CHICAGO -- In the Hispanic community, conservatives have long been the minority within the minority. But 2012 will mark the year it started to become OK for all minorities to be openly Republican.
The "why" is obvious. Despite the fact that delegates to last week's Republican National Convention were 98 percent white, take a look at the headliners: former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Florida's Sen. Marco Rubio, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez. New faces are being showcased by the GOP.
The "how," according to conservative Latinas I spoke with, will be by capitalizing on the now-broken stereotype that the Republican Party is only for rich white people who don't care about minorities, the poor or women.
That's a pretty sunny outlook for those who have spent their lives surrounded by liberal peers who, despite claiming to be inclusive, think nothing of calling minority Republicans traitors to their race or ethnicity, elitists, sellouts and, lately, anti-women.
Take, for instance, this comment I found on the "talk back" section of a Latino news-oriented website. On a page to vote for "the most influential Latino politicians in the United States," one person remarked: "Marco Rubio or Susana Martinez? Two Latinos that have both disowned their own heritage. Sorry I cannot/will not vote for either one -- they disgrace most of the rest on this list."
But though Hispanic Republicans have to put up with a lot of wrath from fellow Latinos and other minorities, at least they're no longer seen as an exotic species.
"I started out as a Democrat and became a Republican -- and a Mexican Republican, not a Cuban one -- with Ronald Reagan," said Teri Galvez, a Washington-based entrepreneur and vice chair of the DC GOP. "When I converted, there weren't many of us. Frankly, I may have been the first Republican intern in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in 1983 and people were always shocked, they couldn't believe it that I was a Republican. There's been a huge change in the last few years."
But Veronica Vera, a Puerto Rican freelance writer and public relations specialist, tells me that though the spotlight treatment has been new, minority Republicans really aren't.
"I don't think that it was as rare as what's been depicted. I think the real difference now is that Republicans, who up until this point haven't really done a very good job of reaching out to the Hispanic community, now know that they have to showcase their Hispanic support," said Vera, an Air Force veteran who grew up on the south side of Chicago and spent a lifetime defending her conservative beliefs.
"The Republican Party has to make people see that it's all about perception. There is this lie that Hispanics are Democrats and always should be. This misperception is so prevalent that they have to ignore criticism that they are pandering to Latinos and African-Americans and say, 'Hey, look -- we're diverse, we're a much broader group than the media and the Democrats give us credit for.'"
The women I spoke with say that although they do put up with a lot of rhetorical abuse, when they talk openly about their political beliefs, they often unexpectedly find fellow travelers.
"I was just at the after-party of a heavy metal rock band concert with a bunch of longhair Hispanic headbangers in Iron Maiden T-shirts sitting around talking politics at three o'clock in the morning," said Stefanie Pena, a grade-school language arts teacher and fifth-generation Mexican-American from Houston. "And they were very staunch in their conservative beliefs -- and angry that members of other ethnic groups look down on them for being with a party they think of as greedy and unwilling to help the poor."
All three of these women spoke at length about how emotional, thrilling and inspirational it was to watch Martinez, America's first Latina governor, on stage last week and their hope that her speech will empower others to get involved in politics. But it was Pena who put it in terms any Democrat could understand.
"I was watching with tears in my eyes. This was the beginning of something so beautiful and for one second I understood the whole Obama thing: Now my daughter can look up to a Susana Martinez and see that it's OK to have those beliefs and be a woman, and do the things we're doing."
Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at email@example.com.