By Geraldo L. Cadava One year before the 1980 general election, in November 1979, 10 Republicans competed for their party’s nomination. Most held the usual credentials – congressman, senator, governor – and famous last names, such as Reagan, Bush and Dole. But among them also stood a man from Calabasas named Benjamin “Boxcar Ben” Fernandez, a 53-year-old Mexican American born in 1925 in the rail yards of Kansas City, Kan. His parents were undocumented immigrants from Mexico and were so poor they lived in a converted railroad boxcar, where Fernandez was born. Hence his nickname.
Boxcar Ben … demonstrates that Latino candidates can’t count on Latino support, especially if their economic and foreign policies contrast with what most Latinos believe.
As a child, Fernandez worked with his family picking sugar beets in the Midwest. He later became the first Latino Republican ever to run for president of the United States. (Marco Rubio is late to the party.) Fernandez was unknown nationally, but he was well regarded by the Republican establishment as a leader of grass-roots campaigns to organize Latinos in California, a fundraiser for Richard Nixon’s 1972 reelection campaign and a founder of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly.
He was the most famous Latino conservative of his generation and paved the way for Latino conservatives today.
Boxcar Ben had the kind of up-by-the-bootstraps history that appealed to many Americans, making him an attractive presidential candidate. He was an agricultural worker and served in World War II. He enrolled in the University of Redlands and received an undergraduate degree in economics, paying for his education with his GI benefits. He worked for General Electric in New York while earning an MBA from NYU, and eventually returned to California to found the National Economic Development Assn., a nonprofit that lent money to would-be Latino business owners when other lenders would not. He also helped establish several banks in Southern California.
The narrative that Fernandez told of his rise from poverty fit the worldview of many conservatives, including Latinos. His wealth was the result of hard work and individual initiative. When a friend told Fernandez that the Republican Party was for rich people, he responded, “Sign me up! I’ve had enough of poverty.” He cited his “own rise from poverty as an example of what the free enterprise system can do for any hardworking American.”
For Fernandez, the rhetoric of free enterprise also related to his vision for U.S.-Latin American relations. As a candidate in a period when leftist governments were on the rise in many Latin American nations, Fernandez said, “It is apparent to the whole world that the United States is surrounded by a positive communist movement across our soft underbelly.” The only solution, he believed, was to root out communism and install capitalist democracies, often through financial and military backing of opposition groups in the countries taken over by leftists.
Boxcar Ben’s positions on the economy and U.S. interventions in Latin America put him at odds with many Latinos. They wanted to succeed as well, of course, but they thought the government should play an important role in their upward mobility, helping to prevent discrimination against them, securing a fair wage and acceptable working conditions, and otherwise protecting their civil rights. And while many saw America as a refuge from the civil wars that afflicted their Latin American homelands, they also saw the role of the U.S. in these civil wars as imperialist and self-interested. They believed that U.S. support for right-wing strongmen was at least partially responsible for the violence….
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