He Was Born Republican Royalty, But 'Jebcito' Is From Miami

Jun 15, 2015
Originally published on December 29, 2015 9:36 am

This story is part of NPR's series Journey Home. We're going to the places presidential candidates call home and finding out what those places tell us about how they see the world.

There are three Republican candidates who ran Spanish-language ads when they announced their presidential intentions — but only one was an Anglo.

Jeb Bush not only speaks fluent Spanish, he has made his home by completely embracing Latino culture and putting down roots in South Florida.

Ana Navarro, his former aide, tells a little story that shows just how much he's adopted the culture: One day, she suggested something to Bush that he rejected because it was too expensive. Then, she said, he touched his elbow with his hand.

"That's a very Hispanic gesture for meaning: 'Because I'm cheap, because I'm frugal,' " Navarro said. "It means 'I walk with my elbows so as not to wear out my shoes.' In Spanish, it would say, Yo camino con los codos. And it's that kind of nuance that he fully understands."

To understand why Bush only half-jokingly adopted the Twitter hashtag #honorarylatino, you have to understand the path he took to his current home in South Florida. Bush grew up in Midland, Texas, he summered in Maine and went to prep school in Andover, Mass. And it was in high school that his path home really began. He met his wife, Columba, on a high school exchange trip to Mexico. In college, he majored in Latin American Studies. He converted to Catholicism, and he worked briefly in Venezuala. But the place he chose to put down roots was Miami.

"It certainly did shape him," said Tom Fiedler, the former political editor of the Miami Herald. "The story of Miami since the Cuban exiles began coming has been one of being the new immigrant city."

Bush first came to Florida to organize his father's campaign in the state for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination. Then he and Columba decided to stay. Jeb went into business — real estate — and the family business, party politics. At the same time, the Mariel boatlift brought thousands of new Cuban immigrants to Florida. As Fiedler remembers, the leaders of the Cuban community in Miami decided they needed to become active in U.S. politics — and the Republican party was their natural home "because of the passion for President Reagan," he said. "They flocked to the Republican party, and Jeb was there to take advantage of that."

By then, Bush had three children — whom his father, George H.W. Bush, once referred to as "little brown ones." The young family settled into their new home near Miami, and in 1983 he became the chairman of the Dade County Republican Party. At that time, registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans in Dade County 3 to 2. Bush set out to change that, and he started with the Cubans.

Local Cuban radio host Ninoska Perez watched as Bush became deeply connected to the Cuban community. Perez is a host at Radio Mambi in Coral Gables, where the Bushes now live. She met Bush early on and has interviewed him many times on her show.

"The problems of the Cuban community were like part of his own problems," Perez says. "If we were protesting for something, he was there."

By the mid-1980s, newspaper profiles in Miami referred to Bush as one of the most prominent members of the Hispanic community. So Perez isn't surprised that Bush once mistakenly listed his ethnicity as Hispanic on a Florida voter registration form.

"Probably in his mind he's thinking, 'Yes, I am,' " she says, "because that's how he was perceived. A lot of people were calling him 'Jebcito,' like someone that was dear to them."

And it wasn't just Cubans. Miami in the '80s was also receiving waves of Nicaraguans fleeing upheaval in Central America. Navarro said that's another way the melting pot of South Florida shaped Bush. It made him understand pan-Hispanic culture.

"Jeb knows what chilaquiles is the same way he knows what Cuban picadillo is and can move effortlessly through the different Hispanic nationalities because of living in Miami," Navarro said.

Just a mile away from Radio Mambi's offices in Coral Gables is Talavera, an upscale Mexican restaurant where Bush and his family like to eat. That's where I meet Maria de la Milera. She was on the executive committee of the Dade County Republican Party when Jeb was the chairman.

"He had a plan for the party, and he carried it," she said.

Back when de la Milera met him, Jeb Bush was Republican royalty — the son of the man who rode on Air Force Two. but what impressed her most about Bush was his drive and work ethic. Bush has said that his father saw politics as public service, but he sees it as a mission, like a religion. Milera remembers that Bush's goal as the Dade County GOP chairman was to register every newly naturalized Hispanic as a Republican.

"We did in one year 54,000 applications. We filled out 54,000 applications for citizens," she said.

As Bush and his family found their place in South Florida — with its vibrant mix of Latin American immigrants — Bush was building the vehicle for his own political ambitions. It paid off. Bush won the Hispanic vote twice in his races for governor. He once called himself the first "Latino governor of the state of Florida."

Al Cardenas, who was the state GOP chairman in the '80s, says that Bush's connection to the Hispanic community is now his biggest asset as a presidential candidate.

"In our party, no one else seems to give the community the time share in their schedule that Democrats do," he said. "And so here comes Jeb Bush — his schedule is representative of the Hispanic community's role in our country. That should be the rule, except that our party's been slow to learn it."

Bush's schedule has put him before Hispanic audiences in Puerto Rico and Texas, neither of which play much of a role in the GOP primary. But Bush has his sights firmly fixed on the general election, which he knows Republicans must do much better with Hispanics to win.

"I live in Miami. Trust me, I know the power of the immigrant experience, because I live it each and every day," Bush said earlier this year on a trip to Puerto Rico. "I know the immigrant experience, because I married a beautiful girl from Mexico. My children are bicultural and bilingual."

Bush even manages to slip in a reference to his hometown in South Florida when he campaigned in Iowa recently and answered a question about country of origin labeling for food imports.

"When I go to Publix in Coral Gables," he said, "after church to go prepare for Sunday Funday in my house ... and I'll probably make a really good guacamole and I want to know where that avocado is from and I want to know where the onions are from and the cilantro and all the secret stuff I put in it."

John Ellis Bush — son and brother of U.S. presidents, grandson of Connecticut Sen. Prescott Bush — can make a mean guacamole, if he does say so himself.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Jeb Bush announces today that he's running. He'll do so in Miami. For Bush, South Florida is home, though his family came from Texas and before that from New England. The places politicians consider home say a lot about them, and we're exploring that in our series The Journey Home; a name that suggests how many of the candidates in this election cycle took time to find home. NPR's Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: There are three Republican candidates who ran Spanish-language ads when they announced their presidential intentions, but only one was an Anglo.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

PRES CAND JEB BUSH: (Speaking Spanish).

LIASSON: That's Jeb Bush, who doesn't just speak fluent Spanish, he has completely embraced Latino culture. His former aide Ana Navarro tells a little story that shows how. One day, she suggested something to Bush that he rejected because it was too expensive, and then, she said, he touched his elbow with his hand.

ANA NAVARRO: That's a very Hispanic gesture for meaning because I'm cheap because I'm frugal. It means I walk with my elbows so as not to wear out my shoes. In Spanish, it would say Yo camino con los codos, and it's that kind of little nuance that he fully understands.

LIASSON: To understand why Bush only half-jokingly adopted the Twitter hashtag #HonoraryLatino, you have to understand the path he took to his current home in South Florida. Bush grew up in Midland, Texas. He summered in Maine. He went to prep school at Andover in Massachusetts, and it was there his path home really began. He met his wife Columba on a high school exchange trip to Mexico. In college, he majored in Latin American studies. He converted to Catholicism. He worked briefly in Venezuela, but the place he chose to put down roots was Miami.

TOM FIEDLER: It certainly did shape him. The story of Miami, well, since the Cuban exiles began coming, has been one of being the new immigrant city.

LIASSON: That that's Tom Fiedler, the former political editor of the Miami Herald. Bush first came to Florida to organize the state for his father's campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 1980. Then he and Columba decided to stay. Jeb went into business, real estate, and the family business, party politics. At the same time, the Mariel boatlift was bringing thousands of new Cuban immigrants to Florida. As Fiedler remembers, the leaders of the Cuban community in Miami decided they needed to become active in U.S. politics, and the Republican Party was their natural home.

FIEDLER: Because of the passion for President Reagan, they flocked to the Republican Party, and Jeb was there to take advantage of that.

LIASSON: By then, Bush had three children. His father, George H. W. Bush, once referred to them as, quote, "the little brown ones." The young family settled into their new home near Miami, and, in 1983, Bush became the chairman of the Dade County Republican Party. At that time, registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans in Dade by 3 to 2. Bush set out to change that, and he started with the Cubans.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).

LIASSON: Radio Mambi's offices are in Coral Gables, where the Bush's now live.

NINOSKA PEREZ: I first met Jeb Bush very early on when he came to Miami.

LIASSON: That's Radio Mambi host Ninoska Perez. She's interviewed Bush on her show many times and watched as he became deeply connected to the Cuban community.

PEREZ: The problems of the Cuban community were, like, part of his own problems in the sense that if we were protesting for something, he was there.

LIASSON: By the mid-80s, newspaper profiles in Miami referred to Bush as one of the most prominent members of the Hispanic community. Perez isn't surprised that Bush once mistakenly listed his own ethnicity as Hispanic on a Florida voter registration form.

PEREZ: Probably in his mind he's thinking, yes, I am. You know, it's something like - that's how he was perceived. A lot of people were calling him Jebcito, like someone that was dear to them.

LIASSON: And it wasn't just Cubans. Miami in the '80s was also receiving waves of Nicaraguans fleeing upheaval in Central America. Ana Navarro says that's another way the melting pot of South Florida shaped Bush. It made him understand pan-Hispanic culture.

NAVARRO: Jeb know's what chilaquiles is in the same way that he knows what Cuban picadillo is and can move effortlessly through the different Hispanic nationalities because of living in Miami.

LIASSON: Just a mile away from Radio Mambi's offices in Coral Gables is Talavera, an up-scale Mexican restaurant where Bush and his family like to eat. That's where I meet Marina de la Milera. She was on the executive committee of the Dade County Republican Party when Jeb was the chairman.

MARINA DE LA MILERA: He had a plan. He had a plan for the party, and he carried it.

LIASSON: Back when de la Milera met him, Jeb Bush was Republican royalty, the son of the man who rode on Air Force Two. But what impressed her most about Bush was his drive and work ethic. Bush said his father saw politics as public service, but he sees it as a mission, like a religion. De la Milera remembers that Bush's goal as the Dade County GOP chair was to register every newly naturalized Hispanic as a Republican.

DE LA MILERA: We did in one year 54,000 applications. We filled out 54,000 applications for citizens.

LIASSON: As Bush and his family found their place in South Florida with its vibrant stew of Latin-American immigrants, Bush was building the vehicle for his own political ambitions. It paid off. Bush won the Hispanic vote twice in his races for governor. He once called himself the first Latino governor of the state of Florida. Al Cardenas, who was state GOP chair in the '80s, says Bush's connection to the Hispanic community is now his biggest asset as a presidential candidate.

AL CARDENAS: In our party, no one else seems to give the community the timeshare in their schedule that Democrats do, for example, and so here comes Jeb Bush. When you see his schedule, his schedule is representative of the Hispanic community's role in our country. That should be the rule except that our party's been slow to learn it.

LIASSON: Bush's schedule has put him before Hispanic audiences in Puerto Rico and Texas, which don't play much of a role in the GOP primaries, but Bush has his sights firmly fixed on the general election, where he knows Republicans can only win the White House if they do much better with Hispanics.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BUSH: I live in Miami. Trust me, I know the power of the immigrant experience because I live it each and every day. I know the immigrant experience because I married a beautiful girl from Mexico. My children are bicultural and bilinguals.

(APPLAUSE)

LIASSON: Bush even manages to get in a reference to his hometown in South Florida when he campaigned in Iowa and answered a question about country of origin labeling for food imports.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BUSH: When I go to Publix in Coral Gables, which I'll do tomorrow morning after church to go prepare for Sunday fun day in my house, I'll probably make a really good guacamole, and I want to know where that avocado's from, and I want to know where the onions are from and the cilantro and all the secret stuff I put in it.

LIASSON: So John Ellis Bush, son and brother of U.S. presidents, grandson of Connecticut Senator Prescott Bush, can make a mean guacamole if he does say so himself. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.