Can You Be a Latino Politician If You Don’t Speak Fluent Spanish?

Suzanne Gamboa, NBC News, June 6, 2015

The prospect that he might be a running mate to Hillary Clinton made Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro a target over his Spanish speaking skills, something that many Latino politicians are all too familiar with.

In a story published Thursday, Politico paraphrased an unnamed source saying Castro’s ethnic background “may not be as effective in appealing to Hispanic voters as some believe.”

“Tim Kaine speaks Spanish much better than Julian Castro does,” the Clinton ally told Politico. Kaine is a Virginia Democrat who spent a year working in Honduras with Jesuit priests.

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But what appeared to be a flippant matter to the “Clinton ally” is one that can be agonizing and even embarrassing to some Latinos, something that opens them to questioning about their Latino identity.

Former U.S. Rep. Charles Gonzalez of Texas experienced painful ridicule and embarrassment over his Spanish speaking skills, often at the hands of other Latinos.

“There were people who tested me all the time when I was in office, just to see if I spoke Spanish,” said Gonzalez, whose parents and grandparents spoke Spanish and who like Castro is from San Antonio.

“I’m not sure if you are supposed to be shamed into some sort of apology that you don’t (speak Spanish) . . . It’s expected of us and I don’t think we should have that expectation. As you move forward in the generations we are no different than those groups that come from this country.”

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Gonzalez acknowledged that speaking Spanish is an asset, something to strive for, but said it cannot be something that determines how a person votes. In the end, what matters is the substance of what is being said to the Latino community in English or Spanish, he said.

“Our community should be be more engaged and involved in the substance,” Gonzalez said.

Castro was born in the United States and is the son of a U.S.-born mother fluent in English and Spanish.

Like a number of Latinos, his family can trace its presence in the U.S. for several generations. Some Latinos had families in the U.S. Southwest when it was still Mexico or family who were native Americans, or both. Castro’s maternal grandmother is from Mexico.

Castro is a Stanford University graduate who served as mayor of San Antonio, the nation’s seventh largest city with a large, long established Hispanic population. He understands and speaks some Spanish but is not fluent.

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Republican Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, can move easily between Spanish and English; Jeb Bush regularly uses his fluent Spanish.

Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican of Cuban descent who lived part of his life in Canada, admits his inability to speak Spanish, which also exposed him to questioning about whether he was truly Hispanic.

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