By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 6, 2007
On Wednesday, former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who's mulling a White House run, apologized in a YouTube video for his recent remarks equating bilingual education with "the language of living in a ghetto."
The apology was delivered in English and Spanish, with the three-minute Spanish video, "Mensaje de Newt Gingrich," subtitled in English. Can't get any more bilingual than that.
(However: Memorando al Señor Gingrich: In Spanish, the "r" is rolled and the syl-la-bles are se-pa-ra-ted.)
In an interview yesterday, the Georgia Republican called his choice of words "clumsy."
"Look, people are misunderstanding what I'm saying," Gingrich said. "What I was simply saying is that a language barrier -- any language barrier, whether you speak Hindi, Chinese, Vietnamese -- hampers a person's ability to communicate in the language of prosperity."
Last Saturday, Gingrich struck a similar chord. In a speech to the National Federation of Republican Women, he said Americans "believe English should be the official language of the government." In the past, he's frequently called for the end of bilingual education in schools, and in 1995, a year after taking the House speakership, he said that bilingualism poses "long-term dangers to the fabric of our nation."
"We should replace bilingual education with immersion in English," he told the women's group last weekend, "so people learn the common language of the country and they learn the language of prosperity, not the language of living in a ghetto."
The remarks drew a barrage of comments from the Latino community, and were quickly repudiated on popular Web sites such as Latin Americanist, Latino Pundit and Vivir Latino-- U.S. Latino life in blog form. A headline on Vivir Latino read "Newt -- Not Ghetto Fabulous," with Maegan Ortiz, the site's New York-based editor, writing: "Don't you love how politicos use Spanish when it works for them and when it doesn't, they trash it?" Similarly, Hispanic organizations such as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund were incredulous, calling Gingrich's comments "hateful."
"There is a clear understanding among Latino citizens and Latino immigrants that you must learn English to get good jobs, to fully participate in this society. There is no resistance to that fact," said Peter Zamora, a credentialed bilingual education teacher who is the co-chairman of the Washington-based Hispanic Education Coalition, which supports bilingual education.
Added Ortiz, who, like Zamora, watched Gingrich's mea culpa Wednesday night: "It's just so ironic that he'd use a video spoken in his ghetto Spanish to say sorry about a nasty, racist remark directed at the Latino community. I mean this is a guy whose own official Web site has his own biography written in Spanish. How hypocritical is that?"
As of yesterday afternoon, Gingrich's YouTube apology, the Spanish version, had been watched more than 34,000 times on the video-sharing site. Comments kept coming in, some viewers sympathetic to Gingrich, many not, others simply LOLing -- laughing out loud.
"While the rest of the world rushes to make their children bi- and trilingual, this linguistically arrogant [person] bring his narrow mindedness to light," as one commenter put it.
"Keep it up, Newt. You're absolutely right," wrote another. "People who speak English have better opportunity in this country. That's not a racist or anti-Spanish statement, it's just the reality that speaking the dominant language of a country is a first step at being successful."
Another wrote: "This is freaking hilarious. Newt makes Bush sound like an expert in Spanish."
Gingrich said he began taking "intensive" Spanish lessons in 2001, before the Sept. 11 attacks. In the past year and a half, he'd finished "about 100 hours" of lessons, he said, adding that it took him three takes to tape his YouTube video.
Of the final product, he said with a laugh: "I hope it wasn't too painful to watch."