October 6, 2000
By Domenico Maceri
Although 95% of the roughly six million Latino voters are fluent in English, both George Bush and Al Gore are flexing their Spanish muscles as they attempt to capture Hispanic votes.Bush seems to have the upper hand but not by much. In an appearance in Chris Matthews' "Hardball" on CNBC, the Republican nominee mocked Gore for his limited knowledge of Mexican culture. Gore had stated that he would like his next grandchild to be born on Cinco de Mayo, believing it to be Mexican Independence Day. Bush pointed out to Matthews that Mexican Independence Day is in fact "el Dieciséis de Septiembre" (Sept. 16). However, his correction may also reveal Bush's limited knowledge of Spanish. He translated the date as the "15th of September."
In spite of his gaffe, Bush's Spanish connection is probably stronger than Gore's. The Texas Governor studied Spanish in high school and in college, and honed it in the oil fields of Texas. However, he could probably not communicate at all in a debate completely in Spanish. Spanish wire service EFE has reported that Bush speaks Spanish "poorly" but with great confidence. And Molly Ivins, no fan of George Bush, has written that his Spanish is pretty bad. The columnist went as far as saying that Bush is not bilingual/bicultural, but rather bi-ignorant.
Bush's strong link with Spanish has more to do with his family than his actual ability with the language. His brother Jeb Bush, governor of Florida, married Columba Garnica Gallo, a native of Mexico. The two met while he was teaching English in Guanajuato. In addition, another George Bush whose Spanish fluency is unquestioned-Prescott- Jeb and Columba's son- has been campaigning for the Republican nominee.
To make his feelings absolutely clear about the importance of language, the Bush campaign had Abel Maldonado, a Republican Assemblyman from California, deliver a speech completely in Spanish at the GOP convention in Philadelphia. It was not an attempt to clarify issues; the Spanish language was a symbolic message to extend a hand to Latinos.
Al Gore cannot match Bush's Spanish connection, although he did study Spanish as a teen-ager in Mexico. Linguistic gaffes notwithstanding, he has been using some Spanish in the campaign with positive results.
It has been suggested that a candidate's Spanish fluency is irrelevant. Voters' interests lie in issues rather than words, whatever the language.
That's a false strategy. Language is an important issue. Some marketing research suggests that the best way to reach Latinos is via Spanish. Both presidential candidates have used ads in Spanish. Bush even used them in his reelection campaign as governor of Texas and during the Republican primary in Arizona as he was trying to fend off John McCain's challenge for the nomination.
But even at the emotional level, Spanish is an issue. Using Spanish, even in a limited basis, sends a strong message to Latino voters. It serves as an entrée into Latino hearts and minds.
Peppering speeches with Spanish phrases has a strong psychological impact on Latinos. Hispanics are very sensitive to language and at the same time very vulnerable to it. The more than 20 states that passed English-only laws and California's proposition 227, the anti-bilingual education measure, are strong reminders of linguistic attacks on Hispanics. It's difficult to separate a language from its speakers who see it as an intrinsic part of their culture and, indeed, of who they are.
Latinos thus find the Spanish language a sensitive issue and by and large they do not find either candidate's imperfect pronunciation and faulty grammar at all patronizing. The Spanish coming out of a potential resident of the White House helps bring down the walls separating Anglos and Hispanics. It sends a strong message to Latinos: I am like you; I am also struggling with your language as you are with mine; I am on your side; I'm part of your family.
Although the Gore camp knows that they are in a weaker position with Latinos from the linguistic and cultural point of view, they also know that in regard to issues they are ahead. When it comes to education, health, taxes, immigration, Gore, as the Democratic candidate, has the edge with Latinos. Democrats are the party of the working class, to which the vast majority of Latinos belong.
This is particularly true in California where Latinos remember the Republican-inspired anti-immigrant and anti-bilingual propositions. Fresh in people's minds are Prop. 187 and 227. The first one, eventually declared illegal by the courts, would have denied benefits to undocumented workers, while the second one virtually eliminated bilingual education from the Golden State. It was no surprise that Governor Gray Davis, a Democrat, received better than 70% of the Latino vote in the 1998 California election.
In November, Latino voters will have to choose between a candidate whose nephew's mother is a native of Mexico and a Democratic candidate who will probably do more for them as a group. Latinos voting with their hearts will cast their ballots for Bush. Those voting with their brains will choose Gore.
Domenico Maceri (firstname.lastname@example.org), PhD, UC Santa Barbara, teaches foreign languages at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, CA.