Seismic Shift in the Politics of Language in the U.S.?

By Chip Gerfen*

Cruz Rubio Spanish

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore / Flickr / Creative Commons

Heated words between the two Latino U.S. senators seeking the Republican nomination earlier this year may have been the first time national-level candidates cudgeled each other over their use of Spanish on the campaign trail.  Current party frontrunner Donald Trump set the stage for it in June 2015, when he declared that Mexicans are “bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists, and some, I assume, are good people.”  In July, Trump promised a crowd in Phoenix that he would build a wall between the United States and Mexico – a trope and applause line that still stands front and center in his campaign.  Seven months later, during one of Ted Cruz’s attacks on Marco Rubio – over the issue of undocumented immigrants – the Texas senator attacked Rubio’s use of Spanish, saying:

“Marco has a long record when it comes to amnesty.  In the state of Florida, as speaker of the house, he supported in-state tuition for illegal immigrants.  In addition to that, Marco went on Univision in Spanish [emphasis added] and said he would not rescind President Obama’s illegal executive amnesty on his first day in office.”

Several years earlier, in a Fox News interview during his 2012 Senate campaign, Cruz refused to debate in Spanish, explaining:

“Most Texans speak English.  If we were in Mexico, if we were in Cuba, we’d do the debate in Spanish.   Here in Texas, we should do it in English.  [My opponent] wants to do a debate in a language where the vast majority of primary voters don’t understand it, because he doesn’t want them to hear about his record.”

Cruz’s attack on Rubio’s use of Spanish was a suggestion that he used the language to deceive non-Spanish speaking voters by saying one thing in Spanish and another in English.  This use of what linguists refer to as implicature – suggesting something in speech (or in writing) without explicitly stating or even openly implying it – is something that we all produce and have to interpret every day.  But Cruz makes a number of implicatures: that Spanish hides the truth from most voters; that the public political language for Texas is English and that Spanish should be used in other countries; and that he himself does not to fully embrace a Hispanic identity.  He also said that his Spanish was “lousy.”  In the February confrontation, Rubio turned the tables on Cruz by mocking his Spanish, asking “how [Cruz] knows what I said on Univision because he doesn’t speak [Spanish].”  (Cruz responded in idiomatic Spanish – “ahora mismo díselo en español, si tú quieres” – that was much better than “lousy.”)

Such attacks are not entirely new.  As the Dallas Morning News reported in February 2012, Cruz stated that the traditional “American dream” was being destroyed by “letting people use their native languages and grow dependent on government aid,” suggesting that non-English speakers are non-contributing members of the society.  He also perpetuated the nonsensical but persistent myth that immigrants actively “refuse” to learn English.  Rubio apparently believes, however, that speaking Spanish is an asset.  Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush – from a white, patrician family – had no difficulty spinning his Spanish skills positively.  But things are different for people surnamed Rubio or Cruz, for whom language use is a political decision.  Whereas Cruz attacked Rubio according to an old playbook – one that conjures up suspicious behavior and a refusal to integrate – Rubio calculated that bilingualism and biculturalism can now be positives in national politics.  With both Latinos out of the race, the baton has been passed back to Trump, who recently asserted that a U.S.-born “Mexican” judge named Gonzalo Curiel cannot fairly oversee a class action suit against him.  Rubio’s portrayal of language as a political asset, however, may be the more accurate bellwether in the long run, even if his party’s candidate continues to embrace the old playbook.

June 10, 2016

* Chip Gerfen is Professor of Linguistics and Spanish and Department Chair, World Languages and Cultures, American University.

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