Accenting the importance of the Latino vote

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Pausing briefly during his speech to the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., Craig Romney told the delegates that it was his “privilege” to say a few words in Spanish.

Mi padre, Mitt Romney, es un hombre de familia,” he said. (“My father is a family man.”) In fluent if slightly halting Spanish, the 31-year-old said his father valued that the United States is a country of immigrants.

El ama a nuestra nacion,” he said. (“He loves our country.”)

The Republican platform advocates making English the official national language, but the audience cheered speaker after speaker after they sprinkled Spanish into their speeches.

One week later, speakers at the Democratic National Convention kicked the Español love-fest up a notch. Opening the convention, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the convention chairman, quickly went to the classic: “Si se puede!” (“Yes we can.”)

Joseph Kennedy III, a congressional candidate in Massachusetts, invoked a memory of his uncle, the late Edward M. Kennedy, singing in Spanish in a Texas border town while campaigning for then-Sen. Barack Obama.

“Uncle Teddy raised his hands and belted out, ‘Ay Jalisco, no te rajes!’ in a strong Boston accent,” the younger Kennedy said. “The crowd went crazy for the old ranchero song and the Massachusetts mariachi who sang it.”


No one kept stats, but it’s likely that some kind of record for use of a foreign language at the two conventions was shattered, with bursts of Spanish flying como pajaritos (like little birds).

A cynic could say that it’s mercenary and calculated, a sort of political and linguistic version of the late 1970s Bill Murray “Saturday Night Live” skit “Quien Es Mas Macho?” — except more like, “Quien Usa Mas Español?”

But with the Latino vote important to both Democrats and Republicans, it’s also pretty smart, and not altogether inauthentic, said Jaime Regalado, professor emeritus of political science at Cal State L.A.

“The play is unmistakable for both parties, that Latinos have become a key voting bloc that for the first time really has to be addressed by both Republicans and Democrats, now and in the future,” Regalado said.

Going bilingual is worth any risk, he said, especially in battleground states with fast-growing Latino populations. It’s also largely symbolic, since most Latinos watching the conventions in the arenas or at home probably not only speak English, but are English-dominant.

“Many in the Republican base may not like the appeal in Spanish, but I think most will understand that they need some Latino votes,” Regalado said. “Every one is selling a product during a campaign, and this is a gambit of salesmanship. They’re selling to a core constituency, saying, ‘Hey, you count.’”

Ann Romney, the wife of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, was proud of her son’s Spanish. The day after Ann Romney’s own well-received speech, Craig introduced her in English and Spanish at a Latino Coalition luncheon for Republican elected officials and entrepreneurs.

“I have no idea what he is ever saying when he’s speaking Spanish,” Romney said as her son stood next to her. “I just sit there and beam when I hear him speak as a mother always would.”

Most of the DNC and RNC speakers who used Spanish were Latinos, but not all. Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, welcomed convention-goers to his state in Spanish.

Bush has been one of the Republican leaders urging the party to do more outreach to the Latino vote and to tone down the harsh rhetoric against Latino illegal immigrants. Cuban American Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida frequently jokes after starting a speech in Spanish: “For those who do not speak Spanish, I gave a brief synopsis of how I saved a bunch of money on my car insurance.”

But last week at the Republican convention, Rubio played it straight.

“My dad used to tell us, ‘En ese pais, ustedes van a poder lograr todas las cosas que nosotros no pudimos,’" he said to a burst of cheers. “In this country, you’re going to be able to accomplish all the things we never could.”

Ted Cruz, a tea-party-backed Cuban American and a huge favorite to win a Texas Senate seat in November, told the RNC that when his father came to America, “No tenia nada, pero tenia corazon. He had nothing, but he had heart. A heart for freedom.”

On just the first day of the Democratic convention, Spanish seemed to pop up during every other speech. “In Spanish there is a saying that many mothers tell their children,” said U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez of New York. “Dime con quien andas, y te dire quien eres. Tell me with whom you walk, and I will tell you who you are.”

But for the Democrats, perhaps the most resonant use of Spanish came from keynote speaker Julian Castro, the popular mayor of San Antonio. The Harvard-educated 37-year-old has said in the past that he’s not fluent in Spanish — like many Latinos — but during his rousing speech, he used the language sparingly and poignantly. He described how every morning his Mexican grandmother would make the sign of the cross over him and his twin brother, Joaquin, when they were boys heading to school.

Que dios los bendiga,” Castro recalled her saying. “May God bless you.”

A few weeks before coming to Charlotte, Castro said he and his wife had dropped their 3-year-old daughter for her first day of pre-kindergarten.

“We walked out of the classroom and I found myself whispering to her, as was once whispered to me, ‘Que dios te bendiga,’” Castro said, eliciting a collective aww from the audience.

At the end of his speech, Castro urged those in the audience to reelect President Obama and left them with: “Que dios los bendiga. May God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America.”

Herminia Gonzalez, 72, of Huntersville, N.C., who watched the speech on TV, said Castro’s words moved her. They may have been calculated, but as Gonzalez stood outside of the Charlotte Convention Center the next day, the naturalized U.S. citizen who left her home in Guatemala 48 years ago reckoned nothing of political artifice. The words felt real to her.

“I was in tears,” she said. “I always tell my son: Mijo, que dios te bendiga. In Spanish and English. I always do that.”

Times staff writers Robin Abcarian and Alana Semuels contributed to this report.