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Commentary: Spanish For President

Last month, millions tuned in to watch the Democratic presidential debates in Miami. Three of the candidates broke into Spanish during the debates at different times. The country reacted.

When the smoke cleared, it was former HUD Secretary and San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro who had the most to answer for — for a perceived lack of fluency in his attempt. Texas Public Radio commentator Yvette Benavides sees his code-switching, not as deficient, but as part of a far more complex and authentic story. 

Yvette Benavides is a writer and professor of creative writing at Our Lady of the Lake University. 

Last month’s democratic debate held over two nights in Miami introduced us to some 20 candidates vying for the democratic nomination for the presidency. Three of the candidates spoke in Spanish.  The focus turned to an arm-chair evaluation of the speakers for not speaking it proficiently enough.

Targets of the criticisms were Beto O’Rourke, the former representative from El, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, and Julian Castro who served as HUD secretary under President Obama and mayor of San Antonio in the early aughts.

Critics wasted no time hurling accusations of pandering while surgically parsing the errors each man made—this one stressed the wrong syllable, that one used the wrong word.

Each came to his level of fluency, I’d say, honestly. O’Rourke took classes in high school.   Booker took part in an immersion program in Ecuador.  Castro is the grandson of a Mexican immigrant. For this very reason, Castro, who by dint only of the fact of his heritage and ethnicity, bears the bigger burden of expectation on the subject of fluency in Spanish.

Castro emerged rather successfully from the debate the next day but the focus kept shifting to his use of Spanish and his lack of fluency.

For good or ill, a cultural epithet in this part of the country is “Tienes el nopal en la frente,” which loosely translates to “you have a cactus on your forehead.” When I was growing up in Laredo, Texas, the expression was used to out a peer perceived as uppity – for anglicizing his name or dyeing her hair a lighter hue or, for majoring in English. It was said to knock someone off their high horse and, in some sense, keep them to a certain status quo standard that didn’t include personal choice.  It was, most times, offered hypocritically, even as the target shrank back in contrition.  After the debate, I read more than once on social media the jab directed at Castro. 

In the United States with its diverse populations, children from linguistic minority families learn the language of society in order to survive and succeed. Castro has said that his grandmother and mother understand this well, as they had experienced the well-documented punishment in Texas classrooms where speaking Spanish meant a slap on the wrist or worse. As linguist Lily Wong Fillmore of UC Berkeley has found in her research on second language learning, “the loss of a primary language, particularly when it’s the only language spoken by parents, can be very costly to the children, their families and society as a whole.” It is the story of countless American immigrants and native children and adults who have lost their ethnic languages in the process of becoming linguistically assimilated into the English speaking world of the school and society.  On this, Castro has been clear and unapologetic.  This was the experience for him and his twin brother Congressman Joaquin Castro.

The play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw is a modern variant of the myth of Ovid’s Metamorphoses—the myth about the sculptor who falls in love with his statue of a woman. The play (and the film adaptation) is about language and about the idea that, through language, one can raise one’s social status. The idea counters the notion that innate social placement was a foregone conclusion, a status that we are born into and can never change.  In the play, phonetics Professor Henry Higgins teaches his pupil Eliza Doolittle, an underclass flower girl to refine her accent and conversation—these things helping to show her as a well-mannered woman in social situations. He bets on and helps along the transformation of Eliza from a poor Cockney cabbage leaf of a girl l to a lady, “a duchess,” says Higgins. He surmises that Eliza can never return to Covent Garden, her elevated and proper queen’s English forever ruining her for any other social striation than the upper crust one Higgins himself was born into.

At the end of the play, Eliza is not fated to be a flower girl, but nor is she beholden to Higgins.  With her own wits and her own language, she won’t just sell flowers but has the potential to open her own flower shop — or anything else. She learns she won’t have “kindness” from Higgins, but she will have independence with a mind and a voice of her own.

I’d say that’s metaphor enough to show that Castro’s supposed linguistic gaffes show us who he is, the grandson of an immigrant. Richer for that legacy, carrying the metaphorical vestiges of a nopal or an eagle or all the other abstract symbols of this nation, itself  transformed, unrecognizable after the conquest, its languages long silenced, with echoes of that past still audible, still discernible, and still telling the stories of what survives.

David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi