Los Angeles: The symbolic Spanish debate

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Thu Sep 13 13:33:48 UTC 2007


>>From the Los Angeles Times

The symbolic Spanish debate
Democrats roll their r's on Spanish-language TV, even though most
Latino voters speak English.

Swati Pandey

September 12, 2007

In case you hadn't heard, Univision hosted a Spanish-language
Democratic presidential debate on Sunday night. It was the latest in
an already long and tedious string of contests to see who can repeat
his or her boilerplate with more and fresher conviction. Even though
there have been over a dozen debates already, only a few have provided
any real fodder for voter decision-making. The Univision debate may
have been historic for its simultaneous
English-to-Spanish-back-to-English-subtitle translation, but little
that came from candidates' mouths was worth remembering, especially
because they weren't actually allowed to do the Spanish-speaking

The seven contenders (minus, unfortunately, the always entertaining
Joe Biden) stuck to the script, repeating their well-known stances on
immigration and dropping all the right names and connections. Sen.
Barack Obama (D-Ill.) reminded the audience that his father was an
immigrant from a small town in Kenya. Obama also compared Cesar Chavez
to Martin Luther King. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) pointed out that
her campaign manager is a Latina. Former Sen. John Edwards boasted
that his hometown in North Carolina "is now half Latino."

The winner of the name-dropping contest was probably former Sen. Mike
Gravel, who solemnly referenced Armando Soriano, a soldier who was
killed in Iraq and whose parents now face deportation. Not only was
the comment bound to resonate with Latinos while swaying even the most
stone-hearted immigration policy conservatives, it may have been just
what Gravel needed to make voters forget his statement in a previous
debate that soldiers in Iraq are dying in vain. The most interesting
moment might have been when two candidates actually tried to speak
Spanish instead of letting translators do it for them. Sen. Chris Dodd
(D-Conn.) and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (the lone Latino
candidate, cursed with a Caucasian-sounding name) speak fluent Spanish
but were blocked from doing so by debate organizers. Univision said it
wanted to be fair to the other candidates.

There's a clear irony in a Spanish-language debate that won't allow
candidates to speak Spanish. But because debates are ultimately about
cozying up to the appropriate primary-voting bloc, shouldn't Univision
have let Dodd and Richardson demonstrate their linguistic ties to the
Latino community, at least in short statements? The Democrats' main
goal in this exercise was, of course, to reach out to that community,
hence the name-dropping and pro-immigrant platforms. And speaking a
common language seems an expression of much closer intimacy --
suggesting an actual effort to appreciate a culture and a community
--than mentioning that your staff happens to include Latinos.

Both the candidates and Univision seemed to want the Spanish-language
debate to be seen as a service to Latino voters rather than for what
it really was -- a cheaply symbolic way for candidates to demonstrate
that they care. The percentage of Latino voters [PDF] who actually
require a translated debate is probably quite small, considering that
the foreign-born -- that is, those more likely to need translation --
make up only one-quarter of eligible Latino voters. The largely
bilingual second generation and the mostly English-only third
generation make up the bulk of the Latino electorate. And though one
in four may sound like a considerable number, out of all eligible
Latino voters, 89% say that Spanish isn't the only language they speak
at home.

So the Democrats didn't go on Univision to bridge any language
barrier; they just wanted to make another appeal to Latino voters,
this time on a Spanish-language platform instead of, say, at an East
L.A. event sponsored by a Latino organization. (Republicans'
reluctance to arrange their own Univision debate also sends a symbolic
message, intended at GOP primary voters who largely opposed the
comprehensive immigration bill). Of the 2.2 million viewers who tuned
in -- compared with 2.8 million for a Democratic debate on ABC last
month -- many may speak perfectly fine English, but even those who
don't can understand a symbolic gesture in any language.

Swati Pandey is a researcher for The Times' editorial page

-- http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/la-oew-pandey12sep12,0,1946862,print.story?coll=la-promo-opinion
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