"¡Queremos un cambio! We want change!" mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa hollered before a roomful of campaign volunteers at his South Los Angeles office on a recent Saturday morning.
"That's what we want. We want to be judged by our talents," he went on: "Queremos que nos juzguen ... juzgan?"
Villaraigosa's Spanish stumbled, caught in the perilous rules of the subjunctive. Was it juzguen or juzgan? People in the room called out their suggestions.
"You know, I was born here, man," Villaraigosa said finally, switching back to English. "It's hard.... It's hard."
The room erupted in laughter and applause. They understood.
With Villaraigosa as the front-runner for the May 17 runoff against Mayor James K. Hahn, the campaign is in many respects a fully bilingual affair. News conferences, television advertisements, mailers, speeches and debates reach voters in both English and Spanish.
Today, the contenders are to engage in a bilingual debate broadcast by Spanish-language network Univision. Questions will be posed to both candidates in Spanish and translated to English by earpiece. All answers will be translated to Spanish.
Hahn does not speak Spanish. In official settings, Villaraigosa sometimes offers remarks in distinct blocks, one language after the other. He might opt for that approach in the debate, said campaign spokesman Nathan James.
But on the trail, the candidate's Spanish is different. It's a looser bilingualism that shows a self-effacing candor over an aspect of his heritage that many U.S.-born Latinos consider a source of mild embarrassment: Spanish that is less than perfect. Even bad.
During Villaraigosa's successful run for City Council in 2002, weak Spanish was a brief issue. A mailer from a supporter of incumbent Councilman Nick Pacheco derided Villaraigosa's language as "pocho," a pejorative describing someone who has drifted from his Mexican roots and language.
This time around, the second-generation Mexican American appears to be playing off his "pocho" Spanish much as President Bush has turned his malapropisms into a populist badge.
Although voters with a multicultural view of Los Angeles may eat it up, Villaraigosa's Spanish could alienate others, said Jaime Regalado, executive director of the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A.
"The fact that he's doing something almost equally in Spanish as in English is a strength in keeping his base rallied," Regalado said.
"There is that threat, though. If he's perceived as a bilingual- bicultural candidate, that will turn off Republicans or more traditionally conservative Democrats," he added.
Latino voters and supporters interviewed during the runoff campaign said they found Villaraigosa's use of Spanish familiar.
"Like my kids'," said Erika Valladares, 40, referring to Villaraigosa's Spanish in the South L.A. appearance.
The 40-year-old Salvadoran immigrant and campaign volunteer added with a slight shrug: "Well, I mean, el trata" ["he tries."]
In a city where lunch is almost universally mistranslated (usually as lonche but hardly ever as the correct comida or almuerzo), Villaraigosa's Spanish hardly scandalizes the local ear, observers said.
"If I speak Spanish and somebody from Mexico hears me, they can totally tell I'm from Los Angeles," said Salvador Hernandez, 23, editor of the student newspaper at Cal State Northridge and a panelist on the mayoral debate held at the university in March.
"You can tell the same thing with Villaraigosa," said Hernandez, who was born in Torrance to Mexican immigrant parents. "You can tell that's pocho Spanish."
His comment speaks to another shift: For some, pocho, though not entirely stripped of its ability to offend, stings less.
It is "just another term to describe the Mexican American experience," said Lalo Alcaraz, who draws the syndicated cartoon La Cucaracha, which appears in The Times, and runs the satirical website www.pocho.com.
The collective "¿Y que?" (So what?) response to imperfect Spanish reflects that changing cultural attitude, he said. "A lot of Chicanos in East L.A. older than Villaraigosa speak like that, if that," Alcaraz said. "If he was going to be a newscaster on Univision, OK, but what's the big deal?"
Spanish, no matter how shoddy, is a cultural touchstone even English-dominant Latinos can relate to, said Pilar Marrero, metropolitan editor and political columnist for the Spanish-language daily La Opinion, who has written critically about Latino politicians who speak poor Spanish.
That Latino Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico speaks impeccable Spanish and Los Angeles City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo speaks Spanish with the help of phonetic cue cards matters little to bilingual voters and just "tells them that one of them is more pocho than the other," Marrero said.
Villaraigosa belongs to the segment of U.S.-born Latino leaders who grew up in barrios where fear of discrimination pushed many to shun Spanish outside the home. Often, it was their parents who discouraged the practice.