A New Flavor for the Tea Party: Hispanic

At a John McCain rally in the nation’s capital two years ago, Tito Muñoz realized how disgusted he had grown with government and politicians in general.

A lifelong Conservative, he said he felt the Republican Party had softened its right-leaning beliefs to pander to the left. But his social and fiscal conservatism made him uninterested in becoming a Democrat. So he joined a movement that rallied for change and lower taxes, offered him a chance to take the country in a different direction and clung to his core Conservative values: the Tea Party.

“The Republican Party has failed. The Democrats are destroying the country,” said Muñoz, 49, a Colombian immigrant who lives in Virginia and became a U.S. Naturalized citizen in 2008. “In the Tea Party, you don’t have politicians dictating your life – you have control. I don’t want politicians or government telling me what to do.”

As Democrats and Republicans wrangle for support among Hispanics – the country’s largest and fastest growing minority group – anecdotal evidence suggests that an increasing number of Hispanics are bolting both parties and joining the grass-roots group. Although the numbers are hard to come by because the movement is so new, observers say they are noticing more and more Hispanics making the switch.

“What happening is a lot of Hispanics are concerned about the economic conditions, and they want another outlet,” said Frank Santos, executive director of the Texas-based Board of Hispanic Caucus Chairs.

Although in the past Hispanics have overwhelmingly voted Democratic, the growth of the Tea Party movement has made voting patterns are more unpredictable this election cycle.

The Tea Party, which has influenced races across the country and is threatening the Democratic grip in the House and Senate in the mid-term election, is also fueling the candidacy of Marco Rubio, a Cuban American who is the Republican nominee in the heated Florida Senate race.

Since it started over a year ago, the pro small-government movement has been criticized for being an anti-minority, all-white group. Critics have pointed to homogenous rallies and laughed at the groups’ lack of diversity.

To try and shed that image, Freedom Works, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that backs the Tea Party nationally, launched a website, Diversetea.com, to promote its members of color.

“We’ve been attacked that we are all a bunch of racists and that we hate the president because of the color of his skin,” said Brendan Steinhauser, director of campaigns for Freedom Works.“But we are inclusive, we are colorblind. It’s not about race, it’s about being proactive. We want to show the movement is reflective of America as a whole.”

And Tea Party Hispanics are standing up and trying to prove their involvement in the movement is sincere – they say they not only believe in the cause but are staunch activists for it.

“I became involved out of frustration,” said Ana Puig, a Brazillian-born co-leader of the Kitchen Table Patriots in Bucks County, Pa. “The movement offers real hope to the average citizen fed up with both parties.”

The Tea Party movement was created to fight for lower taxes and limited government. But some members are pushing to create a fuller platform, and one issue some have wanted the Tea Party to tackle is immigration – an issue that could alienate some Hispanics, experts said.

“If the Tea Party gets into the immigration issue, you could see a lot of Hispanics start to fall off,” said Santos, of the Board of Hispanic Caucus Chairs.

But even if Hispanic support keeps growing, and the movement continues to gain strength, it is still unclear what kind of long-term impact the group will have on either party.

“We don’t know the Tea Party’s durability or long-time effect,” said Dario Moreno, a political science professor and director of the Metropolitan Center at Florida International University. “It’s been a message by the people that they are disgusted with high taxes and the economic situation, and the [both] parties inability to address those issues. Whether the Republicans can capture the movement is still an open question. And if they do, will it help it or will it hurt it? No one knows.”