Español Is Winner of Univision Debate

December 10, 2007

Here’s something else I wrote about last night’s Univision debate:

Español Is Winner of Univision Debate

New America Media, Commentary, Roberto Lovato, Posted: Dec 10, 2007

Editor’s Note: The silent winner during last night’s Republican debate on Univision was, once again, the Spanish language, writes NAM contributor Roberto Lovato.

The silent winner during last night’s Republican debate on Univision was the Spanish language. Though they called for ending “illegal immigration” and for the children of immigrants to learn English (even though a recent study says they already are), the usually loudly anti-immigrant GOP presidential candidates did so in the most subdued tones to date.

The debate made clear the undeniable power of the Spanish language in U.S. politics and life today.

Throughout the hour-and-a-half forum held in Coral Gables, Fla., the politics of the Spanish language forced each candidate to alter his English-language political shtick.

One of the first questions asked went directly to the ascendant politics of language: “Thirty-one million people in the United States speak Spanish here… Do you think that there would be a value – a practical value – of making English the official language in this country?” asked Univision anchor Jorge Ramos.

Sen. John McCain discussed the “practical value” of learning English but neglected to mention his previous support for a “non-binding” Senate resolution endorsing English as the official language. For his part, candidate Ron Paul said that “we should have one language” without declaring outright his support or opposition for the English-only proposals of his peers in the GOP.

Originally scheduled for September, the debate in Miami marked a historic second presidential debate in a language other than English. Even before the debate, the issue of language occupied center stage as Colorado Congressman and presidential candidate Tom Tancredo boycotted the event. “It is the law that to become a naturalized citizen of this country you must have knowledge and understanding of English, including a basic ability to read, write, and speak the language,” Tancredo announced, adding, “So what may I ask are our presidential candidates doing participating in a Spanish speaking debate? Pandering comes to mind.”

When moderators Ramos and María Elena Salinas moved the discussion to immigration, we again saw how language shifted the terms of the debate. Most interesting was how the candidates avoided terms derided by Latino and other immigrants as racist. Words like “illegals,” “illegal aliens” and other terms that have become part of the lexicon of most candidates (except for Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul) found no sanctuary during yesterday’s debate. Much more emphasis was placed on “welcoming” and lavishing praise of “legal” immigrants.

One of the most important developments in recent months is the growing awareness by Spanish-language television – and Spanish-speaking voters – of their ability as a force for change (if only temporary change).

Univision’s emphasis last night on the politics of the Spanish language follows similar questioning of Democratic candidates in September. At that time, anchors Ramos and Salinas adopted a slightly different approach, by asking, “Would you be willing to promote Spanish as the second official language of the United States?” None of the Democrats responded directly.

As they move beyond Miami to continue their desperate search for voters, Republican candidates have lent themselves to the cottage industry of Spanish-language politics. As he opened up his “Viva Rudy” Latino campaign, Rudy Giuliani said Latinos “were a very important part of my coalition in getting elected mayor of New York City, and we want them to be a very important part of my coalition in winning the Republican primaries.” Mitt Romney, whose father was born in Mexico and who recently stated he admires Pancho Villa, launched a Spanish-language radio ad in Florida that was paid for by the “Romney para presidente” campaign. Other candidates have followed with similar efforts.

With two non-English debates setting the stage for the multilingual political future, it becomes clear the degree to which the histrionics of the English-only and immigration debates will soon be the politics of the past. A United States where one in every four people will be of Latino descent means that, short of violence or genocide, the politics of the Spanish language seen and heard on Univision last night are here to stay.

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