of the San Antonio Tea Party.

“We have got to know who crosses into our country and for what purpose. We don’t know who they are, where they are and how they got in here,” he said. “All we know is that there are some people that want to harm us and we need to protect our country.”

At the monthly gathering of the local chapter of the Latino National Republican Coalition in July, Rodríguez takes the microphone. He urges the audience to help him convince Hispanics to take another look at the conservative movement.

“We want to reach into the Hispanic community because, folks, we’re trying to show them that A.) We’re not racists, B.) We don’t have horns and C.) We do have values that are very, very similar to them,” Rodríguez said.

Anglo Tea Party members are more than ready to welcome more Hispanics to their ranks. Allen Tharp owns a chain of San Antonio pubs that often hosts party meetings. He said he’s truly impressed by the leadership Rodríguez has already shown.

“I think it’s fantastic. This is a heavily Hispanic area and I think it gives other people a chance to see that there are leaders, Hispanic leaders, in the Tea Party,” Tharp said. “And I think it encourages other people, other Hispanics to join.”

Armando Vera doesn’t need much help doing Hispanic outreach. As pastor of a church in McAllen, not far from the Mexican border, they flock to him.

Like Rodríguez, Vera thinks the best hook to bring more Hispanics to the fold is through their religious and moral values. That’s why he’s now expanding into politics.

“I love the United States. I am American. This is my country,” he affirmed. “My goal for starting the Hispanic Tea Party is for praying in the schools, do not accept same-sex marriage and be a nation under God.”

As with the Tea Party movement in general, this new Hispanic push is not without critics.

Luis Vera, no relation to Armando Vera, is general counsel of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). He has sparred with Rodríguez in two public debates.

“Latinos are conservative in some areas. For example, family,” Luis Vera conceded. “You know, we take care of our own.”

But he said you won’t find many Hispanics embracing the small government approach.

“The difference between the Tea Party and the vast majority of Latinos is we believe in social services,” Luis Vera said. “Latinos believe that we must help those who cannot help themselves.”

At least one veteran observer of Hispanic politics said Luis Vera’s probably right.

Jerry Polinard, a political scientist at the University of Texas-Pan American, said the Latino Tea Party movement is not likely to go national. The strict immigration stance alone will turn many away.

“Whenever anyone watches a story about a Tea Party group, or you see a Tea Party rally, it is overwhelmingly Anglo,” Polinard said. “And so you’re not going to make a quick identification with that group.”

For his part, Rodríguez is out to prove critics wrong. He said one third of the 6,000 Tea Party members in San Antonio are Hispanic. And so many more could join, only if they saw the light.

“There are lots and lots of Hispanics who are closet conservatives who just need to be coaxed out of the closet,” he said. “We have also a lot of Hispanics that don’t even know that they’re conservative that we want to bring into the sunlight.”

Next year’s elections may reveal if the movement has any success. Activists like Rodríguez also count on the fact that a perpetual bad economy will also send more Hispanics his way.