The US, Sen. Marco Rubio, and Hispanic Americans

Official portrait of US Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who made history with his Spanish rebuttal to Pres. Obama. (Wikicommons)
Official portrait of US Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who made history with his Spanish rebuttal to Pres. Obama. (Wikicommons)

Americans can be naive about the distinctions among the masses of ethnic groups in the US.  I was living in Madison, WI, a fairly cosmopolitan city for its size, during the 9/11 attacks, when an incident of harassment occurred.  Some young white men were harassing a “middle-eastern looking” man, whom they assumed was a Muslim, but was in fact a Sikh from India.  “If you can correctly tell me which country I come from,” he responded to them, “I’ll give you each a dollar.”  I don’t believe he gave out any money.  If we want to bridge gaps among different groups in our community, we must study and learn about the others rather than assume they are coming from the same context as us.

I was impressed that Sen. Marco Rubio gave his speech in English and Spanish, and I wondered what it said about our country.  The speech displayed the best attitude towards our multilingual country that I have ever seen.  (Most responses have focused on the sip of water and not the historic bilingual response, unfortunately.)  In Patrick Cox’s fascinating podcast about Obama’s State of the Union Speech, Cox spent some time examining the Spanish response of Sen. Rubio.  Yet two facts presented in this podcast raised interesting questions for me: first, that the speech was a direct translation of Sen. Rubio’s English speech; second, that the speech was given in a Cuban accent.  These facts raise questions about how Americans respond to people of other languages and cultures, ultimately displaying a general lack of depth of knowledge of our neighbors.

First, the Spanish version appears to not have been modified at all from the original without considering differences in cultural assumptions.  A speech engages the concerns and assumptions of the audience.  Sen. Rubio’s English speech responded to Obama’s English speech, and both speeches addressed a largely white, English-only speaking audience.  Spanish-speakers come from a different cultural and rhetorical background than English-speakers, so a Spanish-version of the speech must work within that background.  Simply translating the speech assumes that the Spanish-speaking audience shares the same cultural assumptions as the English-speaking audience, that they differ “only” in language.

This assumption can cause problems, as rhetoric accomplishes something in one culture, but may not be effective in another culture.  I’ve seen it happen elsewhere.  At one company, I saw documents for human resources departments to use for annual reviews.  The company provided the documents in various languages for their offices overseas.  The questions are the same, only in different languages.  After reading them, I wondered how appropriate the questions themselves are for other cultures.  For example, would every culture provide helpful responses to the question, “What was your greatest achievement?”   Individuals who come from a culture that is more communal-oriented may not be comfortable expounding their own merits.  Another question was, “What experience did you learn the most from?”  The answer to this question may be perceived as implying weakness, and in a culture that emphasizes saving face, recording what may be seen as faults may not work.  Questions that work in an American context may not work in another culture, even if translated into the correct language.

In this way, the Republicans did not show evidence of adapting to the cultural context of Hispanics.  On the one hand, Sen. Rubio briefly referred to his immigrant parents and neighborhood and upbringing in Miami.  He showed that he grew up in a similar culture as his audience.  On the other hand, the speech simply reiterated Republican tropes, only in Spanish.  The goal seemed to be for Spanish-speaking Americans to understand the Republican platform in standard Republican terms.  The speech wants to speak to Hispanics, but shows no evidence of hearing them.

Second, the fact that Sen. Rubio delivered the Spanish speech in a Cuban accent (I thought I heard “Etados Unidos” and “epecial”) highlighted to me that the “Hispanic community” consists of multiple cultures; it is not a monolith.  As every political party wishes to gain the Latino vote, I have not heard the parties discuss how to engage with the various communities in the US on a subtle level.  Of Latinos in the US, 65% have their roots in Mexico; 3.5% in Cuba.  (Data come from the National Council of La Raza.)  Each national group of Hispanics shares unique cultural characteristics.  Mexicans retain close ties with their homeland; some Guatemalans represent ethnic groups that only exist in Guatemala; and both groups tend to be poorer and less-educated than Argentinians.  All of them would hear not a Hispanic only, but a Cuban, and Cubans maintain a particular position in the US because of their strong opposition to Casto, who was appreciated more in many parts of Latin America than in the US, and Republican leanings.  Did the Republican party speech writers consider whether the guy who reads the Spanish speech is Cuban or Mexican?

From what I saw, the Republicans are making a important, historical move by delivering a nationally-televised speech in Spanish, but the party is still too naive.  They assume that American Hispanics will appreciate party platforms if you “say them in Spanish.”  Similarly, once you say it in Spanish, the Spanish-speaking people will understand and appreciate the move.  In many ways these are correct assumptions.  Monolingual Spanish-speakers need someone who will speak in their language so that they can engage in the national political conversation, and a regional accent won’t prevent that.  Nevertheless, if any group–from the Republican party to the company I mentioned above–wants to make genuine connections with other national groups, it must be ready to speak to the cultural and historical differences between them and the other group, as well as to the differences within that other group.

Americans, like any human beings, tend to oversimplify distinctions among groups they are just learning about.  I hope that Republicans, and all Americans, spend more time learning about and appreciating the differences among Hispanics and other socio-linguistic groups in the US.

Have any of my readers examined or read examinations of the Spanish speech given by Sen. Rubio?  Are there distinctions between the English and Spanish?

Are the problems I outline peculiar to the US or do we find the same naivite in other countries?  What can Republicans really do to get a clear message out to Hispanic voters?  Are they on the right track?

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5 thoughts on “The US, Sen. Marco Rubio, and Hispanic Americans

  1. This is a very good analysis of the situation regarding Rubio and where he belongs. You said it all correctly. He will be taken for a representative of Spanish speakers only by English speakers, because the REAL Spanish speaking communities will see through him and his posturing. V.

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    1. I’ve read that Univision has it out for Rubio. I wonder how much of the problem is Democrat vs Republican, and how much is Mexican vs Cuban. I don’t know enough about the US Latino community (I’ll admit it!) to understand how that all aligns.

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      1. You and I maybe do not know enough but the Hispanics do know who they are as distinct nationalities, each with a lot of pride in that identity. They may seem like all the same to some of us but they are not. This I say from personal experience.

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  2. A friend of mine–a non-native English speaker–took issue with my first point. He said if he were monolingual and didn’t know English, he would want to know for sure that what was said in the translation was exactly the same as the original English.

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  3. Pingback: Does Spanish have a chance in the US? Language in American politics – Loving Language

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