Qué es esto: A Texas debate in Spanish?

It's a common refrain among many Hispanics in the Southwest: We didn't cross the border; the border crossed us.

It slips from the lips of descendants of families that were living here 150 years ago when half of Mexico suddenly became the United States with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

Thus, from early on in its history, America was peopled with Spanish speakers.

They quickly discovered, however, that succeeding here meant communicating in English.

Today, it seems, many Americans are discovering that succeeding here now means communicating in Spanish.

As the Hispanic population continues to grow rapidly across the country, a concerted effort is being made to reach out to them in their own language.

The latest example is tonight's Texas gubernatorial debate in Dallas. The two main Democratic candidates, Tony Sanchez and Dan Morales, have agreed to one debate in English and one in Spanish. To be broadcast statewide on public television, it's the first major political debate in the US to be held in Spanish. And it certainly won't be the last, experts say.

"Here in the US, Spanish is increasingly becoming a language not only of the home, but of our politics and of our economic system," says F. Chris Garcia, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. "Bilingualism is becoming extremely important to the way our public business is conducted.... In the future, it's going to be commonplace."

Indeed, candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore made history when both stumped in Spanish in the last presidential campaign. Then, in May, Mr. Bush gave the first presidential radio address in Spanish. And realizing the importance of the language, the current Texas governor, Rick Perry, spent part of his summer attending Spanish classes in Mexico.

But this trend goes beyond politics. For instance, last week, 36 elementary- and middle-school children faced off in New Mexico's Spanish Spelling Bee - the only one of its kind in the nation. Fourth-grader Micah Turner - who isn't Hispanic - underscored the state's strong commitment to bilingual education when he took fifth place. He's among the 75 percent of New Mexican-school children who participate in bilingual education.

Fisher-Price this month unveiled a collection of toys based on the No. 1 preschool show on TV, Dora the Explorer, which chronicles the adventures of a 7-year-old bilingual Hispanic girl. The company is marketing the Spanish- and English-speaking doll to all ethnicities.

Across the country, Hispanics make up about 12 percent of the population. But in Texas and California, it is more than a third of the population. Their buying - and political - power is greedily sought after. But, for many years, their vote was hard to get.

That's slowly starting to change. The US Census Bureau reported this week that the number of Hispanic voters rose nationwide from 4.9 million in 1996 to more than 5.9 million in 2000. However, turnout among registered Hispanics remained at 28 percent nationwide.

But experts say those numbers don't reflect the recent explosion of Hispanic involvement in the political process. In California and Texas Hispanics are running against one another for the first time. In Oregon and Wisconsin, Hispanic surnames are now on the ballot.

That's key. Hispanic voters will turn up at the polls in droves if they see themselves reflected on the ticket, says Frumencio Reyes, vice chair of the Texas Democratic Party.

In Houston's recent mayoral race, for example, Hispanic participation in the runoff election increased by more than 13 percent over the general election - an unprecedented showing. The main reason: Incumbent Mayor Lee Brown was neck-and-neck with City Councilman Orlando Sanchez, a Cuban-American. Sanchez narrowly lost - but he won 73 percent of the Hispanic vote.

Part of his appeal - even though he was a Republican, and Hispanics tend to lean Democrat - was that he asked for their vote in a language they could understand.

"A community that is provided with information and invited to participate will respond," says Marcelo Gaete, director of programs at the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials in Los Angeles and commentator at tonight's debate. "So the importance of this debate in Spanish is not so much about the candidates, but more about the electorate."

Texas gubernatorial candidate Sanchez, a multimillionaire banker and oilman from Laredo, grew up in a bilingual family. But his opponent, Morales, learned Spanish in preparation for his successful 1990 bid for state attorney general. But no matter how well the two perform, the message to Spanish-speaking voters is clear: You're important.

"It is sending a very strong message that Hispanics are an integral part of the US political system and will no longer be ignored," says Professor Garcia.

Remarkably, there has been little controversy over the Spanish debate by those who believe that English should be the only language spoken in town halls, and schools, and boardrooms across America. The biggest controversy has come from the two candidates who couldn't agree on how many debates to hold.

Whoever wins the March 12 Democratic primary is likely to face Governor Perry in the November general election. Even with his Spanish classes, Perry would be unable to debate in Spanish.

Even the GOP is spending long hours courting the Hispanic vote. This weekend, it is holding a Latino summit in Los Angeles, teaching Spanish to party workers and giving potential Hispanic candidates lessons on campaigning. The party is energized by the strong Hispanic showing for Bush in 2000, some 35 percent.

Those who think this should be an English-only country should re-examine history, says Andy Hernandez, a lecturer at St. Mary's University in San Antonio.

"This Spanish debate brings people into the public debate about the future of Texas, people who had a big part in making this state what it is today," he says. "No one asks these citizens how good they speak English when it comes to paying taxes or drafting their kids or working in jobs no one wants. If Spanish is good enough to sell us Coca-Cola, then it is good enough to involve us in the political process."

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