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How do you say 'vote' in Spanish?

March 12, 2004|AL MARTINEZ

The telephone rang early the other morning.

I picked up the receiver, listened and said, "No, I'm sorry, I'm busy Friday. Next Thursday? Nope, busy then too. May or June might be good. Try me then."

My wife, the curious Cinelli, walked into the room.

"Who was that?"

"Somebody from the Republican National Committee."

"My heavens, what did they want?"

"To take me to lunch. Or dinner. Or to a Lakers game."

"You turned them down?"

"I had to. The Democratic National Committee has me tied up for the next few months. They get better Lakers seats anyhow. Right next to Jack Nicholson."

"Is that who the flowers were from the other day, and the Diego Rivera poster?"

"That scrawny little bunch of posies? Naw. That was from the Committee to Elect Ralph Nader. Not much money there. The poster had thumbtack holes in it. He got it off someone's wall."

"All these gifts and invitations. What's going on?"

"It's us little brown ones. We're popular again."

Every four years, when it comes time to elect a president, the political parties discover America's racial/ethnic minorities. And they begin courting us. The assumption is that each of the minority groups votes in a bloc. This year it's the Latinos who are being targeted, with multimillion-dollar media campaigns, because we are the nation's fastest-growing minority. Cinelli still has the Frida Kahlo serape from the last presidential race. It came from Senor Gore.

The campaigners think that as the election draws near, we all get together on a Saturday night over beer and taquitos and discuss who we're going to support. Since Latinos as a group rarely agree on anything, the meeting usually ends up in a fistfight with the wives finally dragging their husbands home.

That doesn't bother the politicos. They keep asking us to lunch and sending us pinatas in the shape of elephants or donkeys. Once or twice, they have rushed up to me on the street and hugged me to indicate their seasonal affection. One Republican, an ex-jock, picked me up off the ground and actually nuzzled me. I had to kick myself free.

A couple of things have made this election more ethnic-intense. In the first place, an estimated 6 million Latinos voted in 2000, and that figure is anticipated to go to 8 million this year. The brown population in the U.S. is growing at a phenomenal rate, and before long, jefe, you will comprise the minority population. That's, of course, because we breed like conejos and sneak in over the border when you aren't looking. But don't be frightened. There's always work for you in the fields.

I trace the Republicans' interest in Latinos back to a comment made some years ago by George Bush the elder when he was running for president. In introducing his grandchildren, he referred to three of them as "the little brown ones," alluding to the fact that their mother is Mexican American. This didn't bother me a bit, but it caused quite an uproar among big brown ones who objected to the term.

"Doesn't that upset you?" I remember Cinelli asking.

"Nope. It was a term of affection. It isn't as though he referred to them as 'my little tamales' or something. I'm a brown one, and I'm not offended a bit."

"You're not actually brown," she said, studying me closely. "You're more ecru. Maybe off-white."

"I think of myself as tawny."

"Well, maybe beige. And you're not little. And you don't speak Spanish. You're not even Mexican. I don't think Basques qualify as Latinos. They're Euskadians."

I noticed during the uproar over Bush One's statement that his campaigners used the term Hispanic rather than Latino. That's because Hispanics are perceived as people with law degrees, good table manners and indoor plumbing. Latinos are the ones who take low-paying jobs and urinate in the street. Not really. But I hear that from bigots who swear they've seen them do it. I followed a group of Mexican workers for a couple of hours one day to check out the accusation and discovered that they used regular bathrooms, just like the Hispanics. I asked one if he urinated in the street. He said, "Do you?" I said, "No," and he said, "Neither do I."

Anyone who votes is fair game for the electioneers, in both the Republican and Democratic camps and in the teeny-tiny camp that contains Nader and a few friends. The fact that there are anywhere from 31 million to 35 million Latinos/Hispanics in the U.S. is reason enough for both sides to woo us with ads, mailers, bumper stickers, neckties, T-shirts and stained glass windows.

I don't mind being wooed from afar in Spanish (none of which I can read or understand), and you might even be welcomed at the house to pitch your cause. Mi casa is sort of su casa for a brief visit. But no more hugging, nuzzling or whispering how much I mean to you. Just a smile and a handshake will do from now on, if you dig my sentido.


The finish line

Ex-con Bobby Tonas, the subject of Monday's column, promised he would run in the L.A. Marathon for God and for a daughter he hadn't seen in six years. It was to be a new beginning.

On Sunday, he fulfilled that promise, completing the 26.2-mile run in a little over six hours. His daughter, Christina Marie, walked the last three miles with him.


Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He's at

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