The Democrats’ Cringey Spanish Contest Is Better Than the Alternative

Cory Booker, Beto O'Rourke, Julián Castro
Cory Booker, Beto O’Rourke, Julián Castro, all of whom deployed some Spanish in Wednesday night’s debate. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Joe Raedle/Getty Images and Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images.

The first Democratic debate surprised us all by doubling as a performative contest over who spoke the best not-very-good Spanish. Beto O’Rourke, Julián Castro, and Cory Booker all said a phrase or two, with varying degrees of grammatical and accentual success. None of it was exactly great, and moderator José Diaz-Balart seemed to respond by pointedly overpronouncing the Spanish inflections of certain words. This is not a new thing for Diaz-Balart—some conservatives, like Laura Ingraham, have long criticized him for correctly pronouncing Spanish words even in English sentences—and it has likely become a statement for him. That’s because the matter of using Spanish—or pronouncing Spanish correctly—has always been vexed on the American political stage.

What I kept thinking about, watching candidates spar last night, was the last time I’d watched Spanish become a thing during a political debate. It was during the 2016 election—among the Republicans. You might recall this moment between Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. Or this one, between Jeb Bush and Donald Trump, where the latter attacked the former for speaking Spanish on the campaign trail at all. A contest was on between Republicans who directly addressed Latino audiences and Republicans who decided to code them—and bilingualism—as sneaky. Trump did the latter: “He didn’t want you people hearing it, so he made the speech in Spanish,” he said about Rubio at a campaign event in New Hampshire. What I’m getting at is this: If you track the role Spanish played in the 2016 GOP contest, what you see at first is a bout of Spanish speakers like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio largely following the recommendations of the 2013 Republican National Committee election autopsy report, which emphasized the need for the party to be inclusive of Hispanic (and other minority) voters. What followed is by now no surprise: a rapid slide into pathologizing the language and treating those who spoke it, including some GOP candidates, as double agents with divided loyalties.

Put differently, the 2016 election was an inflection point for how Spanish speakers—and bilingual people—would be treated by a Republican Party that would take over all three branches of government in that election. The RNC election autopsy report road map offers a vision of what might have been for the Republican Party, and for Latino people in this country, many of whom the government is now brutally terrorizing: “We need to campaign among Hispanic, black, Asian, and gay Americans and demonstrate we care about them, too. We must recruit more candidates who come from minority communities,” the report reads. It also said that “if Hispanic Americans perceive that a GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States (i.e. self-deportation), they will not pay attention to our next sentence. It does not matter what we say about education, jobs or the economy; if Hispanics think we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies.” What follows is a colorful Dick Armey quote: “You can’t call someone ugly and expect them to go to the prom with you. We’ve chased the Hispanic voter out of his natural home.”

The GOP would eventually go with the guy who calls people ugly, but that wasn’t fully decided during the Feb. 13, 2016, Republican primary debate, when Ted Cruz accelerated Trump’s anti-Spanish messaging by accusing Marco Rubio of going on Univision to curry favor with a Latino audience. “Marco went on Univision, in Spanish, and he said he wouldn’t rescind President Obama’s illegal executive amnesty on his first day in office,” Cruz said. Rubio escalated with what I still think of as a pretty solid burn: “I don’t know how he knows what I said on Univision because he doesn’t speak Spanish,” the senator said. Cruz’s stammered response, roughly translated, means, “If you want, say it to them now.”* As a challenge to Rubio, it failed. But it was still a startling moment that showed that attitudes toward bilingualism were in flux: In a debate about curbing immigration and what to do about DACA, two Republican candidates were squaring off over how well they each spoke … Spanish!

Whether or not Trump was committed to an “English only” vision of the United States, he certainly wasn’t going to put up with Jeb Bush criticizing him in both English and Spanish on the campaign trail. Trump made an issue of it and claimed the problem was not the attack, but the language. And at the Sept. 16, 2015, Republican debate, when asked ,“What’s wrong with speaking Spanish?” he attacked Bush directly after hedging that he made the criticism “a little bit halfheartedly, but I do mean it to a large extent.” He said, “You have a country where to assimilate you have to speak English, and I think that where he was and the way it came out didn’t sound right to me. We have to have assimilation to have a country. … This is a country where we speak English, not Spanish.” By the time the CNN-Telemundo Republican debate rolled around—the last one before Super Tuesday—the only reason Spanish came up at all was for Rubio to defend himself against charges that he too had been secretly communicating with the Hispanic community in Spanish, which you’d be forgiven for thinking was a secret code.

We know what happened after this: Spanish-speaking migrants and asylum-seekers have been demonized and treated as criminals despite the fact there are much higher crime rates among native-born Americans. Their families have been separated; their children stolen and lost and mistreated. Many have died.

This has made me think harder about what Spanish on a debate stage can do. At first, I laughed with everyone else at the transparency of the stunt and couldn’t help but harshly evaluate the performances. Booker’s Spanish was easily the worst: His grammar was a mess, his accent was as strained as it was atrocious, and it doesn’t speak well of him that he later told Anderson Cooper that his Spanish speaking was a competitive response to O’Rourke, who spoke in Spanish during his first answer. “Both [Castro] and I knew, as people who can speak Spanish, that now we were gonna bring it as well” he said. (Honestly, for Booker to say he “speaks Spanish” is a stretch.) O’Rourke’s Spanish was better and (since he’d started this curious trend) less reactive and forced. Castro has been open about not being fluent in Spanish and has been criticized for it. Some figures on the right, like Rep. Steve King, have leveled ugly accusations that he and his brother “took lessons to qualify as retroactive Hispanics.” Castro didn’t say much; his accent is decent. I was paying more attention to their speech than whatever posturing they were doing by speaking it.

Humane immigration policy is more important than linguistic mastery, and on that front Castro outshone the others. Still, when I saw Meghan McCain complaining about “too much Spanish” the next day on The View, angry that she’d “missed” a handful of sentences (that had, for the most part, been repeated in English), it occurred to me that this is hard to simply dismiss as “pandering.” The Spanish itself may not matter as such, but the reaction to the use of Spanish on a debate stage has mattered immensely in the recent past. We have seen bizarre squabbles over the use of Spanish herald a brutal turn in at least one party. It may be wise to attend to what tendencies it will push in the other.

In a week defined by news of American barbarity toward incarcerated children, it might be a relief to some speakers of Spanish to be pandered to, however ineptly, by an America that seems to hate them. For what it’s worth: I’m Latina, bilingual, and totally unqualified to voice what the “community” as a whole thought about that performance, because treating different Latino communities as if they were politically or even culturally homogeneous is as common as it is ill-advised. I know better than to generalize here. But bad Spanish isn’t new. As someone who’s worked as an interpreter and had to deal with a lot of translated materials in this country, I find it annoying that people get my language this wrong this often. Yet I still felt a small surge of gratitude toward these candidates trying to speak in a language they barely know (a terrifying thing to do at the best of times). One reason is that it means something to hear would-be presidents try to speak Spanish, however badly, when there are people at the current president’s rallies calling for Latino people to be shot. The other is that I remember what happened last time. I remember watching as Republicans turned on Spanish speakers in 2016 in a violent pivot whose speed and totality would take my breath away. Within three short years, I’d be receiving angry email forwards from right-wing acquaintances who’d once valued my bilingualism, listing among their demands that America should be “English only.” So normal had this talking point become to them that they were surprised I’d notice, let alone object.

Cringey though the execution was, staking out room for Spanish in these debates might not be quite the hilarious cosmetic affectation it’s been treated as; conservative displeasure suggests it’s a live issue in the ongoing battles over what belongs in our public sphere. I’m curious to see what change these language battles will drive over the course of the presidential primaries. (There are signs it’s already having some effect: Bill de Blasio got in the game on Thursday by quoting Che Guevara and then apologized for doing so—who could have predicted any of that?) I don’t know what the competitive Spanish in these debates is doing, but I suspect it’s better than having none of it at all.

Correction, June 28, 2019: This article originally translated Ted Cruz’s 2016 retort in Spanish to Marco Rubio as “if you want, say it to him now.” Cruz’s words can also be translated as “if you want, say it to them now.”