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.

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.