Spanish Lesson: Two Constituencies, Two Campaigns? What You Need Is Another Tongue.
hfsclpp at gmail.com
Mon Jun 4 13:44:04 UTC 2007
Two Constituencies, Two Campaigns? What You Need Is Another Tongue.
By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 3, 2007; D01
into one of his deep-think riffs on assimilation for immigrants, but
probably shouldn't have implied that anything but English is "the language
of living in a ghetto." So he does penance on
apologizing and explaining in -- what else? -- grammatically correct
Spanish, albeit with a terminally Anglo accent. Turns out he's a closet
Spanish geek, getting tutored three times a week, while he considers a run
for president. Former
his campaign for the
where he declares, "¡Patria o muerte *--* venceremos!" --"Fatherland or
death -- we shall overcome!"
The ethnic cliches of yore no longer cut it -- a "Buenos días" here, a "¡Sí
se puede!" there. Many of the 2008 presidential campaigns are communicating
more ambitiously, with varying degrees of fluency -- whether or not they
support an amendment to the immigration bill to make English the national
language, which the Senate is poised to vote on this week.
New York Mayor Michael
who may yet launch a bid, goes to
reveals his inner Latino, speaking Spanish every chance he gets. New
Mexico Gov. Bill
his presidential bid in Los
invoking the language of his Mexican mother, trying to let Hispanics know
he's Hispanic, but not so Hispanic that he can't be a president to everyone.
Sen. Chris Dodd<http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/related-topics.html/Christopher+Dodd?tid=informline>,
fine Connecticut Yankee, former Peace
in the Dominican
finds himself discoursing in Spanish in those teeming border states of
Off the campaign trail, on Capitol
tune your ears to the new frequency. It's no longer just the cafeteria staff
chattering in Spanish. At 7:30 a.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays is Spanish
class for a half-dozen Democratic House members. The immigration debate has
brought advocates on both sides of the issue who are comfortable in both
languages. You see pink, sweating gringo faces in reception rooms off the
Senate floor suddenly burst into staccato Spanish.
All this Spanish makes politicians nervous: An identical legislative
amendment to uphold English passed easily last year. Yet they press on,
rolling their r-r-r-r's, auditioning to follow Dodd's and Sen. Barack
example in delivering the weekly Hispanic Radio
What's going on here? Let's translate.
The fact is, the politics of language is one thing, and the language of
politics is another. Language is both a tool and a value. The politics of
language requires a politician to honor that sacred and hard-to-define
concept, the "American identity." The language of politics is about getting
votes -- and pragmatically accepting that every day, including Election Day,
the American identity speaks in many tongues. Reconciling the two means
operating like those ubiquitous recorded phone prompts: "Press 1 to continue
in English. Oprima el 2 para continuar en español."
Coming out strongly and courageously in favor of English is a way of
flashing a high-sign to a certain segment of the electorate. It's a
linguistic nod-and-a-wink to those who fear
soul is imperiled by the rise of a population speaking, thinking, dreaming
in another language. Can you be a real American and speak Spanish? Bilingual
held up as a warning. "We cannot be a bilingual nation like Canada,"
Romney told the Union Leader in New
where few Latinos live, so few were likely to get that message. Yet down in
Romney was one of the first in the race to air a Spanish-language radio ad,
and he is one of the few GOP candidates to have an "En Español" Web option.
Click on it, and see one of Romney's sons give a video
Spanish, acquired during a missionary stint in
"Hola, soy Craig Romney, y les quiero hablar un poco sobre mi papá, Mitt
Romney . . . "
Al Cardenas, a Romney adviser and former Florida GOP chairman whose voice
was heard in the Spanish-language ad, says these are not contradictory
positions. "What he feels strongly about is the English language can unite
us all," Cardenas says. But Romney also understands the need to meet voters
where they are, in the language of politics: Says Cardenas: "You have
grandparents who only speak one language, Spanish; parents who might speak
English not well but certainly understand it; and then you've got
grandchildren who are the first generation collegegoers who prefer to speak
in English. All of these people congregate in the same household. If you're
running a political campaign, you say to yourself, 'What do we do?' "
*Language of Getting Ahead*
following the premise of Ronald
whose quip, "Hispanics are Republicans, they just don't know it yet," is
translated into Spanish on the Republican National
"En Español" Web page -- has known what to do. At the height of
immigrant-rights marches a year ago, when a recording of the National Anthem
in Spanish caused an uproar, Bush said the anthem should be sung in English,
and added: "I think people who want to be a citizen of this country ought to
learn English." That was the politics of language. Yet the language of
Bush's politics is frequently, famously, in Spanish. He spent $3.3 million
on Spanish-language TV ads for his reelection, according to the Hispanic
Voter Project at Johns Hopkins
In a campaign video, he said, in English, "We all know that the Latino vote
could be the deciding factor in this presidential election." In Spanish:
"Usted me conoce. Ya sabe quien soy," which means, "You know me. You know
who I am."
Bush also was the first president to deliver a weekly radio address in
Spanish, and he has all his Saturday radio addresses dubbed in Spanish.
Democrats come at this delicate dance from the other side of the room.
Hailing "diversity" and "multiculturalism" is a standard party line, and
most Latinos vote Democratic, so Democratic politicians can afford to eschew
the most ostentatious displays of English chauvinism. But only to a point.
Sen. Ken Salazar, the Latino Democrat from
offered an amendment to last year's immigration bill that would have
declared English the "common and unifying language." It was an alternative
to an amendment by Sen. James
to make English the "national language." Inhofe's passed 63 to 34,
Salazar's 58 to 39, though neither became law.
It is the Inhofe measure that is expected to come up again this week. The
senator says it would simply make clear that people aren't entitled to
certain government services in other languages. Inhofe, by the way, is
proficient in Spanish and on other occasions gives speeches in Spanish.
Richardson, the best Span*is*h speaker of any serious presidential candidate
ever, takes care not to overdo it. He doesn't want to appear *too* Hispanic,
just enough to let the right people know that he actually is Hispanic. "It's
tough for guys like 'Richardson' to be Latinos," he jokes. He says: "I'm not
running as a Hispanic candidate, but I'm trying to convince Hispanics that I
am Hispanic, and they don't know."
When Democrats assert the primacy of English, they place their emphasis on
what's in it for Latinos: English is the language of getting ahead. "If I'm
out there and I'm talking to anybody in this country, I would say become
English-proficient," says Rep. Charlie Gonzalez (D-Tex.). "It's part of the
assimilating process, which I think is very important." But he draws a line:
"I totally disagree with 'English first, English only, English is the
official language.' " he says. "Those are really code words for something
*Talking the Talk*
It is not yet 8 a.m. and four members of Congress are practicing the sound
of the Spanish letter "g," reciting words in a bashful chorus conducted by
their tutor, who stands at an easel in the Cannon House Office Building.
" . . . Gato, general, guerra, gigante . . . "
The sharp Worcester<http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/related-topics.html/Worcester?tid=informline>brogue
of Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), the soft
Gene Green <http://projects.washingtonpost.com/congress/members/g000410/>(D-Tex.)
and the more unassuming accents of Reps.
Peter Welch <http://projects.washingtonpost.com/congress/members/w000800/>(D-Vt.)
meet somewhere in Mexico, more or less.
" . . . Guitarra, gusto, bilingüe,
. . "
Newt Gingrich, they are not. But they are trying. "In my district, I have a
growing Latino population," McGovern says, outside of class. "I felt I could
be a better congressman if I could, if not master, at least be more familiar
with the language." A more advanced class meets weekly in a conference room
in the Capitol.
"I want to get past '¡Sí se puede!' " says Jan
"My district is increasingly Hispanic. . . . Little by little,
I've been able to say short little speeches off the cuff in Spanish." She
also has delivered the Hispanic Radio Address. Classes for GOP members began
a few years ago but petered out over time, according to a spokesman for Rep.
Jerry Weller <http://projects.washingtonpost.com/congress/members/w000273/>(R-Ill.),
one of the organizers. No amount of studying can prevent the
occasional gaffe. Gingrich was a pioneer of bilingual communication as
speaker of the House, but a news release his office issued for Cinco de Mayo
in 1998 is still recalled with chuckles in the bilingual halls of power.
**The release referred to Gingrich as "Hablador de la Casa" *--* but
"hablador" doesn't mean "speaker." It means someone who talks too much, a
big mouth. Then there's Romney's fiery "¡Patria o muerte -- venceremos!" in
Miami. It happens to be a trademark line of Fidel
Quoting Castro to Cuban Americans? ¡Caramba!
Cardenas, Romney's Cuban-born adviser, still winces. "It's one of those you
wish you could take back," he says, adding that the speech was not properly
vetted. And yet, Latinos say, such stumbles are forgiven by people who know
what it's like to flounder in another language. So candidates can score
points for sincere-seeming efforts to communicate, however awkward. Lorena
Chambers, a Latina political consultant who has made ads for Democrats,
recalls her evolving reaction to watching Gingrich on YouTube. "I was struck
by the accent in the beginning," Chambers says. "I thought, wow, this is
really rough. Once I got past that I realized he was being really genuine.
And my third reaction was, oh goodness! What came across was a genuine
appeal for forgiveness. That should concern quite a few Democrats."
And don't forget this paradox: Even for the benefit of Latinos who speak
English, sometimes it's advisable to use Spanish, as a fancy meta-political
bank shot. "There's a kind of symbolic value, more so than the accent or the
words said," says Peter Zamora, a civil rights lawyer and co-chairman of the
Hispanic Education Coalition. "It reflects that the speaker has internalized
the value of bilingualism and biculturalism." Back in Spanish class, "¿De
dónde es Raquel?" asks Elena Tscherny, the congressional tutor provided by
the Graduate School, USDA. "Abogada," answers McGovern, mistakenly giving a
character's profession (lawyer), not where she is from.
"Pero, ¿de dónde es?"
"California," says Baldwin.
Muy bien, Congresista.
Beneath all the talk, a question: Why bother? How many Hispanic citizens --
those eligible to vote -- can understand a political message only in
Spanish? To start with, the nation's largest minority is under-represented
at the polls because so many aren't citizens or aren't 18. Only 39 percent
of Hispanics were eligible to vote last year, or about 17.2 million,
according to the Pew Hispanic
Most Latino voters speak English -- after all, to become a citizen you have
to pass the test in English. Just 9 percent of Latino voters live in
households where only Spanish is spoken, according to Pew and Census
But it's a big mistake to assume this scant 9 percent -- this minority of a
minority -- is the entire audience for Spanish communication, according to
operatives in both parties. t doesn't take fluency in English to become a
citizen, and for important communication, such as making political
decisions, many English-learners prefer their native language. Political
parties also must look beyond the next election, says Fabiola
Rodriguez-Ciampoli, another pioneer of bilingual communication when she was
hired by then-minority leader Dick Gephardt to handle the Democrats'
Hispanic media and outreach in 2000.
"You have to reach out to Spanish-speaking Latinos even before they become
citizens," says Rodriguez-Ciampoli, now director of Hispanic communications
for Sen. Hillary
presidential campaign. "We as Latinos have brand loyalty. . . . The sooner
you start talking to them, the sooner you start helping them to identify
with the Democrats." San
media consultant Frank Guerra, so successful at crafting messages for the
Bush brothers, says that for the president and the former Florida governor,
"it goes way beyond the language piece. Hispanics perceive them as two
individuals who understand them, who are interested in them, and are
attempting to communicate with them, whether it's in halting Spanish on
special occasions" -- George -- "or whether through fluent conversation" --
Guerra worries that some GOP rhetoric in the immigration debate could turn
off the new brand-shoppers that President Bush won. Guerra's advice to the
GOP could stand for the Democrats as well: "You're speaking to the
fastest-growing, youngest population in the country. And what we do now will
forever set the course for what kind of party we're going to be in the
future -- majority or minority."
*'We're Not in Spain'*
Around the Capitol, the subject is immigration, and however you define the
national language, the conversation is taking place partly in Spanish. Rep.
Albio Sires <http://projects.washingtonpost.com/congress/members/s001165/> (
D-N.J.) is behind his desk in the Longworth House Office Building, speaking
into a microphone to record the Democrats' Hispanic Radio Address, sent to
130 Spanish-language stations every Saturday. In it, he tells the story of
his boyhood journey from
and he calls for immigration reform. He makes some last-minute edits. He
opts for the slightly more colloquial word here and there, changes "Nueva
Jersey" to New Jersey.
"We're not in Spain<http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/related-topics.html/Spain?tid=informline>,
we're in America," Sires explains. "The Spanglish jumps in, and sometimes
now it becomes acceptable. Not too many Spanish [speakers] in New
'Nueva Jersey.' " In another part of town, a professional Hispanic
narrator with a rich, cultured voice will render President Bush's weekly
address into Spanish. Three out of the last six of Bush's addresses have
been on immigration. Spanish speakers who missed them on the radio can hear
them on the "En Español" portion of the White House's Web
the Senate, five Democrats, including two Latinos, come off the floor to
take questions from reporters about the evolving immigration-reform
compromise. Sen. Bob
N.J.) makes a few points in Spanish, until a buzzer signals it's time to
"¡Tengo que votar!" Menendez apologizes to the dozen or so journalists for
Spanish-language outlets.Upon returning after the vote, "Are we doing this
in English or Spanish?" Sen. Pat Leahy
the reporters, who are bilingual. We're doing it in French today
*,*" says Armando Guzmán, a veteran on the Hill now with TV
He remembers when there were no Latinos in the Senate and reporters flocked
to Dodd for Spanish sound bites. Now, the Spanish-language press corps
operates with increasing ease. The growing audiences for Univision,
TV Azteca and the rest are so prized by politicos that both parties deploy
"Très bien," says Leahy. "I wish I remembered my Italian. When you were
speaking Spanish earlier," he says to Menendez, "I was picking up about
every other word!" And then, just when you think you've roughly mastered the
grammar of the politics of language, and the language of politics, up pops
an irregular part of speech. Over on the House side, Rep. Zoe
is chairing a hearing of the House Judiciary subcommittee on
immigration. Rubén G. Rumbaut, professor of sociology at the University of
California at Irvine<http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/related-topics.html/University+of+California-Irvine?tid=informline>,
is testifying about language -- and how long it takes before immigrant
families lose their Spanish.
The answer is . . . not terribly long. "Spanish appears to draw its last
feeble breath in the third generation," Rumbaut says in prepared remarks.
It's a controversial subject, disputed by others who claim Latinos resist
adopting English. But then here comes Charlie Gonzalez, leaving Nancy
office after a gathering of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to discuss
immigration reform. In that meeting, Rep. Luis
and some others spoke Spanish, but not Gonzalez. His Spanish is not
so good. He is the son of the late, legendary representative Henry Gonzalez,
who was the son of Mexican immigrants who did not speak much English. Henry
Gonzalez spoke beautiful Spanish, as well as English, according to his son.
"Dad was just horrified as my Spanish deteriorated," Charlie Gonzalez says.
"People expect if your name is Gonzalez that you can speak Spanish. It's
always going to be a source of kidding." He can laugh about it. The voters
in Gonzalez's majority-Hispanic district in San Antonio understand. The
Spanish of their grandchildren is disappearing, too. This is what happens.
They've elected Gonzalez five times. "This is a shared experience," the
congressman says. "The degree of proficiency in Spanish varies from
generation to generation."
Sooner or later, Spanish becomes a language to study -- " . . . gato, gusto,
guitarra, bilingüe . . . " -- and English wins. But until then, in gringo
politics, "se habla español."
(c) 2007 The Washington Post Company
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