Are Politicians Afraid to Speak Spanish?

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In this week’s Tampa Bay, Florida Republican debate, the question was asked why candidates run ads in Spanish, ostensibly seeking the votes of Spanish speakers, but insist English be the only official language of the U.S. government.

This incident is a perfect example of the complicated relationship that politicians and monolingual Americans have with learning and flaunting that they know another language.

Context weighs heavily and sheds light on the way we view personal character, “otherness,” and leadership at a specific cultural and historic moment.

For example, President George W. Bush is well-known for speaking, or as some would say “butchering” as often as he could, Spanish which comes as no surprise given his experience as the Governor of Texas. Hablando español isn’t just a colorful cultural nuance but a calculated politically savvy choice given that the Lone Star state shares a nearly 1300 mile border with Mexico and is 37% Hispanic.  America’s second most used language was also spoken by founding father Thomas Jefferson, a polyglot who, in addition to Spanish, French, and Italian, mastered the “dead” languages of Greek and Latin.

After the attacks of September 11, our country became suspicious of foreigners--Muslim Arabs, the background of the terrorists--and disdainful of Europeans, specifically the French for not supporting the U.S. invasion of Iraq.  Remember “Freedom Fries”?  Soon afterwards, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry--President Bush’s challenger in 2004--was accused of being an elitist, with speaking French proof of his affectation.

If this sounds a little familiar, maybe it’s because you’ve heard this charge leveled in a pro-Newt Gingrich ad against Mitt Romney for speaking French, “like John Kerry.”  Indeed, the former Massachusetts governor picked up some of the “language of love” as a Mormon missionary in France between his stints at Stanford and Brigham Young Universities.

As for Newt, his position has left me with whiplash.  In a 2007 speech to the National Federation of Republican Women, the former Speaker of the House attacked printing ballots in several languages and bilingual education, calling Spanish “the language of living in a ghetto.”  He advocated replacing “bilingual education with immersion in English so people learn the common language of the country and they learn the language of prosperity.”  Such was the outrage, that he apologized in Spanish, recognizing the comments left a bad taste in the mouths of many in the Latino community.  We’re seeing a little re-play as the GOP 2012 Presidential nominating contests continue, with Florida, an important swing state with a powerful Hispanic and Spanish-speaking population, holding its primary next week.

What will happen the day a Latino becomes President, a real possibility given the GOP VP buzz around Florida junior Senator Marco Rubio and New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez and the Latino population boom confirmed by the 2010 U.S. Census?  Will people relax their attitudes toward foreign languages, or ramp up English-only initiatives?  To be clear, both these politicians speak perfect English and a quick YouTube search shows their Spanish no está mal.  So for anyone worried that we may elect a President who has an accent or whose first language wasn’t English: News Flash!  It already happened: Eighth President Martin Van Buren spoke Dutch as his first language and learned English in the local school house.  He--and the nation--did muy bien.

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