August 17, 2001

Commentary

Bush's Español: Empty Palabras?

By Domenico Maceri

George W. Bush's mistakes with the English language are famous. There is even a web site called Bushisms of the week. The press has been generous with his gaffes in Spanish and giving him an "A" for his efforts. To be sure he has made some mistakes in español which clearly call to mind those of his native language. Fore example, during the 2000 election he asked an audience for their "botas" (boots) instead of "votos" (votes).

Overall, though, Bush has got plenty of mileage of his limited knowledge of Spanish in connecting with Latinos. His recent decision to have weekly radios addresses in both English and Spanish, which started with the week of Cinco de Mayo, continues his process of attempting to capture more Latino voters who in the last election preferred Al Gore by a margin of 2-1.

Democrats accused the President of pandering, saying that his words don't match his actions. Yet, recognizing the symbolic meaning of language and not willing to appear outdone, Democratic leaders have also begun doing their own radio addresses in both English and Spanish. House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt and Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, argued that Bush's words in español consisted of mere palabras because they are not backed up by actions.

Ramon Murguia, Chairman of the Board of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic civil rights group, echoed these sentiments. He said that using language to connect with Hispanics shows the President is interested, but more substance is necessary.

The fact that Democrats followed suit en español suggests that language is certainly an issue though certainly not the only one.

Bush has a leg up on the Democrats when it comes to language because he speaks it, though not very well, while no very visible Democrat does. In addition to his own knowledge, Bush's connections with the Spanish language go deeper. Jeb Bush, George W.'s younger brother and Governor of Florida, speaks if fluently. Jeb is married to Columba Garnica Gallo, born in Mexico. The couple met in 1971 while Jeb was teaching English in an exchange program for Phillips Academy. Their son George Prescott Bush also speaks it fluently and indeed acted as a surrogate campaigner for his uncle during the presidential bid last year and gave many speeches in Spanish trying to explain Bush's vision for the country.

Knowing that they cannot compete with Bush en español, Democrats have been forcing the subject of issues not words. Here they have an edge on the president. Bush's agenda of a huge tax reduction provides benefits primarily to the wealthy among whom Latinos certainly are not. In so far as education, Bush's focus on testing may also have negative effects since it might add more stress and force more Latino students to drop out of school. And in so far as immigration, the President does not favor a general amnesty for undocumented workers.

Bush's appointments of Latinos have been reasonable by previous standards. Some Latinos have visible positions in his administration. Al Gonzalez has been nominated White House Counsel and Mel Martinez is serving as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

These two appointments suggest a moderation in so far as issues. Bush, in fact, when it comes to dealing with Latinos, has managed to stay away form the extreme wing of the Republican Party. When he was Governor of Texas he did not support the elimination of bilingual education. He has not embraced the English-only movement. In fact, he may have made some enemies with some English-only groups because of his radio addresses in Spanish who see the semi-official status of Spanish as a dangerous road to multilingualism and a possible break-up of the country.

In addition, Bush lobbied Congress in 1995 to approve a 40 billion-loan guarantee to our southern neighbor. And his first trip abroad as President was to meet Vicente Fox, his Mexican counterpart, with whom he has already had several personl contacts.

In spite of his linguistic fluency and family connections with Mexico Bush lost the Latino vote in the presidential election of 2000.He only managed to get 31% of the Latino vote, about the same as his father in 1992. Language is certainly a political issue with Latinos but it only carries so far.

To seriously compete with Democrats for Latino votes, Bush needs to make substantial attempts to move away from his conservative agenda on at least some issues, in particular immigration. Until he does that, only Latinos voting with their hearts will cast their ballots for Bush. Latinos using their brains will not vote for him because when it comes to their interests, it's the Democratic Party that really speaks their language.

Domenico Maceri teaches Foreign Languages Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria. He can be reached at dmaceri@aol.com.

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