washingtonpost.com
Spanish Lesson
Two Constituencies, Two Campaigns? What You Need Is Another Tongue.

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 3, 2007

Newt Gingrich goes into one of his deep-think riffs on assimilation for immigrants, but he probably shouldn't have implied that anything but English is "the language of living in a ghetto."

So he does penance on YouTube, apologizing and explaining in -- what else? -- grammatically correct Spanish, albeit with a terminally Anglo accent. Turns out he's a closet Spanish geek, getting tutored three times a week, while he considers a run for president.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney takes his campaign for the GOP presidential nomination to Miami, where he declares, "¡Patria o muerte -- venceremos!" --"Fatherland or death -- we shall overcome!"

The ethnic cliches of yore no longer cut it -- a "Buenos días" here, a "¡Sí se puede!" there. Many of the 2008 presidential campaigns are communicating more ambitiously, with varying degrees of fluency -- whether or not they support an amendment to the immigration bill to make English the national language, which the Senate is poised to vote on this week.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who may yet launch a bid, goes to Mexico and reveals his inner Latino, speaking Spanish every chance he gets. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson announces his presidential bid in Los Angeles, invoking the language of his Mexican mother, trying to let Hispanics know he's Hispanic, but not so Hispanic that he can't be a president to everyone. Sen. Chris Dodd, fine Connecticut Yankee, former Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic, finds himself discoursing in Spanish in those teeming border states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

Off the campaign trail, on Capitol Hill, tune your ears to the new frequency. It's no longer just the cafeteria staff chattering in Spanish. At 7:30 a.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays is Spanish class for a half-dozen Democratic House members. The immigration debate has brought advocates on both sides of the issue who are comfortable in both languages. You see pink, sweating gringo faces in reception rooms off the Senate floor suddenly burst into staccato Spanish.

All this Spanish makes politicians nervous: An identical legislative amendment to uphold English passed easily last year. Yet they press on, rolling their r-r-r-r's, auditioning to follow Dodd's and Sen. Barack Obama's example in delivering the weekly Hispanic Radio Address,

What's going on here? Let's translate.

The fact is, the politics of language is one thing, and the language of politics is another. Language is both a tool and a value.

The politics of language requires a politician to honor that sacred and hard-to-define concept, the "American identity." The language of politics is about getting votes -- and pragmatically accepting that every day, including Election Day, the American identity speaks in many tongues.

Reconciling the two means operating like those ubiquitous recorded phone prompts: "Press 1 to continue in English. Oprima el 2 para continuar en español."

Coming out strongly and courageously in favor of English is a way of flashing a high-sign to a certain segment of the electorate. It's a linguistic nod-and-a-wink to those who fear America's soul is imperiled by the rise of a population speaking, thinking, dreaming in another language. Can you be a real American and speak Spanish? Bilingual Canada is held up as a warning.

"We cannot be a bilingual nation like Canada," Romney told the Union Leader in New Hampshire, where few Latinos live, so few were likely to get that message.

Yet down in Florida, Romney was one of the first in the race to air a Spanish-language radio ad, and he is one of the few GOP candidates to have an "En Español" Web option. Click on it, and see one of Romney's sons give a video testimonial in excellent Spanish, acquired during a missionary stint in Chile: "Hola, soy Craig Romney, y les quiero hablar un poco sobre mi papá, Mitt Romney . . . "

Al Cardenas, a Romney adviser and former Florida GOP chairman whose voice was heard in the Spanish-language ad, says these are not contradictory positions.

"What he feels strongly about is the English language can unite us all," Cardenas says. But Romney also understands the need to meet voters where they are, in the language of politics:

Says Cardenas: "You have grandparents who only speak one language, Spanish; parents who might speak English not well but certainly understand it; and then you've got grandchildren who are the first generation collegegoers who prefer to speak in English. All of these people congregate in the same household. If you're running a political campaign, you say to yourself, 'What do we do?' "

Language of Getting Ahead

President Bush -- following the premise of Ronald Reagan, whose quip, "Hispanics are Republicans, they just don't know it yet," is translated into Spanish on the Republican National Committee's "En Español" Web page -- has known what to do.

At the height of immigrant-rights marches a year ago, when a recording of the National Anthem in Spanish caused an uproar, Bush said the anthem should be sung in English, and added: "I think people who want to be a citizen of this country ought to learn English."

That was the politics of language. Yet the language of Bush's politics is frequently, famously, in Spanish. He spent $3.3 million on Spanish-language TV ads for his reelection, according to the Hispanic Voter Project at Johns Hopkins University. In a campaign video, he said, in English, "We all know that the Latino vote could be the deciding factor in this presidential election." In Spanish: "Usted me conoce. Ya sabe quien soy," which means, "You know me. You know who I am."

Bush also was the first president to deliver a weekly radio address in Spanish, and he has all his Saturday radio addresses dubbed in Spanish.

Democrats come at this delicate dance from the other side of the room. Hailing "diversity" and "multiculturalism" is a standard party line, and most Latinos vote Democratic, so Democratic politicians can afford to eschew the most ostentatious displays of English chauvinism. But only to a point.

Sen. Ken Salazar, the Latino Democrat from Colorado, offered an amendment to last year's immigration bill that would have declared English the "common and unifying language." It was an alternative to an amendment by Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) to make English the "national language." Inhofe's passed 63 to 34, Salazar's 58 to 39, though neither became law.

It is the Inhofe measure that is expected to come up again this week. The senator says it would simply make clear that people aren't entitled to certain government services in other languages. Inhofe, by the way, is proficient in Spanish and on other occasions gives speeches in Spanish.

Richardson, the best Spanish speaker of any serious presidential candidate ever, takes care not to overdo it. He doesn't want to appear too Hispanic, just enough to let the right people know that he actually is Hispanic. "It's tough for guys like 'Richardson' to be Latinos," he jokes. He says: "I'm not running as a Hispanic candidate, but I'm trying to convince Hispanics that I am Hispanic, and they don't know."

When Democrats assert the primacy of English, they place their emphasis on what's in it for Latinos: English is the language of getting ahead.

"If I'm out there and I'm talking to anybody in this country, I would say become English-proficient," says Rep. Charlie Gonzalez (D-Tex.). "It's part of the assimilating process, which I think is very important."

But he draws a line: "I totally disagree with 'English first, English only, English is the official language.' " he says. "Those are really code words for something else."

Talking the Talk

It is not yet 8 a.m. and four members of Congress are practicing the sound of the Spanish letter "g," reciting words in a bashful chorus conducted by their tutor, who stands at an easel in the Cannon House Office Building.

" . . . Gato, general, guerra, gigante . . . "

The sharp Worcester brogue of Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), the soft Houston honey of Rep. Gene Green (D-Tex.) and the more unassuming accents of Reps. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) meet somewhere in Mexico, more or less.

" . . . Guitarra, gusto, bilingüe, Nicaragua . . . "

Newt Gingrich, they are not. But they are trying.

"In my district, I have a growing Latino population," McGovern says, outside of class. "I felt I could be a better congressman if I could, if not master, at least be more familiar with the language."

A more advanced class meets weekly in a conference room in the Capitol.

"I want to get past '¡Sí se puede!' " says Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.). "My district is increasingly Hispanic. . . . Little by little, I've been able to say short little speeches off the cuff in Spanish." She also has delivered the Hispanic Radio Address.

Classes for GOP members began a few years ago but petered out over time, according to a spokesman for Rep. Jerry Weller (R-Ill.), one of the organizers.

No amount of studying can prevent the occasional gaffe. Gingrich was a pioneer of bilingual communication as speaker of the House, but a news release his office issued for Cinco de Mayo in 1998 is still recalled with chuckles in the bilingual halls of power.

The release referred to Gingrich as "Hablador de la Casa" -- but "hablador" doesn't mean "speaker." It means someone who talks too much, a big mouth.

Then there's Romney's fiery "¡Patria o muerte -- venceremos!" in Miami. It happens to be a trademark line of Fidel Castro's.

Quoting Castro to Cuban Americans? ¡Caramba!

Cardenas, Romney's Cuban-born adviser, still winces. "It's one of those you wish you could take back," he says, adding that the speech was not properly vetted.

And yet, Latinos say, such stumbles are forgiven by people who know what it's like to flounder in another language.

So candidates can score points for sincere-seeming efforts to communicate, however awkward. Lorena Chambers, a Latina political consultant who has made ads for Democrats, recalls her evolving reaction to watching Gingrich on YouTube.

"I was struck by the accent in the beginning," Chambers says. "I thought, wow, this is really rough. Once I got past that I realized he was being really genuine. And my third reaction was, oh goodness! What came across was a genuine appeal for forgiveness. That should concern quite a few Democrats."

And don't forget this paradox: Even for the benefit of Latinos who speak English, sometimes it's advisable to use Spanish, as a fancy meta-political bank shot.

"There's a kind of symbolic value, more so than the accent or the words said," says Peter Zamora, a civil rights lawyer and co-chairman of the Hispanic Education Coalition. "It reflects that the speaker has internalized the value of bilingualism and biculturalism."

Back in Spanish class, "¿De dónde es Raquel?" asks Elena Tscherny, the congressional tutor provided by the Graduate School, USDA.

"Abogada," answers McGovern, mistakenly giving a character's profession (lawyer), not where she is from.

"Pero, ¿de dónde es?"

"California," says Baldwin.

Muy bien, Congresista.

Brand Loyalty

Beneath all the talk, a question: Why bother?

How many Hispanic citizens -- those eligible to vote -- can understand a political message only in Spanish?

To start with, the nation's largest minority is under-represented at the polls because so many aren't citizens or aren't 18. Only 39 percent of Hispanics were eligible to vote last year, or about 17.2 million, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

Most Latino voters speak English -- after all, to become a citizen you have to pass the test in English. Just 9 percent of Latino voters live in households where only Spanish is spoken, according to Pew and Census estimates.

But it's a big mistake to assume this scant 9 percent -- this minority of a minority -- is the entire audience for Spanish communication, according to operatives in both parties.

It doesn't take fluency in English to become a citizen, and for important communication, such as making political decisions, many English-learners prefer their native language.

Political parties also must look beyond the next election, says Fabiola Rodriguez-Ciampoli, another pioneer of bilingual communication when she was hired by then-minority leader Dick Gephardt to handle the Democrats' Hispanic media and outreach in 2000.

"You have to reach out to Spanish-speaking Latinos even before they become citizens," says Rodriguez-Ciampoli, now director of Hispanic communications for Sen. Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. "We as Latinos have brand loyalty. . . . The sooner you start talking to them, the sooner you start helping them to identify with the Democrats."

San Antonio-based media consultant Frank Guerra, so successful at crafting messages for the Bush brothers, says that for the president and the former Florida governor, "it goes way beyond the language piece. Hispanics perceive them as two individuals who understand them, who are interested in them, and are attempting to communicate with them, whether it's in halting Spanish on special occasions" -- George -- "or whether through fluent conversation" -- Jeb.

Guerra worries that some GOP rhetoric in the immigration debate could turn off the new brand-shoppers that President Bush won. Guerra's advice to the GOP could stand for the Democrats as well:

"You're speaking to the fastest-growing, youngest population in the country. And what we do now will forever set the course for what kind of party we're going to be in the future -- majority or minority."

'We're Not in Spain'

Around the Capitol, the subject is immigration, and however you define the national language, the conversation is taking place partly in Spanish.

Rep. Albio Sires (D-N.J.) is behind his desk in the Longworth House Office Building, speaking into a microphone to record the Democrats' Hispanic Radio Address, sent to 130 Spanish-language stations every Saturday. In it, he tells the story of his boyhood journey from Cuba, and he calls for immigration reform.

He makes some last-minute edits. He opts for the slightly more colloquial word here and there, changes "Nueva Jersey" to New Jersey.

"We're not in Spain, we're in America," Sires explains. "The Spanglish jumps in, and sometimes now it becomes acceptable. Not too many Spanish [speakers] in New Jersey say 'Nueva Jersey.' "

In another part of town, a professional Hispanic narrator with a rich, cultured voice will render President Bush's weekly address into Spanish. Three out of the last six of Bush's addresses have been on immigration. Spanish speakers who missed them on the radio can hear them on the "En Español" portion of the White House's Web site.

In the Senate, five Democrats, including two Latinos, come off the floor to take questions from reporters about the evolving immigration-reform compromise. Sen. Bob Menendez (N.J.) makes a few points in Spanish, until a buzzer signals it's time to vote again.

"¡Tengo que votar!" Menendez apologizes to the dozen or so journalists for Spanish-language outlets.

Upon returning after the vote, "Are we doing this in English or Spanish?" Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) asks the reporters, who are bilingual.

"We're doing it in French today," says Armando Guzmán, a veteran on the Hill now with TV Azteca. He remembers when there were no Latinos in the Senate and reporters flocked to Dodd for Spanish sound bites. Now, the Spanish-language press corps operates with increasing ease. The growing audiences for Univision, CNN en Español , Telemundo, TV Azteca and the rest are so prized by politicos that both parties deploy bilingual spokespeople.

"Très bien," says Leahy. "I wish I remembered my Italian. When you were speaking Spanish earlier," he says to Menendez, "I was picking up about every other word!"

And then, just when you think you've roughly mastered the grammar of the politics of language, and the language of politics, up pops an irregular part of speech.

Over on the House side, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) is chairing a hearing of the House Judiciary subcommittee on immigration. Rubén G. Rumbaut, professor of sociology at the University of California at Irvine, is testifying about language -- and how long it takes before immigrant families lose their Spanish.

The answer is . . . not terribly long.

"Spanish appears to draw its last feeble breath in the third generation," Rumbaut says in prepared remarks.

It's a controversial subject, disputed by others who claim Latinos resist adopting English.

But then here comes Charlie Gonzalez, leaving Nancy Pelosi's office after a gathering of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to discuss immigration reform. In that meeting, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and some others spoke Spanish, but not Gonzalez. His Spanish is not so good.

He is the son of the late, legendary representative Henry Gonzalez, who was the son of Mexican immigrants who did not speak much English. Henry Gonzalez spoke beautiful Spanish, as well as English, according to his son.

"Dad was just horrified as my Spanish deteriorated," Charlie Gonzalez says.

"People expect if your name is Gonzalez that you can speak Spanish. It's always going to be a source of kidding."

He can laugh about it. The voters in Gonzalez's majority-Hispanic district in San Antonio understand. The Spanish of their grandchildren is disappearing, too. This is what happens. They've elected Gonzalez five times. "This is a shared experience," the congressman says. "The degree of proficiency in Spanish varies from generation to generation."

Sooner or later, Spanish becomes a language to study -- " . . . gato, gusto, guitarra, bilingüe . . . " -- and English wins.

But until then, in gringo politics, "se habla español."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company