SAN LUIS OBISPO, CALIF. — Standing before the Berlin Wall at the height of the cold war, President John F. Kennedy said "Ich bin ein Berliner" which he thought meant, "I am a Berliner." In fact, it means, "I am a jelly doughnut." The Germans present applauded politely in spite of the linguistic gaffe.
Similarly, George W. Bush likes to sprinkle his speeches with Spanish when addressing Latino audiences. But so far, no major linguistic gaffes have been reported, and Mr. Bush has got plenty of mileage on his limited Spanish.
Recent polls even have him neck and neck with Al Gore among Latino voters - unprecedented for a Republican presidential candidate.
Although it would be simplistic to say Bush's success with Latinos is due to his use of Spanish, it's certainly a factor. To be sure, the Republican nominee's familiarity with Spanish is limited. Sonia Colin, a Bush campaign spokesperson, said he is "pretty knowledgeable" but not "completely fluent."
Bush did study Spanish in high school and in college and honed it in the oil fields of Texas, but probably couldn't communicate at all in a debate completely in Spanish. The Spanish newswire EFE has reported that Bush speaks Spanish "poorly" but with great confidence. And Texas columnist Molly Ivins, no fan of Bush, has quipped that Bush is not bilingual/bicultural, but rather bi-ignorant.
Still, Bush's strategy of peppering his speeches with Spanish has a strong psychological impact on Latinos. Hispanics are very sensitive to language - and also very vulnerable to it. The more than 20 states that passed English-only laws, and California's Proposition 227, which eliminated bilingual education from the Golden State, are strong reminders of linguistic attacks on Hispanics.
Latinos thus find the Spanish language a sensitive issue, and they largely don't find Bush's use of Spanish at all patronizing. Instead, it sends a strong message to Latinos: I'm like you; I'm also struggling with your language as you are with mine; I'm on your side; I'm part of your family.
If Bush's Spanish words may not be enough to convince Latinos, the candidate brings in a very credible stand-in whose fluency is unquestioned. His nephew, George Prescott Bush, whose mother, Columba, was born in Mexico, has been campaigning for the Republican nominee. It's very effective to hear someone say in flawless Spanish, "My name is George Bush," and then go on and explain policies in Spanish.
The medium here can be as important as the message. Here's a Republican who is close to Latinos -one of the "little brown ones" according to George Bush Sr. when he was president - discussing politics in Spanish.
Although language provides a solid entree into Latino hearts, it is policies that will determine a candidate's success with voters. Bush is certainly ahead of Mr. Gore with Latinos because of family connections that bring him closer to Hispanics. Yet, his success with Hispanic voters is due in part to his moderate policies when compared with those of the Republican former California Gov. Pete Wilson and the Republican Party in general.
Bush, for example, in addition to his moderate stand on bilingual education and immigration policies, lobbied Congress in '95 to approve a $40 billion loan guarantee to Mexico.
There is tradition in Texas of the gringo who assimilates into Mexican culture, learns Spanish, but still remains the patrn, or boss. Bush needs to convince Latino voters that he is not simply a patrn, but one who can also deliver the goods. Espaol is one of the ways to do just that.
Domenico Maceri teaches Spanish at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, Calif.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society