Democrats trot out their español thrilling some Latinos, turning off others

Spanish rolled off the tongues of some candidates better than those of others, but it was clearly an attempt to reach out to the Latino electorate.
Image: Candidates participate in the first U.S. 2020 presidential election Democratic candidates debate in Miami, Florida, U.S.
Former HUD Secretary Julian Castro and Sen. Cory Booker from New Jersey during the first 2020 Democratic debate in Miami on June 26, 2019.Mike Segar / Reuters

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By Suzanne Gamboa

Some of the Democratic candidates touted their Spanish-speaking skills in the debates, impressing some Latinos but leaving others in a huff.

The español rolled off the tongues of some candidates better than those of others but was clearly an attempt by candidates to reach out to the Latino electorate and a nod to the "Latinidad" of Miami, where the debate was held and where 70 percent of residents are Hispanic.

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Former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke trotted out his Spanish first, later followed by Sen. Cory Booker. At one point, moderator José Diaz-Balart and O'Rourke had a question-and-answer moment in Spanish.

But how useful was it for the candidates to answer some of their questions in Spanish?

Sonia Hernandez Hogeland, who was watching the debate at a Democratic Party watch party in San Antonio, thought at first the use of Spanish was “pandering.”

But Hogeland, who describes herself as "bilingual-ish," said that after watching Booker try to get his message across in Spanish, her opinion changed.

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“I thought, ‘Listen Latinos! You’re important! Your voice is important to these people! I hope Latinos take heed and flex the muscles we have earned,” she said.

Rebecca McDonald-Enghauser, 48, a registered nurse in Detroit who was born and raised in Puerto Rico, said she was glad "they're adding that to the debate."

"Having them speak Spanish will motivate Hispanic people to vote," she said. "It makes Latinos feel like they are part of the community. Like the candidates understand us and what we are going through."

But in a recent poll, 76 percent of the Latino eligible voters surveyed said they mostly wanted a candidate who values diversity and brings people together. Only 2 percent of the respondents thought that the ability to speak Spanish was the most important trait for a president.

The poll was conducted by Latino Decision for UnidosUS, the largest Latino civil rights and advocacy group. According to Pew Research, 32 million Latinos will be eligible to vote in 2020.

On social media, some Latinos thought the Spanish-speaking was a bit over the top and one of the night's biggest memes showed Booker's face as O'Rourke was speaking Spanish.

Amanda Rentería, who served as Hillary Clinton's national political director in 2016, was not impressed with the candidates throwing out Spanish. She said usually when Spanish is used, it's a plus and candidates get credit, but she said this time it felt like pandering.

The candidates "really weren't leaning into the feel of it" and it fell flat in the room, she said.

She did give points to Julián Castro for waiting until his wrapup at the end of the debate to show that he can speak Spanish. Although he's not a native speaker, Castro grew up with a Spanish-speaking grandmother and understands better than he speaks, although he's been working on it.

"He was the only Latino on stage and two others were using Spanish, so his calculation to use it at the end made sense for him. People may have noticed that the only Latino on stage didn't use it, but then he did, so that story is gone. It was an effective calculation for him," Rentería said.

Fernando Uribe, a college professor in New Jersey and an Independent, said he was impressed with how Castro used his grandmother's native language.

"As the only Hispanic candidate in the debate, it’s important for him to access that market. I think he was sharp and he was on his game in the way he conveyed his policy positions in both English and Spanish," Uribe said.

Comedian Jimmy Fallon joked about the Spanish speaking in the debate, saying that meanwhile on Telemundo, which simulcast the debate, English was being spoken.

And candidate Marianne Williamson, on the debate stage on Thursday — the second night of debates — tweeted that she needed to learn Spanish.

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