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Politicians Encouraged To Learn Spanish, Not Just Fake It During Campaigns

John Gimenez attaches a flag to his vehicle during an event hosted by the Hispanic Federation to encourage voting in the Latino community Sunday, Nov. 1, 2020, in Kissimmee, Fla. The Hispanic Federation is a non-partisan organization.
John Gimenez attaches a flag to his vehicle during an event hosted by the Hispanic Federation to encourage voting in the Latino community Sunday, Nov. 1, 2020, in Kissimmee, Fla. The Hispanic Federation is a non-partisan organization.

The voting advocacy organization Voto Latino is calling on elected lawmakers to make a year-round effort to engage with Latino constituents. They're also calling out those who make feeble attempts to speak to voters in Spanish.

"We want elected leaders to continue communicating with our community in the language that they speak and understand, but also with real frequency," said Danny Friedman, the managing director of Voto Latino. "Our community is not simply a group to check off the list at campaign time."

More than 40 million people who live in the U.S. speak Spanish at home, making it the second most spoken language in this country.

Voto Latino, which is focused on engaging younger Latino voters, is working with the language learning app Duolingo and sending letters to the House and Senate campaign committees for both parties expressing the need for more consistent communication with Latino voters, in Spanish as well as English. They also plan to drive a wrapped bus near the U.S. Capitol with a targeted message for lawmakers.

The group put together a video montage of some of the ways in which politicians from both parties have tried to speak Spanish to appeal to voters, with varying degrees of success.

But polling suggests that an ability to speak Spanish was not a priority for Latinos in this country when considering whom to support in the most recent presidential race. A poll from the Latino advocacy group UnidosUS found that a candidate's ability to speak Spanish ranked at the bottom of a list of important qualities for a candidate to have.

Victoria DeFrancesco Soto, an assistant dean for civic engagement at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, noted that a candidate's language ability isn't as important to Latino voters as their stances on issues or their presence in communities.

She also pointed out that the history of Spanish language in this country is complex, noting that the notion of who speaks Spanish and who doesn't can be deeply personal. Soto used herself as an example.

"I desperately wanted my children to be bilingual. I've tried and I'll keep trying, but it's something that is very painful for me," she said. "The knowledge of language is sometimes seen as a metric of cultural identification, and it shouldn't be."

Soto said that more important than language is the ability to make consistent, culturally competent outreach to Latinos, something that can happen regardless of language.

"If you don't have the substance of the message, be it health care or education or immigration, then you can have as much mariachi music or reggaetón as you want and it's not going to be impactful," she said.

Latinos are one of the largest, most diverse segments of the American electorate, which has shown stronger turnout in recent elections.

In 2020, former President Donald Trump performed better than four years earlier in some predominantly Latino areas, and President Biden's campaign was criticized for not making a serious commitment to reaching those communities.

One key exception was the state of Arizona, which voted Democratic in both the presidential and Senate races. Democrats were credited there with having a more fulsome and consistent effort to connect with Latino voters, including months of Spanish-language messaging from the Biden campaign.

Editor's note: Duolingo is one of NPR's recent financial supporters.

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