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Candidates Consider Spanish Muy Importante

Politicians defend use of bilingualism as a way to connect with Latinos. Critics say non-speakers risk being seen as pandering.

September 20, 2003|Daniel Hernandez | Times Staff Writer

Gov. Gray Davis approached the podium at the Mexican American Political Assn. convention last Sunday with the stiff grin he usually flashes before stump speeches. His manner was familiar, but the words were different.

"Estoy feliz de estar aqui hoy (I'm happy to be here today)," the governor said, haltingly.

He then announced that there was "one more thing I can say in Spanish: Mi madre y mi esposa son las personas mas importantes de mi vida."

Hundreds of delegates raised signs and cheered at the line: "My mother and my wife are the most important people in my life."

Davis is hardly the only candidate trying out bilingualism.

At campaign appearances, Arnold Schwarzenegger has used the Spanish he learned during movie shoots in Mexico. Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante and Green Party candidate Peter Camejo often deliver full speeches in Spanish before large Latino audiences.

Both use the language to emphasize their immigrant backgrounds: Bustamante's grandparents came from Mexico, and Camejo is originally from Venezuela.

Arianna Huffington recently pledged to a Latino political group that she would learn Spanish if she were elected governor.

The same phenomenon can be seen elsewhere in the country, especially in states with large Latino populations, where candidates increasingly sprinkle public messages with Spanish phrases.

"They're looking for points of connection," said Jaime A. Regalado, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute at Cal State Los Angeles. "And when you don't have points of connect, you start talking about tacos or immigrant grandmothers."

As with virtually all political tactics, however, there are potential risks. "It's becoming a tool, and it's great to have one or two closing lines in Spanish for your standardized stump speech," said Tobe Berkovitz, associate dean of the College of Communication at Boston University. "But do you get bonus points because you're trying or is it going to seem like you're pandering?"

Russ Lopez, a Davis aide and the governor's unofficial Spanish tutor, dismissed the notion that Davis is pandering.

"In this moment of our political life, anything the governor does -- he breathes the wrong way, looks at someone differently -- we're going to get that charge," he said. "He's doing it out of sincerity and out of respect. Why would a governor go out with a heavy American accent to say something in Spanish? It's really a sign of respect."

Lopez said the governor comes to him with phrases and ideas he wants to say in Spanish. His job is to work with Davis, picking the right words and pronunciation, he said.

Lopez said he once explained to Davis that the sagely female matriarch is central to Latino culture, eliciting the line the governor used Sunday about his mother and wife.

In speeches to Latino audiences Davis also refers to Mexican President Vicente Fox as his "compadre" -- a much more brotherly term than "amigo."

"We were in Tijuana and I told him, 'In Texas, compadres is something everyone says,' " said Lopez, a Texas native.

He added that Davis is not saying, " 'You tell me what to say that's going to make them like me.' He's asking questions. He's forming his own message."

Juan B. Botero, Schwarzenegger's Latino issues and Spanish-language spokesman, scoffs at Davis' Spanish. "I think a candidate should learn the language but not pretend you know the language. It's phony," he said.

His candidate isn't being coached on his Spanish and uses only phrases he has picked up over the years, Botero said. "I haven't told him to speak Spanish," he added.

Tuesday at the Hollenbeck Youth Center in Boyle Heights, where Schwarzenegger held a town hall forum with immigrant voters, Jorge Olamendi, a restaurant owner, started his question to the candidate with "Buenos dias."

Schwarzenegger immediately returned the salutation and asked "theseComo esta? (How are you?)"

"Very good, thank you," Olamendi responded in Spanish. "Very good! Very good accent."

Schwarzenegger's use of Spanish was a subject of debate later outside the youth center.

Boyle Heights homemaker Gloria Carnalla, 52, said it is important for candidates to try speaking Spanish because many people who vote "don't know English or can't speak it well."

Still, she believes Latino voters can detect when candidates are simply trying to score points. Cruz "Bustamante speaks Spanish. On the other hand, Arnold doesn't. He just says 'Hasta la vista, baby.' What's that?" said Carnalla, who plans to vote for the Democratic lieutenant governor.

Esteban Blanco, 26, a youth basketball coach, said speaking Spanish is irrelevant in politics. "They say that if you're bilingual you have an advantage," said Blanco, who described himself as an undecided voter. "But it's all about whoever's smarter. As long as you have good ideas and work with the community, it's whatever."

Voters should not expect the sounds of Spanish to disappear from the stump speech when the recall election is over.

Berkovitz, the Boston University professor, said use of Spanish is a way for politicians to appeal, not just to Latinos, but to other voters interested in diversity.

Berkovitz recalled watching Democratic presidential candidates Howard Dean and John Kerry on television. "All of a sudden they say a few things in Spanish," he said.

"They do not need to do the Gettsyburg Address in Spanish in order to achieve their goal."

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