When Rafael Cruz walks into the VIP room at the River Plantation Country Club, there’s a spontaneous round of applause.
People who were sipping strawberry punch and nibbling on cheese and crackers put down their plates and cups and gravitate toward the bespectacled 74-year-old pastor. He has just arrived in Conroe, a suburb north of Houston.
The room is full of conservative politicians and powerful campaign donors. There are elected judges, state representatives, and candidates for various public offices. Standing at a table in the corner: former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Making small talk with a couple from Houston: Barbara Cargill, the chair of the Texas Board of Education. But everyone here wants to talk to Rafael. They want to shake his hand and have their pictures taken with him. They want to thank him for all he’s done, for the beliefs he espouses, for the way he raised his son. They tell him they are praying for him, and for Ted.
Throughout it all, Rafael maintains a gracious—if uncomfortable—smile. He takes business cards. He tries to learn names, and the names of spouses. He sees someone he recognizes and reminisces about a campaign he worked on years ago against Lloyd Bentsen. A younger man compliments Cruz’s keen memory. A woman tells him, “We’re blessed to have you with us tonight.”
“I’m blessed to be here,” Rafael says, his Cuban accent slightly bending the vowels.
Cruz lives in Carrollton now, but he spends most of his days on the road, at events like this. It started two years ago as a drive to West Texas to fill in for his son at a campaign stop and has turned into a full schedule of speaking engagements. Sometimes it’s a Tea Party group at a chain restaurant along the highway. Sometimes it’s pastors in a hotel ballroom. Sometimes he introduces Ted. Sometimes he talks for four hours and wishes he had more time. Over the last two years, Rafael has traveled the country, part ambassador, part scout, part political weapon, perpetual basking father.
The left has criticized him for comparing Barack Obama to Fidel Castro and for saying he’d like to send the president “back to Kenya.” But conservatives, including talk-radio hosts, have fallen in love with his story and his fiery, often politically incorrect remarks. Rush Limbaugh played portions of a speech Rafael gave at a FreedomWorks event in July and enthusiastically told his listeners, “This guy is knocking it out of the park!”
Tonight’s event is hosted by the Montgomery County Eagle Forum. Rafael is listed as the keynote speaker, and about 300 people have purchased tickets for $50 to $150 each. Soon it’s time for dinner, and the crowd around him builds as he makes his way to the banquet hall.
Everyone stands for a prayer. Then the pledge of allegiance. Then the pledge of allegiance to the Texas flag. As the food is served, a group called His Rain sings two songs. They’re a little like the ’90s group En Vogue, except they’re conservative white suburban women singing Christian songs. Cargill speaks briefly about her fights on the state Board of Education, and DeLay makes a few remarks, mostly about his relationship with Christ. He refers to his own indictment and conviction on conspiracy charges—and the recent reversal of that verdict—as “my ordeal.”
After his speech, he’s presented with a plaque etched with an eagle, honoring him for being a “champion of Constitutional Values.” When he sees it, his eyes light up, and for a brief second, he sounds like a little boy on Christmas morning. “An eagle!” he says. “I collect eagles!”
When it comes time for Rafael, the emcee doesn’t have to do much introducing. These are the people who’ve watched the videos of the younger Cruz verbally sparring with Dianne Feinstein, Eric Holder, Charles Schumer. They’ve heard Rafael with Glenn Beck. They’ve seen the speech he gave at the Family Leadership Summit in Iowa. Many saw him on the Heritage Foundation’s Defund Obamacare tour. Everyone here knows Rafael’s story. When the emcee calls out questions to the crowd, they shout back answers:
What country did he leave? Cuba!
Where did he move? Austin!
What was his first job in this country? Washing dishes!
Where did his mother sew his money for the trip? In his underwear!
As Cruz makes his way to the podium, he receives a standing ovation that lasts nearly a minute. He’s beloved here because he embodies the American dream. He was an immigrant who moved here legally, taught himself English, worked his way through college, started a business, and eventually had a son like Ted. And now that his progeny has become a senator and a galvanizing conservative crusader, Rafael is the father of the year, the cultivator of a great hope for millions of Americans.
And he’s not surprised. In fact, looking back now, it feels like his entire life was leading up to this.
Cruz often tells the story of his journey to this country, mostly to religious and conservative groups. Ted mentioned it frequently on the campaign trail and brings it up almost every time he gives a speech or an interview. (He mentioned his father’s immigration two separate times in a 10-minute appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.) The story isn’t just part of their family’s identity; it’s their trajectory. With different audiences, Rafael stresses different parts and uses different analogies, but the thrust is always the same. There’s no way to know for sure which—if any—parts of the story have been colored by the biases of memory, but each time he tells it, the old man gets emotional. He is, at turns, animated, jovial, somber.
Not long after Rafael turned 18, he was arrested as a suspected terrorist in his native Cuba. For four years in the mid-1950s, he’d worked with an underground resistance against dictator Fulgencio Batista’s government. He doesn’t get too specific about what he did. The word “bomb” comes up. He was young and idealistic back then, he says. He came from a good home—his mother was an elementary school teacher, and his father, born in the Canary Islands and also named Rafael, was a successful RCA salesman—but when young Rafael saw the way the military brutalized vocal dissenters, he was ready to fight. He says his parents had no idea, until he was arrested.
“In order to survive in a resistance movement, you have to act the opposite of what you do,” he says. “You have to act in public as the village idiot. You act in public like you don’t care at all about politics.”
Some of his cohorts had been arrested before him, as the army was cracking down. Some of them would show up a few days after they disappeared, shot dead in the streets. That’s what he expected would happen to him. Looking back, he’s still not sure why his experience was different.
“Praise God that he had a better plan,” he tells people.
He wasn’t taken to jail, he remembers. Instead he was taken to an army garrison, where the rules of habeas corpus wouldn’t apply. He says he was beaten for three or four days, then dragged into the office of a colonel. The way Cruz tells it, the colonel looked him in the eye.
“We’re letting you go,” the colonel said. “But if a bomb explodes in this city, we’re coming to get you.”
“Well, how can I be responsible for what other people do?” Cruz asked.
“I don’t care,” the colonel said. “I’m coming to get you.”
He knew he had to leave the country. He knew he had no choice. He didn’t want to expose his parents or his sister to danger—his mother had been shocked enough by his arrest. He figured his best way out was with a student visa. He’d made straight A’s throughout high school, so he started applying to colleges in the United States. He applied to the University of Miami, Louisiana State University, and the University of Texas. The first acceptance letter was from Texas, so he decided that’s where he would go. “That’s how I became a Texan,” he tells people, often referring to Texas as “the greatest state within the greatest country on the face of the Earth.”
His father bought him a ticket for the ferry to Key West and drove him to the port. After the quick boat ride to America, he rode a bus for two days straight to Austin. He says his mother, worried her boy would get robbed, had sewn a pocket into his underwear. But he had only enough money for the bus fare and for a few hamburgers along the way. The first thing he did when he got to the university was go to the registrar’s office and ask for a job. Within 24 hours, he had a Social Security card. “Legal,” he stresses when it comes up. “The same Social Security Number I have today.”
He took a job as a dishwasher because, he says, he spoke little English, and nobody ever talks to the dishwasher. “They bring you dirty dishes. You wash them. You get paid.” He was also given free food at the restaurant. He could eat enough in an eight-hour shift to hold him over for the other 16 hours of the day.
That fall, he enrolled at UT as a math major with a minor in chemical engineering. He also decided to teach himself English. In those days, he points out, they didn’t kick you out of the theater after the movie. So he could sit in the air-conditioning for hours, watching the same movies three times in a row, trying to associate words with actions and objects. He says he went every day for a month and learned the language “just like a baby.” Soon he was thinking in English, and he developed a love for American pop culture. In conversations, he randomly drops references to everything from Hogan’s Heroes to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (his second favorite book, after the Bible).
In 1959, Fidel Castro took over in Cuba. When Cruz went home to visit his family that year, he says he “got the shock of my life.” He had fought on the same side as Castro in the revolution. Not side by side, he notes, but against a mutual enemy in Batista.
“That same man that had been talking before about hope and change,” Cruz tells people, “was now talking about how the rich were evil, how they oppress the poor, and about the need to redistribute the wealth.”
Soon, Cruz says, the government began shutting down newspapers and imprisoning journalists and pastors. There was the confiscation of private property and a shift to socialized medicine. Hospitals in Cuba, he says, went from some of the best in the world to being plagued by staph infections and devoid of things like aspirin. He tells a story about how after Castro took over, soldiers would go into kindergarten classes and tell the children to close their eyes and pray to God for candy. The kids would open their eyes: no candy. But then, Cruz says, the soldiers would tell the kids to close their eyes and pray to Castro for candy. When the kids had their eyes closed, the soldiers would quietly put a piece of candy on each desk.
He says a woman who grew up in Romania heard him speak at an event in Dallas a few months ago and said that former Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu did exactly the same thing.
“One of the things that we need to understand is something fundamental in Marxism,” he says. “You must destroy the concept of God because government must become your god.”
When Cruz got back to Texas, he resolved never to return to Cuba. When he reaches this part of the story, he normally tells people that he was “grateful to be in the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
While he was in graduate school in the early ’60s (also in mathematics, also at UT), he took a two-week seminar on computer programming. The university had just purchased its first computer, and Cruz would write programs, for hire, for professors and grad students who wanted to run data analysis. One project analyzed Rorschach tests.
After school he got a job with IBM in Dallas. He was transferred to Houston and worked with a consulting firm in the oil industry. He doesn’t talk much about this part of his life. He was briefly married to a woman before Ted’s mother, and had two girls whose names almost never come up in public. (One is a doctor; the other is deceased.) He was 29 or 30—he can’t remember his exact age—when he married Eleanor Darragh. A mathematician like Rafael and the first in her family to graduate from college, Eleanor was a computer programmer for Shell. Eventually, the couple started their own seismic data-processing firm and followed the oil industry to Calgary. She spent a lot of time crunching numbers. He spent a lot of time out selling, socializing with clients.
Rafael Edward Cruz was born in 1970, three days before Christmas. They decided to call him Ted. Because they were living in Canada, he was born in a socialist hospital. The elder Cruz doesn’t recall any specific complaints, but he remembers paying either $100 or $300 extra so they could use the doctor of their choice.
When Ted was 8 or 9 months old, the family took a trip to a hot springs. Rafael’s parents were there, too. At one point, while Rafael and Eleanor were in a pool, Rafael’s father picked up baby Ted and threw him into the water. The infant began to sink. Eleanor was very upset—the incident would remain a source of tension for years. But then Ted popped back up, smiling and giggling. “He was just as happy as can be,” Rafael says.
This is how the father thinks of his son. When faced with opposition or difficulty, whether it was the Ivy League debaters at Princeton, the opposing attorneys arguing before the Supreme Court, or someone like Dianne Feinstein on the Senate floor, Ted stays calm, rational. “He’s really at peace,” Rafael says. “The Bible calls it ‘a peace that surpasses all understanding.’ ”
When Ted was still a toddler, Rafael and Eleanor split up. Rafael moved back to Houston by himself. Even when Eleanor brought Ted six months later, the family remained estranged. But a friend invited Rafael to a Baptist church in Spring Branch. There, he dedicated his life to Christ and soon moved back in with his wife and son. Ted wouldn’t hear the details of the separation until he was much older. At the time, all he saw was a father going to church and a family back together. If not for Rafael’s newfound faith, Ted has told people, “I would’ve been raised by a single mother.”
Rafael started reading his son stories from the Bible and noticed that Ted seemed much brighter than other children his age. It felt like he was anointed. There was a time when young Ted told people he wanted to be a scientist. Later it changed to a lawyer. Rafael remembers telling him more than once: “Ted, you have been gifted above any man that I know, and God has destined you for greatness.”
For his first 20 years in this country, Rafael didn’t follow politics much. He focused on business, on family, and on his faith. But by the late 1970s, he was growing more and more worried about the dreadful economy under Jimmy Carter. There was stagflation, unemployment, gas shortages. It was an especially bad time for people in the oil industry. Rafael got involved with the Religious Roundtable, a mirror group to the Moral Majority that Jerry Falwell was starting around the same time. He was on the state board, part of the movement that mobilized evangelicals in 1980 to help elect Ronald Reagan. (He calls Reagan “the greatest president this country has had in the last hundred years.”)
At the time, Ted was 8, 9, 10 years old. Every night, discussion over dinner was about Republican politics, about family values and the power of an unbridled economy. Over and over, the father would tell his son: “You know, Ted, when I lost my freedom in Cuba, I had a place to come to. If we lose our freedoms here, where are we going to go? There is no place to go.” It’s a line both men still use in speeches.
Through a client, Rafael got Ted involved with the Free Enterprise Institute. Before he was in high school, Ted was reading Austrian economic theories and open-market philosophies. When he talks about it, Rafael always lists the influences in the same order: Friedman, Hayek, Bastiat, Mises, the Federalist Papers, the Anti-Federalist Papers. The institute also organized a group of five teenagers called the Constitutional Corroborators. Ted and the other boys committed the Constitution to memory. Rafael would quiz his son until he had every word perfect. Then he’d critique his elocution.
The kids toured Texas, going to Rotary Club meetings and luncheons hosted by like-minded groups. At each stop, they would set up five easels in the front of the room, and while the adults were having lunch or dinner, the boys would each write out a different part of the Constitution from memory. (Ted’s favorite parts were: Article I, Section 8 and the Ninth and 10th amendments.) Then Ted would give a short speech about the founding documents or about a free economy. Ted did this 80 times throughout high school. Rafael knows it was 80 because each time Ted gave one of these performances, he got a $50 scholarship, and at the end of the four years, there was $4,000 in that account.
“Before he left high school, he knew without a shadow of a doubt what his purpose in life was,” Rafael says. “It was to defend and protect freedom and the Constitution, to fight for free markets and limited government and free enterprise and the rule of law.” He adds, “It became like fire in his bones.”
When Ted went to college, his parents divorced. When the topic comes up, the usually loquacious Rafael leaves long pauses in the conversation. He regrets it. “Divorce is always a sad thing,” he says. “It’s not one of the things I’m proud of. Sometimes we make decisions that we regret later on.”
He says that he and Eleanor have a good relationship now. With Ted’s career and the grandkids, there’s plenty to talk about. Every time he’s in Houston, they have dinner. (She lives in the same condo building as Ted and his family.)
Rafael says Ted didn’t take a side in the split. He was grown by then, and after years in debate, Rafael says, Ted was accustomed to seeing both sides of any argument. Instead he focused even more intensely on his debate competitions, winning the top awards at several national and international debate tournaments. Rafael makes a point of noting that despite the troubles he was going through with Ted’s mom, they were both there for their son’s shining moments, for the big debate tournaments, for his graduation from Princeton, for his graduation from Harvard Law School.
As Ted went on to clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, to work in a private practice, to work on landmark cases like Bush v. Gore, Rafael got out of the oil business and into pastoring and translating religious texts. He settled in the suburbs of Dallas because there’s less traffic than Houston and he enjoys being close to the airport.
Rafael started driving from town to town, stumping for Ted, during the 2012 campaign. Crowds loved him, and soon father and son were sharing their story—together and apart—with anyone who’d listen. The father was there in Washington, D.C., that day in January 2013 when the American dream became a reality and he watched his son sworn in
as a United States senator. He doesn’t cry often, but that day, seeing his son hold the Bible and raise his hand to take the oath, Rafael wept.
Life on the road is strange. The night of the Eagle Forum event at the country club in Conroe, Rafael tells a shortened version of his story. The crowd cheers when he talks about becoming a Texan. They applaud when he mentions Ronald Reagan and learning English, when he refers to this country as “the greatest bastion of freedom in the world” and talks about the need to “draw a line in the sand.” When he’s done, he receives another standing ovation and a plaque. Someone in the audience declares he “must be the proudest dad in America.”
Dozens of people line up to meet him, to ask for a photo or an autograph. He signs programs and pictures and several pocket-size Constitutions. The procession lasts nearly an hour. Waiting around for him through all of it is a pleasant couple, Judy and Tom Hughes. While traveling, Rafael generally prefers the comfort of a home to the lonely sterility of a hotel room. So organizations that host him often arrange for him to stay in guest rooms. Tonight, he’s staying with Tom and Judy, in their palatial two-story house a few miles away, in The Woodlands. They stand a few feet from him, smiling like they’ve won the lottery.
By 8 am the next morning, Rafael is up and dressed in another crisp suit. Today, he’ll go back to the same country club from last night to talk to a group of pastors over brunch. He’s passionate about convincing religious leaders to get more political, so he’s been looking forward to this. He has a PowerPoint presentation prepared. (His phone is the size of an Etch A Sketch, and he still uses an AOL email account, but he is considerably more tech-savvy than most septuagenarians.)
Tom has already left for work in the city by the time Rafael comes downstairs, but Judy is there, ready with pictures and stories of her children and her baby granddaughter. Rafael notes the beautiful morning light streaming in from the tall windows in the living room.
“From the east,” he says to nobody in particular. “The way Jesus will return.”
They make small talk for a while. When the topic of President Obama comes up, Judy mentions that a lot of people think he’s the Antichrist. She wants to know what the pastor thinks.
“He’s not the Antichrist,” Rafael says. “People thought Hitler was the Antichrist, too, but we’re all still here, so he couldn’t have been. Obama is just very passionate about his beliefs. I think his philosophies are terrible for this country, but he’s not the Antichrist. He’s a true believer.”
A few minutes later, Judy wants to show her guest one of the gigantic lemons she grows in her garden. She disappears for a moment and returns with a lemon the size of a small football. Upon seeing it, Cruz recalls a simple lemon dessert recipe and suggests cutting thin slices of the rind to put in the garbage disposal for a lemon-fresh scent around the sink. Then he explains that he doesn’t eat a lot of sweets these days. There are pastries out for breakfast, but he says he’s waiting for the brunch.
“I don’t do push-ups. I do push-aways,” he says, pushing an imaginary plate away from his chest.
Because of his travel schedule, he doesn’t exercise as much as he’d like. His usual routine involves long, intense walks. Not outside, though, where there’s pollution and unpredictable weather.
“Most malls open at 6 am,” Cruz says. “But the stores don’t open until 10.”
So for hours, the father of the senator listens to recordings of Scripture and walks around the mall. When he’s home in Carrollton, he prefers the Vista Ridge Mall. “Inside the mall, the weather never changes,” he says.
He’s picked up a few other traveling tips, too: he used to get light starch on his shirts, but now he gets medium. “You can fold the shirt and lay it on top of your bag, and it won’t wrinkle,” he says. For the long road trips, when it’s just him and talk radio—that’s how he stays up on current events—he brings a separate driving shirt and comfortable driving shoes.
Before he heads back to the country club, he thanks Judy for her hospitality, and he makes sure he has her address written down, so he can send a thank-you card later. Judy asks if he’ll have a chance to see Ted while he’s around Houston. Rafael says he’d hoped to, but something came up in Washington, and Ted couldn’t make it home. Rafael doesn’t actually see his son much, even when they are in the same city. He’s flown to Washington at least six times in the last year, and he usually stays at Ted’s apartment, often for a week at a time. But even then, there are days when they only get a few minutes together.
“Ted’s just so busy these days,” he says.
Judy walks Rafael to his car, a Lincoln MKZ with a Ted Cruz sticker on the trunk. In the backseat is the detritus of his life on the road: two hats, a jacket, another plaque, notes for the three different books he’s working on, and, of course, his extra shoes and shirt. He makes sure he has a bottle of water handy.
In a few hours, he’ll be on a plane to Atlanta to talk to a group at Emory. Then it’s Austin. Then San Diego. Then he’ll spend some more time in Iowa, where crowds are already asking if Ted will run for president in 2016. There will be more handshaking, more photos, more coffee in the living rooms of strangers. Yes, he has regrets: relationships that could have gone differently, the mistakes he made as a teenager, not finalizing his U.S. citizenship until 2005.
But he wouldn’t change anything now. It’s all built to this, and this is the American dream.