Watch your Language!

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sat Feb 7 18:16:44 UTC 2004

>>From the Philadelphia Enquirer,  Posted on Sat, Feb. 07, 2004

Unconventional Wisdom | Watch your language!

In trying to wrangle Latino votes, presidential candidates often mangle

By Tanya Barrientos
Inquirer Columnist

I don't know who decided that the men who would be president couldn't get
to the White House without speaking Spanish. Somehow, bumbling through
phrases en espanol has become standard political procedure, like kissing
babies and slapping backs at the local diner. This week, the Democrats
descended on Arizona and New Mexico con ganas of impressing the local
Latino population.

Ay caramba! The things they did to the language of my ancestors! Former
Vermont Gov. Howard Dean addressed a crowd in Albuquerque, N.M., calling
them "mis amigos y mis amistades," which translates to "my friends and my
friendships." "Nosotros juntos!" cheered Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich,
thinking he was paraphrasing the very American phrase "all of us
together." But in Spanish, what he said simply translates into a
grammatical car wreck.

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry leaned on his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, to
do his Spanish speaking. She is fluent in five languages. And retired Gen.
Wesley Clark pulled out the few palabras he learned during his time in the
military. To be fair, this flirtation is bipartisan. President Bush is
prone to pepper some sound bites with his own Tex-Mex favorites.

It's hardly the first time that politicians eager to show they're down
with minority issues have waded into treacherous linguistic waters. Many
years ago, when I was a reporter in Dallas, I heard a City Council
candidate tell a group of Mexican American voters, "Necesito su pollo."
Which means he needed their chicken.

What he meant to say was that he needed their apoyo - which means
"support." In various parts of the country, candidates could attempt their
slogans in Chinese, Polish or Yiddish. But Spanish seems to be the ethnic
language du jour, and every flag-waving wannabe is trying it on for size.
Hey, I know running for office is all about putting on a show. Donning the
hard hat in front of the Teamsters. Eating the gumbo in New Orleans.
Standing beside the fighter jet at the Air Force base.

So be it.

But please tell me which pundit determined that Latinos would think better
of a given candidate if he spoke bad Spanish? Imagine what American Idol
judge Simon Cowell would say if the candidates performed their rickety
Spanish acts in front of him: "If the future of international trade
depended on your performance, we'd never drink tequila again!"

Come to think of it, that probably would get more viewership than a dry
debate. Don't get me wrong. I'm glad Latinos wield political clout. I'm
glad the candidates are making an effort, and I have nothing against them
producing Web sites and campaign literature in Spanish.

But here's the thing.

Using sub-Berlitz espanol to connect with us as a group is condescending
at worst, and ridiculous at best. Here's my advice. Go ahead and eat the
taco. Whack the pinata at the rally. We'll enjoy the show. But for
goodness sake, after you slip on that sombrero, just address the issues in
English and move along.

Por favor!

Contact columnist Tanya Barrientos at 215-854-5729 or
tbarrientos at

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