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Gwen’s Take: Who do these candidates think they are?

The sheer numbers overwhelm. Twenty candidates – and counting. Hundreds of millions of dollars raised in under three months – and much more to come.
One candidate even claims he is worth $10 billion. (We are to take his word for it.)

But, for me, by far the most eye-opening revelation in the early stages of this 2016 campaign is the sheer breadth of diversity in the field.

Count it up. Two women. Two Cuban-Americans. One African-American. Candidates hailing from California to New Jersey; from Vermont to Texas.

Some of them aren’t even millionaires.

To me, this points to a good thing about America. We come from everywhere, and our log cabins include the first generation immigrant’s experience as well as the inherited family name of a Bush or a Chafee.

This week, I interviewed two candidates who have vastly different ideas about the role our backgrounds play in how we define ourselves.

One, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, was born to Indian immigrant parents, educated in the Ivy League and changed his name from Piyush to Bobby, after a character in The Brady Bunch.

Gwen Ifill spoke withLouisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican presidential candidate, on Tuesday’s PBS NewsHour.

He emphasizes that he is not to be considered an Indian-American. This is what he told me when I asked him why.

“Folks can be proud of their heritage. But I think the hyphenations, the divisions are keeping us apart. We’re not Italian-Americans or Indian-Americans or African-Americans or Asian-Americans or rich Americans or poor Americans. We’re all Americans.

Look, my parents are proud of their Indian heritage, but they chose to come here over 40 years ago in search of the American dream. They wanted to raise their kids as Americans. That’s why they came here. What I worry about is, I look to Europe. You have got second-, third-generation immigrants that don’t consider themselves parts of those societies.

I think it’s reasonable to say, if folks want to come here, they should come legally, learn English, adopt our values, roll up their sleeves, get to work. Look, I think it’s common sense to say, if you want to come here, you should want to be an American. Otherwise, why are you coming here? We can still embrace our Italian heritage or our old country heritages, but we should be Americans. Stop the hyphenated Americans.”

So I was intrigued, as I read Republican Ted Cruz’s memoir, to note how emphatically he draws attention to his Cuban roots. His mother, Eleanor Darragh, is Irish-American, and his father Rafael Cruz emigrated legally from Cuba. But he defines himself as Cuban-American.

Gwen Ifill interviewed Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican presidential candidate and author of the new memoir “A Time for Truth,” on the PBS NewsHour on Wednesday.

What role, I asked him, should heritage play?

SEN. TED CRUZ: Well, look, our heritage is integral to who all of us are. I mean, we are all the product of our family journey. It’s one of the things I try to do in the book “A Time for Truth” is lay out my family journey going back generations, going back to my great-grandfather coming to Cuba, dying in the worldwide influenza epidemic, to my grandfather growing up on a sugarcane plantation, basically in indentured servitude, and then going — when he was a teenager, a bus came by in Cuba, offered everyone $5 and a sandwich to go to a political rally.”

GWEN IFILL: At what point do you become just an American and not a Cuban-American? And that’s Bobby Jindal’s point.

SEN. TED CRUZ: Oh, I’m emphatically an American. But I’m also a Cuban, Irish, Italian man. My mom is Irish and Italian. That’s a big part of who I am. Every one of us, we’re the product — one of the things I try to describe in the book are the journeys.

It should also be noted that Ted Cruz was born Rafael Cruz and he, too, changed his name to a more Americanized moniker.

In an ideal world, we all get to define ourselves before someone else does it for us. This extends far beyond mere ethnicity. Donald Trump could have been confused for a liberal New Yorker a few short years ago. Hillary Clinton, born and raised in Illinois, still lapses into the Arkansas cadences she adopted when she was that state’s first lady – but only when she travels south. President Obama drops his ‘gs, but usually only when he is in front of black audiences or speaking about racially charged topics.

I’m not persuaded there’s anything wrong with any of this. It is certainly as old as the republic. But the test for voters, reporters and citizens in general, is to be aware of the code switching, apply the appropriate discount and decide what it tells us about who exactly these candidates are.

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