Editor’s Note: Mike Valdés-Fauli is President of JeffreyGroup, the largest independent communications firm focusing on Latin audiences. He has been a media commentator on Hispanic issues for CNN en Español, AdWeek, PR Week, the Miami Herald. Mike was named one of PR Week magazine’s 40 Under 40. He lives in Miami with his wife and son.
Watch In America's documentary about the race to capture the Latino vote on CNN in October 2012.
By Mike Valdés-Fauli, Special to CNN
(CNN) - For months, Cuban-American Senator Marco Rubio has sat atop pundits’ vice presidential lists, and the Republican primary here on January 31 once again places the Florida Hispanic population at the forefront of our political landscape. This demographic will come into even greater focus as it presents the first real test of Latino voters for candidates in a fierce battle to attract them in November.
Florida's many diverse demographics make it a microcosm of the U.S. melting pot, but politicians understand that Cuban-Americans, in particular, hold significant influence over the entire Latino community in this country, and directly impact the outcome of elections in Florida. This crucial swing state is home to the third-largest Latino population in the country – more than 4.2 million people. One-third of eligible Hispanic voters here are Cuban.
Since the first wave of arrivals in 1960, the Cuban immigrant population in the United States has become wildly successful and credited - or faulted, depending on your viewpoint - for swaying many presidential elections.
Although traditionally this group leaned heavily to the right and voted Republican in both local and national elections, the times have shifted and younger Cuban-Americans are more moderate in their views. Additionally, Cubans vote in greater numbers than other Latinos. Nearly half - 49.3% - of Latinos of Cuban origin voted in 2010, compared with just 29.6% of Puerto Ricans and 28.7% of Mexican-Americans, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
Because of this, presidential candidates have long made the trek down to Miami for fundraisers, but also to make the obligatory stop at Versailles café, donning the traditional Cuban Guayabera for photo opps, and drinking espresso with the noisy and passionate Cuban cognoscenti.
But there’s another reason: The Cuban community has financial might and the numbers don’t lie. At $50,000, native-born Cuban-Americans have a higher median income than all other Hispanic groups, and even non-Hispanic whites, who come in at $48,000, the Pew Hispanic Center reports. This is due in large part to a focus on education, exemplified by the fact that 39% of U.S.-born Cuban-Americans have a college degree or higher, as compared to only 30% of non-Hispanic whites. Even though they only represent 5% of the U.S. Hispanic population, Cubans were elected among the first Latino senators - Robert Menendez, Mel Martinez and Rubio - the first Hispanic commerce secretary - Carlos Gutierrez - and the first Latin Fortune 50 CEO - Roberto Goizueta of The Coca-Cola Company.
So how has an island nation, so small in geography and population, rendered an immigrant population that achieves levels of success unlike others? How did people who arrived here with nothing become kingmakers for our national politics time and again?
My own family is an example. My grandparents had a mansion in Havana with all the trappings of an opulent life; a mansion, servants, and drivers. But immediately upon exiling Cuba, they lost it all and needed to work twice as hard in Miami just to make ends meet. My grandfather had to go back to law school in his mid-40s, while my grandmother, who had never worked a day in her life, took a job as a toy store cashier to put food on the table. For them, like many of their peers, this hard work most certainly paid off. They had four children, all of whom went on to be great successes. My father went to Harvard Law School, founded one of the country’s first Hispanic-owned law firms and served as a four-term mayor of Coral Gables, Florida. His three siblings were high-ranking financial institution executives. Yet what makes this story so amazing is the fact that there are so many others like it.
I attribute the remarkable success of the Cuban people, and their current political influence, to three factors:
It’s the education, stupid
The majority of Cubans who left shortly after Fidel Castro’s arrival, disillusioned by a surprisingly violent Communist regime, were from the upper echelon of Cuban society and had affluent lives on the island. Their parents educated them well, and thousands of doctors, lawyers, bankers and ambitious teenagers flocked to the United States. This is different from other immigrant groups, who are often coming to this country in search of a better economic life they couldn’t access back home - even if that means service labor.
You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone
If you are born with money and never lose it, you may not be hyper-motivated. If you are born with nothing, you may never know the difference. But going from having everything in Cuba to nothing in Miami is a recipe for wanting to work hard to get it all back as quickly as possible. Fortunately, this generation passed on the value of hard work to mine, even though we’ve had a more stable upbringing without the unimaginable drama of exiling your country in adolescence.
Let’s stick together
The term “enclave development” has been used for 30 years to describe the Miami Cuban community’s penchant for helping itself ascend. Cubans not only succeeded in this country, they helped build a micro-society in Miami, with entrepreneurs, elected officials, real estate developers, bank executives and university presidents, using various "Latino connections" to ensure they lifted up their brethren.
This potent formula contributed to the success of previous generations, and has impacted greatly descendants like me.
What’s more, this success, and the perspective on politics it created, is sure to impact the GOP candidates this week as they descend on Miami. The candidates will need to understand the passion points of a complex electorate, still rightfully obsessed with an island 90 miles off our coast, but also realize the perils of generalizing. New generations bring entirely modern-day issues to the voting booth, even if they still frequent Versailles for their "cafecito."
The opinions expressed here are solely those of Mike Valdés-Fauli.