By Andrew J. Padilla
When Cory Booker, Beto O’Rourke, and Julián Castro spoke Spanish at the presidential primary debate in June, they established a historic first. Never before had a language other than English been spoken at such length on a presidential debate stage.
The effort to smash at least one language barrier was revelatory for some viewers; others highlighted that speaking a few phrases of varying clunkiness would “not be enough to get our votes.” But the shift in language underscored an elephant in the room: Whichever candidate wins the nomination may have to square off against President Donald Trump, a man who built his presidential campaign on bigotry and prejudice against all marginalized peoples — and Latinx people in particular.
O’Rourke and Castro have since dropped out, and Booker’s support has been lagging for months. Former Vice President Joe Biden is currently in the lead among Latinx voters specifically, followed by Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Jeronimo Cortina, the associate director of the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Houston, told USA Today that might have something to do with name recognition, rather than grasp of language. (That isn’t for lack of trying: In November, Warren used Latinx, the gender-inclusive alternative to Latino, in a video she posted to Twitter; New York Times opinion writer Ross Douthat wasted no time in spinning that clip into a critique of the very notion of directly messaging to the diversity within the Latinx community by warning that it might be too progressive a message.)
Identity is messy, and there are few easy answers for political or corporate branding for any racial or ethnic group. Yet just as screaming “¡Latinx!” will not necessarily connect anyone with every person of Latin American descent in the U.S., yelling nonsensically in questionably-articulated Spanish won’t do the trick, either. But does a candidate’s grasp of the second most-commonly spoken language in the U.S. matter? It depends when and where it happens.
A recent MTV News/YouGov poll found that 52 percent of Generation Z, and 46 percent of respondents overall, thought speaking Spanish in a televised presidential debate was pandering. While the total number of U.S. Spanish speakers has risen to over 60 million, the share of Latinx Americans who speak Spanish with any regularity has declined. After all, speaking Spanish has never been a prerequisite for Latinidad.
Yet Spanish-language campaign websites (when they’re done correctly) or grassroots events that engage with a given community do not hold the same amount of distrust: Per the MTV News/YouGov poll, only 33 percent of respondents, and 21 percent of Gen Z, felt that candidates speaking a language other than English to an ethnic minority in their community was pandering. (That politics be community-sensitive isn't a new thing: polling places provide material and assistance in a variety of languages.) Simply put, young voters in particular believe context is key when candidates employ Spanish, or any other language beyond English, on the campaign trail. And that context requires candidates have more than a cursory understanding of the diversity of minority communities in the U.S.
In The Rise of the Latino Vote, Benjamin Frances-Fallon contends that the Latino vote did not exist before the middle of the 20th century, “at least as a subject of national political analysis and policy conversation,” yet even after the practice started in earnest, engaging “Latino” voters has been one of the most elusive tasks for presidential candidates nationwide. This is in part due to the fact that the “Latino vote,” as we know it today, was not a group that came about naturally through demographic change but rather a political effort from the grassroots up to the executive to turn Spanish-speaking Americans — irrespective of origin, race, color, class, or even language — into a single political constituency.
But as Arlene Davila writes in Latinos, Inc.: The Marketing and Making of a People, “We cannot assume that visibility always equates with social gains or political entitlements.” The simplification of Latinidad often made Latinx people more vulnerable to manipulation by political and corporate power, given that many people searching for ways to sell Latinx people everything from products to politicians have sanitized, generalized, and ultimately white-washed Latinx identities based on long-held behavioral stereotypes. In politics, the phenomena manifests in “Hispandering,” a generalized way of reaching out to Latinx voters through language and cultural cues that aren’t necessarily backed by policy, like Pete Buttigeg eating tacos; Hillary Clinton attempting to learn Spanish on El Gordo y La Flaca; and Whatever the heck Trump tweeted on May 5, 2016.
Latinx people are set to be the largest minority voting bloc in 2020, yet their presence has been largely absent on the national debate stage. The last debate Castro qualified for was October. In November, only Senator Kamala Harris (CA) mentioned Latinx people, when she noted how little Latinas are paid in comparison to their white male counterparts. And while Representative Tulsi Gabbard and Mayor Pete Buttigieg brought up Mexico during the December debate, they did so only in abstraction, by sparring over if and how the U.S. should involve itself with its neighbor in the fight against cartels. That night also featured only one question about the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the vast majority of whom have roots in Latin American countries; even students at Loyola Marymount University, where the debate was held, were surprised the issue didn’t get more focus.
And while candidates have brought up immigration at several different points in the debates, posing the issue as a uniquely Latinx experience is a bit of a catch-22 in itself. The current cultural focus on the issue as it pertains to Latinx people can easily play into the Trump administration’s demonization of the U.S.-Mexico border, and it can serve to erase the lived experience of non-Latinx immigrants. But the reality of immigration should be cause for a more nuanced conversation, not erasure. As journalist Julio Ricardo Varela noted during the December debate, “Latino voters don’t only care about immigration as an issue.”
Nearly every governmental policy — on issues ranging from equal pay to military decisions to healthcare — will affect members of the U.S.’s Latinx population, which is the country’s largest minority group. “Latinx voters care about how they, as a marginalized population, are taken into account in larger issues such as public education, healthcare, the workforce, and beyond,” Jessie Hernández-Reyes, an education policy advisor from San Diego, California, told MTV News. “Latinos care about broader issues such as public education, and how their children are and will be cared for within the public education system."
Some candidates are highlighting the ways big-ticket issues impact Latinx people specifically and making meaningful commitments to shift structural power in their favor. Castro, the only bigger-name Latinx candidate who was vying for the 2020 nomination (though not the first Latino presidential candidate), was the first to propose a full immigration plan. His specifics, like repealing the section of federal law which makes crossing the border a federal crime, were game-changers: Thanks in part to Castro’s policy proposals and grassroots organizing from immigrant rights coalitions, Warren has now expressed an openness to a moratorium on deportations. After dropping out of the race in January, Castro endorsed Warren's presidential candidacy.
Senator Bernie Sanders has also promised a commitment to the policy, and took things a step further when, on December 21, he became the first presidential candidate to ever hold a Spanish-language-only town hall. The event, which was held in Las Vegas, Nevada, and hosted by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was not perfect, but participants presented immigration, the rising cost of schooling, housing, and medical care as the interlinked issues they are. The day highlighted Sanders’s multiple plans addressing the needs of Latinx people, which include helping Puerto Ricans rebuild after Hurricane Maria, addressing the scourge of racial injustice in America, and overhauling the American immigration system. His tactics are paying off, too: In November, the New York Times reported that Tío Bernie was a favorite for Latinx voters in six swing states.
Yet such efforts are still a far cry from the more surface attempts at hispandering by past campaigns that wooed Latinx voters, only to turn on them in later years. Dwight Eisenhower, whose Latinos con Eisenhower initiative printed “Me Gusta Ike” buttons for his 1952 election, quickly turned his back on many of the Latinx people who voted for him. In 1955, he instated “Operation Wetback,” the biggest mass deportation of undocumented workers in U.S. history; many of the more than a million people affected were U.S. citizens. The Eisenhower administration also supported a coup of Jacobo Árbenz, the democratically elected president of Guatemala, in response to his progressive social reforms. His successor wasn’t much better: After releasing a minute-long Spanish-language ad by the John F. Kennedy campaign featured Jackie Kennedy and the slogan, “Que viva Kennedy,” JFK would go on to assail Cuba, overtly and covertly, for the entirety of his presidency.
And while Latinx voters turned out for Barack Obama in record numbers during both his elections, for many the reality that his administration deported three million people over eight years still looms above any other good he did for the Latinx community. That legacy now follows former Vice President Joe Biden across the campaign trail. Recently, when immigrant activists demanded Tío Joe acknowledge and reverse course, he told them to vote for Trump.
Trump! Yes, the same Trump who notoriously kicked off his first presidential campaign in 2015 by equating all Latinx people with Mexicans, and branding those Mexicans as “rapists” and “criminals.” Trump, whose resorts hired undocumented workers as housekeepers years before his run for president. Trump’s legacy will be one of terror: The death and displacement of thousands of Puerto Ricans after Hurricane Maria; the disappearances of children kidnapped from their families at the border; and the spike in deaths of those held in the U.S.’s modern-day concentration camps trace back to Trump-era policies, even if the camps themselves do not. His rhetoric has encouraged a dramatic rise in reported hate crimes throughout the U.S. His administration has tried to rescind DACA and moved to make applying for asylum almost impossible. To be clear, this was not a bait and switch in the purest sense, given that only 28 percent of Latinx voters who showed up to the polls in 2016 voted for Trump. There was no betrayal here; he has always shown who he was.
It's simply not enough to fight abject xenophobia with language and easily recognizable cultural cues. As Karina Chávez, a first-generation community organizer in Iowa, told MTV News, “If a presidential candidate wants to reach the Latinx community in a meaningful way and engage us, we need you to show up to the spaces we are at. Leave the elitist expectation that we should come to you at the door. We need to see you to know who you are.”
She stresses that candidates should begin by listening to the community and the local organizers, activists, and residents who know each community best. What matters to the people in Boyle Heights, California, may differ significantly to the people living in Chicago, Illinois, or working in food processing plants in Mississippi.
“We need you to truly create platforms for us to express our needs and do not speak for us,” Chávez added. “I have engaged with campaigns because my community is involved and the candidates we support include us in the conversation for developing policies. Is that what you’re doing? If not, you need to rethink your strategy.”
Confusion over how the majority-white establishment can effectively reach out to Latinx people has lasted since the moment they realized they had to. But Hispandering and only vaguely alluding to how you’d substantially better the lives of Latinx people are not the solutions. It doesn’t have to be that complicated to address marginalized groups in a nuanced way. This process largely means listening, then letting these communities lead the conversation on the issues that matter to them.