By RUSSELL CONTRERAS and CURT ANDERSON, Associated Press
The Democratic presidential hopefuls peppered their statements with Spanish on Wednesday night in Miami during the first televised debate of the 2020 election, evoking praise from some Latino activists and eye rolls from others.
Their efforts were a testament to the fact that Latinos are on track to be the largest racial or ethnic group eligible to vote in 2020 with 32 million, according to figures from the Pew Research Center. That amounts to about 13 percent of the electorate, and the population is strong in such key states as Arizona, Florida and Colorado.
But using the language to woo voters is a double-edged sword: Advocates looking for clues about how candidates would respond to issues facing Latinos in the United States saw the gestures as promising and sincere. Critics called the moves “hispandering”—a term used to describe pandering to the Hispanic community.
It’s a delicate balance and after the debate, which also was televised on Telemundo, O’Rourke, who is white, and Booker, who is black, were mocked on social media with widely shared memes that made fun of their Spanish. The criticism ranged from ridiculing their accents to laughing at their imperfect grammar.
“It’s like a spice. You have to be very careful about how much you use because too much and you taint the whole dish,” Fernand Amandi, a Miami-based political consultant and pollster said. “It can become a distraction.”
The candidates’ foray into the Spanish language came as the country has been locked in a heated debate over how to respond to the high number of migrants from Central America who are seeking asylum in the United States. Latino and immigrant activists have condemned President Donald Trump’s response to detaining migrants, which has included separating families and detaining children in overcrowded and substandard facilities.
There also have been a few high-profile episodes in which people have been harassed on the street for speaking Spanish. In one instance, videos taken at a California gas station in April showed an employee yelling at a customer for speaking Spanish. Last year, a woman was arrested after she was caught on video shouting at two Spanish-speaking shoppers at a grocery store in Colorado.
As the presidential campaigns have gotten under way, Latino advocates from New York to New Mexico have been seeking clues on how the Democratic hopefuls would tackle issues affecting Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans dealing with poverty, education funding and poor access to health care.
Melissa Mark-Viverito, interim president of the Latino Victory Fund, attended Wednesday night’s debate and said she welcomed the use of Spanish by some of the candidates.
“In the time I have been part of the debates, I’ve never seen candidates directly reach out to our community in that way. It’s important that we have candidates who speak to our community,” Mark-Viverito said. “Our vote is going to be so incredibly important in selecting who the Democratic nominee will be.”
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat and leading progressive, said on Late Night with Stephen Colbert that she “loved” the use of Spanish during the debate, even though it appeared the candidates spoke Spanish to dodge the questions.
“I thought it was a good gesture to the fact that we are a diverse country,” Ocasio-Cortez said.
Candidate’s use of Spanish during Wednesday’s debate was far cry from 50 years ago when politicians outside the American Southwest rarely spoke the language during campaigns.
In 1960, Hispanic civil rights leaders praised U.S. Sen. John F. Kennedy after he uttered the words “Mexicans” and “Puerto Ricans” during his opening statement of the nation’s first televised presidential date. He was referring to the struggles Latinos faced with poverty, and his comments came at a time when Mexican American and Puerto Rican students were punished physically for speaking Spanish in school.
Later in the campaign, his wife, Jackie Kennedy, recorded what is believed to be the first Spanish-language television ad. Her Spanish skills got some help from Mexican American adviser Carlos McCormick and her aide, Dominican-born Providencia Paredes.
Eighteen years later, Republican U.S. Sen. John Tower of Texas used a Spanish corrido written in his honor in a TV ad. He won a close re-election by capturing 37 percent of the Hispanic vote.
George H.W. Bush featured his Spanish-speaking daughter-in-law in a television commercial during his successful 1988 presidential campaign. His son, future President George W. Bush, spoke Spanish during debates for Texas governor and his 2000 race for the presidency.
As a candidate, Trump referred to some Mexican immigrants as “bad hombres,” meaning bad men, during the third presidential debate against Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016. These words also morphed into memes and some Latino Twitter users to temporarily change their user names to “bad hombre.”
Nowadays, adding Spanish to a public statement can make a politician look silly if he or she isn’t reasonably fluent, Amandi said.
“Anytime you become a meme for using Spanish in a debate, it’s no bueno,” he said.
Rebecca García, 25, a Miami-based political activist whose parents came from Colombia, said Booker’s Spanish was hard to understand. She called Castro’s statement in Spanish “deliberate, thoughtful and considerate.”
“What he said, ‘adios Donald Trump’,” García said, “it [was] so amazing.”
Associated Press writers Alexandra Olson in New York and Marcus Lim in Miami contributed to this report. Anderson reported from Miami. Follow him on Twitter at @Miamicurt. Russell Contreras is a member of The Associated Press’ race and ethnicity team. Follow him on Twitter at @russcontreras.