“¡Yo Hablo Español!” – Political Outreach or Pandering?

Considering the growing clout of Latino voters, it is no surprise that politicians are now, more than ever, focusing on outreach and messaging toward the Spanish-speaking electorate. Spanish-language ads and addresses are everywhere and rightly so. Since Latinos are a rainbow of nationality backgrounds and skin colors, what unites us and defines us is our language, as commentator and leading Latino figurehead, Charles P. Garcia, recently noted. (Well, that and knowing what it’s like to have mama scold you if you step outdoors with your hair wet as you will now, certainly, catch a cold.)

But in employing Spanish as a messaging tactic, politicians often overreach and even err.

What works and what doesn’t? Let’s take a look:

1) Rubio’s Spanish-language State of the Union response: When plans were announced that the Florida senator would mark a historical first with this novel approach, some railed that it was ‘divisive’ or even offensive. But, as I wrote on this site, Rubio’s move, while bold, was inclusive and laudable. Once it aired, naysayers realized their criticisms were premature and amounted to much ado about nothing. Rubio delivered the address in English, and Spanish language networks were able to broadcast the Spanish version.

VERDICT: Works! When a politician speaks Spanish flawlessly, as Rubio does, providing an alternate, additional Spanish-language version is not only effective and inclusive but also simply natural.

As we continue to (rightly) abandon harsh rhetoric and tone toward Latinos, politicians must be careful to walk the delicate line between what does not work and what does.

— A.J. Delgado

2) Spanish-language campaign ads: In the 2012 election cycle, both President Obama and Mitt Romney aired ads exclusively in Spanish, aired heavily on radio stations catering to Latino audiences. This is a no-brainer. There are many voters, mainly elderly Latinos, who are citizens and have actively voted for years but who never mastered the English language. Why not speak directly to these key members of the voting populace? Such addresses are even effective toward those who do speak perfect English but for whom Spanish is their native tongue, as it is heartening for many to hear the political message articulated directly to their ethnic community.

VERDICT: Works! Spanish-language ads reach a broader audience and in a way that is personal to those listening.

3) Bilingual ads: Last month, second-generation Colombian-American Gabriel Gomez spurred a controversy with an online video announcing his candidacy for the U.S. Senate. Gomez, a Republican and former Navy SEAL, incorporated Spanish into the ad, underscoring his ethnic heritage – fair enough. But he opened the ad in Spanish, stating: “Me llamo Gabriel Gomez y yo estoy anunciando que voy a correr para ser senador de los Estados Unidos. To those of you who don’t speak Spanish, today I’m announcing my run for U.S. Senate.” Prior to closing the 60-second ad, Gomez used Spanish once more: “Ojala no vemos pronto en el futuro.”

VERDICT: Fails! It’s wonderful for Gomez to highlight and even emphasize his Latino heritage. There is, however, a proper time and place – the very first sentence, and the very first words uttered, in an ad announcing one’s candidacy is not it. Gomez can and should produce Spanish language ads for YouTube, radio stations, and Spanish television stations, or even incorporate a Spanish phrase into a general ad. But starting off his candidacy in Spanish and, even worse, following that sentence with: “To those of you who don’t speak Spanish….” (i.e., the majority of Massachusetts residents) is misguided and simply cringe-worthy. Moreover, the intense use of Spanish throughout the short ad seemed to be pandering, as Gomez’s Spanish language skills (struggling to articulate the words) are not those of a native speaker. If one does not normally, fluently speak the language, is it natural to make such heavy use of it in a campaign ad? And, perhaps most worrisome, does an ad like this (“to those of you who don’t speak Spanish”) offend non-Latino voters and further heighten tensions against the Latino community?

4) Spanish when addressing a Latino organization: When Romney and Obama spoke to NALEO last year, both stressed their love of Latino culture (with Romney even noting his father was technically born in Mexico) and using Spanish phrases. And when Senator Rand Paul spoke to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce yesterday, he incorporated Spanish over a dozen times, as well as opening and closing in the language.

VERDICT: Works! Learning a few Spanish phrases to employ in addressing a Hispanic organization is, at the very least, polite, endearing, and appreciated. While Jon Stewart good-naturedly poked fun at the degree to which Romney and Obama did so last year, in a segment skewering “los panderos” (“the panderers”), in seriousness, few find fault with this sensible, charming approach.

So there you have it. As we continue to (rightly) abandon harsh rhetoric and tone toward Latinos, politicians must be careful to walk the delicate line between what does not work and what does. Pandering? No. Inclusion in the right way, time, and place? ¡Sí!