The symbolic Spanish debate

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In case you hadn’t heard, Univision hosted a Spanish-language Democratic presidential debate on Sunday night. It was the latest in an already long and tedious string of contests to see who can repeat his or her boilerplate with more and fresher conviction. Even though there have been over a dozen debates already, only a few have provided any real fodder for voter decision-making.

The Univision debate may have been historic for its simultaneous English-to-Spanish-back-to-English-subtitle translation, but little that came from candidates’ mouths was worth remembering, especially because they weren’t actually allowed to do the Spanish-speaking themselves.

The seven contenders (minus, unfortunately, the always entertaining Joe Biden) stuck to the script, repeating their well-known stances on immigration and dropping all the right names and connections. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) reminded the audience that his father was an immigrant from a small town in Kenya. Obama also compared Cesar Chavez to Martin Luther King. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) pointed out that her campaign manager is a Latina. Former Sen. John Edwards boasted that his North_Carolina”>hometown in North Carolina “is now half Latino.”


The winner of the name-dropping contest was probably former Sen. Mike Gravel, who solemnly referenced Armando Soriano, a soldier who was killed in Iraq and whose parents now face deportation. Not only was the comment bound to resonate with Latinos while swaying even the most stone-hearted immigration policy conservatives, it may have been just what Gravel needed to make voters forget his statement in a previous debate that soldiers in Iraq are dying in vain.

The most interesting moment might have been when two candidates actually tried to speak Spanish instead of letting translators do it for them. Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (the lone Latino candidate, cursed with a Caucasian-sounding name) speak fluent Spanish but were blocked from doing so by debate organizers. Univision said it wanted to be fair to the other candidates.

There’s a clear irony in a Spanish-language debate that won’t allow candidates to speak Spanish. But because debates are ultimately about cozying up to the appropriate primary-voting bloc, shouldn’t Univision have let Dodd and Richardson demonstrate their linguistic ties to the Latino community, at least in short statements? The Democrats’ main goal in this exercise was, of course, to reach out to that community, hence the name-dropping and pro-immigrant platforms. And speaking a common language seems an expression of much closer intimacy -- suggesting an actual effort to appreciate a culture and a community --than mentioning that your staff happens to include Latinos.

Both the candidates and Univision seemed to want the Spanish-language debate to be seen as a service to Latino voters rather than for what it really was -- a cheaply symbolic way for candidates to demonstrate that they care. The percentage of Latino voters [PDF] who actually require a translated debate is probably quite small, considering that the foreign-born -- that is, those more likely to need translation -- make up only one-quarter of eligible Latino voters. The largely bilingual second generation and the mostly English-only third generation make up the bulk of the Latino electorate. And though one in four may sound like a considerable number, out of all eligible Latino voters, 89% say that Spanish isn’t the only language they speak at home.

So the Democrats didn’t go on Univision to bridge any language barrier; they just wanted to make another appeal to Latino voters, this time on a Spanish-language platform instead of, say, at an East L.A. event sponsored by a Latino organization. (Republicans’ reluctance to arrange their own Univision debate also sends a symbolic message, intended at GOP primary voters who largely opposed the comprehensive immigration bill). Of the 2.2 million viewers who tuned in -- compared with 2.8 million for a Democratic debate on ABC last month -- many may speak perfectly fine English, but even those who don’t can understand a symbolic gesture in any language.

Swati Pandey is a researcher for The Times’ editorial page; click here to read her archive. Send us your thoughts at