New York: Bloomberg improves his Spanish

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu May 3 13:36:35 UTC 2007

May 3, 2007

Bloomberg in Spanish: Now He Can Hold Up His End of the Conversation


On his recent jaunt to Mexico, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg fielded
questions from Mexican reporters and, to the surprise of many, responded
in Spanish. People who have closely followed Mr. Bloombergs political
career know that he has been studying the language for several years, and
have listened as he has sporadically stumbled over it on the campaign
trail. But according to aides, this was one of the first times the mayor
took his gradually acquired proficiency for an extended spin in public.
Mr. Bloombergs persistence in learning a language spoken by at least a
quarter of all New Yorkers would not help him in another mayoral election;
term limits prevent him from running again. But as he is increasingly
mentioned as a potential presidential candidate, his ability to properly
conjugate verbs in Spanish, along with his views on issues like
immigration, could help endear him to Hispanic voters across the country.

It also makes him among a tiny minority of New York City mayors to speak
more than a few words of Spanish, according to city historians. Last week,
he delivered a 10-minute speech in Spanish at an antipoverty gathering in
Toluca, an industrial city about an hour outside of Mexico City, even
lacing in a few jokes. While his accent was pronounced and he sometimes
rolled right over the emphasis of certain syllables, a Univision
correspondent who covered his Mexico visit was impressed enough to pause
during a news conference that followed to compliment the mayor, drawing
applause from the Mexican journalists present.

Weve been covering you for many years now and its pretty good, said
Antonio Martnez, a reporter and anchor with Noticias 41 Univision, New
York. I have a lot to learn, the mayor responded in English. Later that
day the mayor, who has been studying since about 2000, spent more than an
hour conversing in Spanish with his Mexico City counterpart, Marcelo
Ebrard, on complex issues ranging from crime to social programs, again
forgoing the use of an interpreter. Some native Spanish-speaking
journalists present privately tittered at Mr.  Bloombergs accent. But his
proficiency seems to have come a long way from just two years ago, when
his Spanish-language television ads drew some derision from Spanish
instructors, including his former tutor.

At one point during that campaign he was asked in Spanish how long he had
been studying the language. According to widely reported news accounts at
the time, the mayor appeared to falter and answered Una hora y media, cada
da. His answer translated to an hour and a half each day, which left
unanswered how long he had been at it. Mr. Martnez, who has followed the
mayor through his years in office, said he noticed a marked difference in
his Spanish from just a year ago, when he said the mayor struggled with
the language during the taping of a World Cup promotion at City Hall. It
was a huge improvement, said Mr. Martnez, a native of Mexico City. You
could tell he was from the United States, but he was pretty good, and that
he understood the questions. For someone who does not speak the language
every day, it was quite remarkable.

Few mayors before Mr. Bloomberg were known to speak Spanish at more than
an introductory level. William ODwyer, mayor from 1946 to 1950, spoke it,
said Chris McNickle, the author of To Be Mayor of New York: Ethnic
Politics in the City. Robert F. Wagner Jr., mayor from 1954 to 1965, might
also have spoken it, Mr. McNickle said. Both mayors were later appointed
to ambassadorships in Spanish-speaking countries, Mr. ODwyer in Mexico and
Mr. Wagner in Spain. But some who knew Mr. Wagner, including Herman
Badillo, the former Bronx borough president and congressman, who worked in
Mr. Wagners administration and was later a law partner with him, said he
did not speak the language.

Fiorello H. La Guardia, mayor from 1934 to 1945, reportedly spoke several
languages, including Italian, Hungarian, German and Yiddish. But if he
knew Spanish, it was only scantly, said Alyn Brodsky, author of The Great
Mayor: Fiorello La Guardia and the Making of the City of New York. Aides
to Mr. Bloomberg said he continues to study at least an hour a day and
continues to work with private tutors. Sometimes hell take a tutor with
him if hes going to Flushing on the 7 train, said his spokesman, Stu
Loeser. Evelyn Erskine, an assistant press secretary, said the mayor
frequently practices on her and other Spanish-speaking members of his
staff. He also listens to Spanish lessons on his iPod.

Its actually the only thing he listens to on his iPod, Mr. Loeser said.
According to Mr. Loeser, Mr. Bloomberg decided to take up Spanish before
deciding to enter politics after encountering more and more people in his
company, Bloomberg L.P., who were native speakers. But by the time Mr.
Bloomberg entered the mayoral race, it was clear he understood the
political advantages, said Juan Carlos Ayarza, the mayors former tutor. He
realized it was very important to get the attention of Spanish-speaking
voters, said Mr. Ayarza, who believes the mayors efforts to learn the
language helped increase his appeal with Hispanic voters in 2001 and 2005.

Asked to rate his own Spanish, the mayor said through a spokesman,

Translation: Improving.


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[Moderator's note: On a visit to Ellis Island some years ago, I learned
that Fiorello LaGuardia had worked as an interpreter there long before he
became mayor of New York. As I remember it, the languages he knew were
Italian, German, and either Slovenian or Croatian.  I concluded from this
that he came from an Italian family resident at one point in the
Austro-Hungarian Empire, e.g. in Trieste, where German would have been the
language of schooling, and Slovenian or Croatian a local language. (hs)]

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