Dear Presidential Hopefuls: Please Stop Hispandering
Party Trick Spanish has become a baked-in rite of the federal campaign cycle. If only politicians were this committed to keeping immigrant families together.
It began with Beto O’Rourke. Roughly three minutes into the first Democratic debate of the 2020 election, the El Paso, Texas, native — whose birth certificate, lest we forget, reads “Robert” — became the first in a trio of his party’s presidential contenders to dust off his just-fine Spanish for some good old-fashioned Hispandering.
It was an odd moment to make the leap. The question he’d been asked didn’t touch on immigration policy, Hispanic Americans, or even the humanitarian crisis at the southern U.S. border — subjects that might have facilitated some semblance of a transition to a whole new language of address. But no matter. Cory Booker followed suit, answering a question about his hypothetical first day as president in more or less intelligible, study-abroad Castellano. (Julián Castro, who despite his Mexican-American name and heritage has admitted that he barely speaks the language of his grandparents, kept his own performance short.)
Among most Latinx voters, for whom multilingualism isn’t so much a party trick as a mere fact of life, a candidate’s spoken Spanish isn’t enough to win confidence. Language is less of a conduit for the political inclusion of Hispanic Americans than, well, actual policies of inclusion.
And yet, we’ve reached the moment in American political history where Party Trick Spanish has become a baked-in rite of the federal campaign cycle. In a nation whose identity rests on the mirage of a monolingual default, these politicians are merely carrying on a time-honored tradition. And, in keeping with custom, it’s embarrassing.
In a 1999 Republican debate held in Arizona, it was George W. Bush who kicked things off with a shout-out to the state’s “muchos hispanos.” In 2015, Hillary Clinton was rebuked for referring to herself in the third person as, alternately, “La Hillary” and “Tu Hillary” after a campaign event in San Antonio. And, in what would prove a prescient Spanish-language attack ad against Barack Obama, John McCain warned that his 2008…