¿Español es bueno o no? Californians divided on presidential candidates speaking Spanish

It did not take long for Beto O’Rourke to raise eyebrows at the first Democratic presidential debate on Wednesday. On stage with an apparently surprised Cory Booker, O’Rourke spoke in less-than-perfect Spanish.

He made three linguistic errors while discussing the economy, and his effort prompted much backlash online.

But the Spanish was not over.

Proving he, too, could do it, Booker used Spanish in response to a question about immigration. His pronunciation was a little questionable, and he made two mistakes as he sought to say President Donald Trump “has demonized immigrants, and I’m going to change that.”

Paul Mitchell, a California political consultant and vice president of the bipartisan voter data firm Political Data, said the remarks were clearly aimed at Latino voters in California, Texas and Nevada and those across the country watching on Telemundo.

“They were doing this to appeal to voters in California,” Mitchell said, noting the state’s earlier-than-usual March primary date. “It’s almost like a virtue-signaling.”

Spanish-speaking candidates didn’t play well with some California Latinos, however.

Arturo Vargas, president and CEO of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, said a third of the country’s Latino electorate lives in California. He said he wished O’Rourke and Booker did a better job communicating to them.

“It’s clear that they need some work on their Spanish,” Vargas said.

Kevin de León, former leader of the state Senate, tweeted that political consultants shouldn’t let candidates speak Spanish on a national platform if they don’t know what they’re doing.

“In America, we need to speak more than one language, but there’s also a difference and a fine line between pandering and coming off condescending,” de León said in an interview after the debate. “It’s great folks make an effort, but if you’re gonna deliver it, you better deliver it.”

The Spanish-speaking may be far from over. California Sen. Kamala Harris recently said the first Spanish word that came to her mind was “pendejo,” or stupid, and struggled to say “tres tristes tigres (three sad tigers)” to demonstrate her language ability in an interview with Univision.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, the leader of California’s Latino Caucus, urged candidates to proceed with caution.

“It’s sensitive in that you can go too far,” Gonzalez said. “On the one hand, it’s respectful that people understand the importance (of speaking Spanish). On the other hand you have to use it appropriately and not pander.”

Candidate Julián Castro appeared to have the best grip on the language Wednesday night when discussing the need to decriminalize immigration from Mexico into the United States. He spoke in Spanish again during his closing remarks.

“On January 20, 2021, we’ll say adiós to Donald Trump,” he said.

Republicans were quick to notice.

Luis Alvarado, a Republican political strategist and president of The Latino Legislative Round Table, praised Castro for what he perceived as genuine remarks, while he criticized Booker and O’Rourke as inauthentic.

“Hands down, Julian Castro really connected for that community,” Alvarado said. “I felt he was sincere and very substantive in his approach. The very few things he did say, he said it with context and emotion. That’s what carries the most weight.

“Booker seemed to have rehearsed what he wanted to say. When you do that, you miss out on connecting, your timing may not be right and it may be a far stretch, which makes it actually seem uncomfortable. O’Rourke seemed to have given a prepared statement and failed to connect the way Julian Castro did.”

Others only saw the positive in the candidates’ efforts.

Jorge-Mario Cabrera, spokesman for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, said the attempt to speak in Spanish by a few presidential candidates is welcome.

“We love hearing presidential candidates attempt to communicate, even if briefly, in Spanish,” he said on Thursday. “They recognize that speaking directly to Spanish-speaking voters and families is a plus for their road map to the White House.”

Roger Salazar, a Democratic strategist who focuses on issues affecting Latino communities, said the fact that the debate was held in Miami – a city with a large Hispanic population – added to the importance for the candidates to speak to that group.

“Just having that many candidates speak Spanish tells you how important that Latino vote has gotten over the last several presidential election cycles,” Salazar said. “I don’t think this is something you would have seen in 2000 or any other election since. It’s impressive to me the effort the candidates are putting to reach out to Latino voters.”

Eliseo Gamino, chair of the Central Valley Leadership Round Table, recalled when in 2000 the Bush family spoke Spanish in a televised campaign event, and even hired Vicente Fernandez to sing in Spanish at a Republican event.

More recently, Gamino said, Fernandez did a “corrido” for former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2008.

“It would be a political suicide mission or it would devastate any presidential candidate who believed that they can simply dismiss the Spanish-speaking community voters without a political price to pay as a result,” Gamino said.

Regardless of how the candidates’ Spanish came across, some viewed the decision to speak a foreign language as a valuable political tool with minimal downside for those already performing poorly in public opinion polls.

“I don’t think it was particularly bad,” Mitchell said. “When Beto (O’Rourke) did it first, it clearly was a way for him to get from being in the 1, 2, 3% range to doing something splashy.”

Mitchell added, “The worst thing these candidates could have done was stand there and be bland. It’s kind of death for them not to try to break through. ... The proof’s almost in the pudding in that we’re still talking about it. To be a part of those moments when you’re at 2%, it’s a victory.”

This story has been corrected to say that California Sen. Kamala Harris said the first Spanish word she could think of was “pendejo,” or stupid.

Bryan Anderson is a political reporter for The Bee. He covers the California Legislature and reports on wildfires and transportation. He also hosts The Bee’s “California Nation” podcast.