“I was shocked, because I often heard those kinds of comments when I was a kid growing up in Pacoima, California, where I was born and raised,” Cárdenas said in an email. He added that he had been waiting to speak at that moment, and Roll Call reported that he was at the podium during the outburst.
It was initially unclear who made the remark, which came during the same week that Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) was stripped of committee assignments over racist comments.
Rep. Jason T. Smith (R-Mo.) later admitted making the statement, and Cárdenas said Smith called him afterward to apologize.
Smith’s communications director, Joey Brown, said in an email that in making his remark on the House floor, the GOP lawmaker was “speaking to all the Democrats who were down vacationing in Puerto Rico last weekend during the shutdown, not any individual.” Brown did not respond to a request for comment regarding the apology.
Cárdenas, the youngest son of immigrant parents from Mexico, is the chairman of Bold PAC, the fundraising arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which organized a delegation to visit Puerto Rico over the weekend.
The trip included “briefings on the continuing effects of Hurricane Maria,” as well as “a charity performance of ‘Hamilton’ and . . . a little down time on the beach,” The Washington Post’s David Weigel reported.
President Trump and conservative media outlets attacked Democrats for taking the trip amid the longest government shutdown in history.
According to Weigel, “while organizers were wary of the optics, there was no talk of canceling the trip.”
“We were not going to let Donald Trump stop us, whether he created a shutdown or whether he wrote mean tweets about us,” Cárdenas said in San Juan. “Millions of people are being affected all over the country, including in Puerto Rico. Projects are being stopped, right now. And the president is exacerbating this situation, from Puerto Rico to California.”
Weigel reported that “lawmakers flew to Puerto Rico as the White House was reportedly considering ways to divert disaster funds earmarked for hurricane relief toward the construction of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.”
Back in Washington, with the shutdown dragging on and both political parties digging in, House members were sparring over procedural matters related to the short-term spending bill when the “Go back to Puerto Rico!” remark came from the Republican side of the aisle.
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) implored members of Congress “to be civil to one another.”
“I would hope that we could refrain from any implications that have any undertones of prejudice or racism or any kind of -ism that would diminish the character and integrity of one of our fellow members,” he said on the House floor.
Cárdenas, who has represented California’s 29th District since 2013, told the Hill that he immediately confronted his Republican colleagues after hearing the remark, but no one acknowledged saying it.
“There was about 50 mostly male Republicans staring at me, and no one would admit that they said it. I asked several times but no one owned up to the fact that they said it,” he said.
Hours later, Cárdenas said, Smith called and “took responsibility for the comment and sincerely apologized.”
The California lawmaker said he accepted the apology, then shared a saying he said his parents taught him.
“De todo lo malo, siempre sale algo bueno,” which in English translates as: “From everything bad, something good will always come of it.”
JM Rieger and Peter W. Stevenson contributed to this report.