Spanish Lights Up the Debate Stage, Winning Both Praise and Jeers in the Media

Democratic Debate Belatina
Photo Credit Getty Images

In case you missed it, several Democratic presidential candidates took the liberty to address the nation in Spanish during last week’s debate. Depending on whom you ask, candidates who dare to speak Spanish to their constituents should either be praised for acknowledging the diversity of their audience or criticized for using a second language as a campaign tactic. Also depending on whom you ask, it’s either acceptable or unacceptable that the candidates are not fluent or have an accent when they speak; cynics from across party lines expressed a sense of underwhelm after three of the first debate’s candidates integrated Spanish into their responses on immigration.

The Hill cited a small online survey of about 42 percent of its respondents — a little over 1,200 U.S. adults — feel that candidates who speak Spanish during a presidential debate are pandering to their audience. This poll was concluded prior to the debates themselves. Notably, 27 percent of adults who identified as Hispanic felt that speaking Spanish during a presidential debate was an act of pandering. Overall though, over half of the survey’s respondents thought that being bilingual was a positive quality in a candidate. 

AOC Spanish BELatina
Photo Credit Late Show with Seth Myers

AOC chimed in on late-night television to poke a bit of fun at the candidates’ attempts to communicate their message in Spanish; many publications simply reported on the sound bite that she thought “it was humorous.” Ultimately, though, she praised them not for their proficiency with the language. “I loved it, because, I represent the Bronx and there was a lot of Spanglish in the building,” she explained. “I thought it was a good gesture to the fact that we are a diverse country.” 

Beto O’Rourke was the first of the three candidates at the first Democratic debate to deliver his message to the public in Spanish. As a former representative whose district includes the border town of El Paso, O’Rourke notably kicked off his presidential campaign from his hometown in both of the city’s major languages not far from the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juárez

This moment on the debate stage earned him what many viewers characterized as side-eye from Senator Cory Booker. “I just knew he had laid a gauntlet down,” the senator told CNN last week. “Both he and I knew, as people who can speak Spanish, that now we were gonna bring it as well.” Booker himself launched his campaign in Spanish, going on air with Univision’s Despierta America among other outlets to signal his inclusive campaign goals to the public. 

Julián Castro broke into Spanish at the debate as well. Early on in his own campaign, he told New York Magazine that he had been criticized for using his skills as a bilingual candidate. As a third-generation Mexican-American, neither Castro (nor his brother Joaquín Castro) are fluent in Spanish, which is only newsworthy to anyone who has never been around second- or third-immigrants before. “I think it says something about a lot of people asking the question that they don’t understand the reality of the Latino community in the United States,” Castro told the magazine. He pointed out how much pressure and criticism his grandmother and mother faced for speaking a language other than English, that that somehow makes people less American. “So it’s very ironic and makes zero sense that now somehow a Latino would be told, ‘You’re not good enough because you don’t speak Spanish.’”