U.S. Politics: Ted Cruz’s Spanish Problem

By Chip Gerfen*

Beto O'Rourke and Ted Cruz

Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso (left), is challenging Republican incumbent U.S. Senator Ted Cruz. / Marjorie Kamys Cotera: O’Rourke/ Bob Daemmrich: Cruz

In the race for the U.S. Senate seat in Texas, a non-Latino challenger is gaining on an incumbent widely hailed as the Senate’s first Hispanic member by mischievously challenging his bond with Latino voters.  Last Friday evening in Dallas, Democrat Beto O’Rourke and Republican Ted Cruz held the first of three planned face-to-face debates in what now appears to be a toss-up race for the Senate seat Cruz has held since 2013.  The Texas Republican Party misjudged O’Rourke’s appeal, ineptly miscalculating that his punk rock past, ability to skateboard, and occasional use of obscenities would swing sentiment away from rather than towards him.  O’Rourke is a three-term member of the U.S. House of Representatives from his hometown of El Paso.

  • Extraordinarily, the race pits a fourth-generation Irish-American, Robert Francis O’Rourke, with the Spanish nickname “Beto,” against a first-generation Cuban-American, Rafael Edward Cruz, who goes by “Ted” – and it is impossible to miss the irony in the fact that the Irish-American has challenged the Cuban-American to hold two debates in Spanish.

Cruz’s Spanish language bona-fides have come up in an electoral context before.  As I wrote during the 2016 presidential primaries, Cruz and Florida Senator Marco Rubio, also a Cuban-American, sparred openly on national television, with Cruz accusing Rubio of using Spanish to send different messages to different constituencies.  Rubio ridiculed Cruz’s lack of fluency in the language, suggesting a major positive shift in attitudes towards the value of Spanish in the public, political sphere.

  • Cruz’s traditional homogenizing view of immigrant language and identity was already clearly visible in his prior description of English as the language of the people of Texas, while Spanish was foreign and appropriate for use in the public and political discourse of places such as Cuba or Mexico. Rubio, by contrast, viewed his fluency in Spanish as a useful tool for connecting with Hispanic voters without incurring costs with non-Hispanic voters.  By openly disparaging Cruz’s Spanish in a nationally broadcast debate, Rubio sought to undermine the man’s cultural and ethnic authenticity, especially when contrasted with his own demonstrable bilingualism and cultural pluralism.

The current race in Texas is more than an incumbent defending his seat in a statewide election.  It is one with national consequences being played out on a big stage – at a time when the tsunami of Trump’s political victory and subsequent discourse and policies may seem to have changed the political calculus regarding linguistic and ethnic identity away from Rubio’s embrace of linguistic pluralism in the public square.  Nevertheless, not only are Cruz’s Spanish bona-fides being called into question again; the challenge arises from a political competitor named O’Rourke who has no ethnic connection to the Latino communities of Texas.  O’Rourke and Cruz are, in fact, polar opposites.  Cruz, son of a Cuban immigrant father, is a paradigm of traditional assimilation.  Like the children of many immigrants, he lost the language of his father, embraced English as a marker of his American identity, and chose an English nickname, Ted, over his given name, Rafael.  O’Rourke, by contrast, was raised in the bilingual border city of El Paso, grew up with a Spanish nickname, and learned to speak fluently the Spanish language of the generally economically less privileged citizens of his home.

By challenging Cruz to debate in Spanish, O’Rourke is advancing a vision of political and societal inclusion that does not demand linguistic assimilation.  Like Rubio in 2016, he is leveraging his own knowledge of Spanish to connect with a specific constituency and espouse an inclusive vision.  At the same time, by forcing Cruz to admit his inability to speak Spanish, O’Rourke, like Rubio before him, implicitly identifies Cruz as an outsider to the linguistic community to which he should, by birthright, feel some affinity.  While language itself does not define the ethnicity of either candidate, O’Rourke is adeptly challenging Cruz’s authenticity as a Latino, while at the same time signaling his own solidarity with constituents who speak Spanish or are descended from Hispanic families in ways that Cruz cannot.  Simply put, by taking the Spanish out of Cruz, O’Rourke leaves Cruz with little choice but to continue betting on the political value of the traditional, and increasingly challenged, narrative of assimilation in a demographically changing political landscape.

September 25, 2018

* Chip Gerfen is Professor of Linguistics and Spanish at American University.