When state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, took the stage in November to launch her run for lieutenant governor, she switched gracefully between English and Spanish throughout her announcement speech.
“They’ll say that little ol’ Leticia Rosa San Miguel Van de Putte from the barrio will never become lieutenant governor,” Van de Putte said in English, adding that the GOP can't fight for the Hispanic vote without fighting for Hispanic families. Then she translated the line into Spanish, remarking that it was important enough to say twice.
Of the candidates running for the top two slots on the statewide ticket in 2014, Van de Putte is the only hopeful who is a native Spanish speaker — a trait that gives her and other Spanish-speaking politicians in Texas an advantage with the coveted Hispanic vote, according to political observers.
“There is a sense that when a Hispanic candidate can speak in Spanish, you’re talking in-group,” said Democratic consultant James Aldrete, adding that it helps create trust between candidate and their constituents. “Spanish shows shared experiences, and politically, as cliché as it sounds, it says, ‘I’m one of you.’”
Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said the ability to speak Spanish gives candidates a clear political edge with the fractured Hispanic voting bloc regardless of political affiliation, especially with first- and second-generation Americans.
“Any Hispanic politician that doesn’t have that skill set is disadvantaged, in part, because they don’t have the ability to connect in the same way with a key segment of the voting public,” Jones said. He added that the language helps demonstrate commitment and a level of connection that is important with many voters whose dominant language is Spanish.
One of Van de Putte’s potential opponents in the general election, current Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, also speaks Spanish, having learned it in the 1970s while working in Bolivia for the CIA. He faces three challengers in the GOP primary.
During his failed bid for the U.S. Senate in 2012, Dewhurst said he was willing to participate in a Spanish debate with opponent U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, who has said he isn’t as fluent in Spanish as his Cuban father. All of their televised appearances during that campaign were conducted in English.
Dewhurst’s advantage is that Hispanic voters appreciate a non-Hispanic who takes the time to learn and communicate in the language that they identify with, even if they learned it for professional reasons, according to Jones.
“It enhances cultural sensitivity,” Jones said. “If you interact in Spanish with Spanish speakers, you have a much richer and more contemplated understanding of issues important to those people.”
In a state with a large Hispanic population and where nearly a third of all Texans speak Spanish, Spanish-speaking candidates can also leverage the increasing popularity of Spanish news channels like Univision and Telemundo.
This August, Univision announced that three of its local Texas stations had topped all other broadcast stations in their markets, regardless of language, in the July sweeps period for total day viewing, prime time and late local news among viewers aged 18 to 49.
Artemio Muniz, state chairman of the Federation of Hispanic Republicans, said Spanish-language television gives candidates the ability to convey a clear message of their political beliefs and speak to Hispanic voters directly even if they don’t speak Spanish.
“It’s about being authentic in what you say,” Muniz said, adding that being willing to communicate with Hispanic voters who may not speak English demonstrates a politician’s interest in the community. “It’s not pandering — all it is is connecting with the family.”
Even before efforts to reach Hispanic voters recently accelerated, Texas politicians running for higher office campaigned in Spanish while others relied on Spanish-language television, radio and print ads.
Former President George W. Bush used Spanish-language ads while campaigning but was also known to give short statements and answer interview questions in Spanish. Over a decade ago, Democratic gubernatorial candidates Tony Sanchez and Dan Morales participated in a televised Spanish-language debate. In 2001, it was reported that Gov. Rick Perry was trying to improve his Spanish-language skills by taking lessons.
Spanish-language campaigns are especially effective among “low information and infrequent voters” who are considered prime targets for mobilization efforts, Jones said.
Politicians of Hispanic descent don’t necessarily have to speak Spanish, however, to become popular among voters.
Democratic stars San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro and U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, have admitted they aren't fluent Spanish speakers, but the twin brothers' renown among Democrats, whom Hispanic voters tend to identify with in larger numbers, is on the rise.
On the Republican side, Cruz became a prominent star with his extreme conservative ideals, connecting particularly with the Tea Party, despite his inability to speak Spanish.
On a more local level, Spanish-speaking politicians who have made their way to the Texas House and Senate chambers, particularly those who represent districts with large Hispanic populations, have often campaigned in Spanish.
State Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, said his fluency in Spanish is not only an asset but a necessity when it comes to representing his largely Hispanic district in South Texas. Canales said his constituents, in turn, are able to identify with him because of their shared background.
“Language is a barrier between government and the people they represent,” Canales said, adding that the Legislature should also improve its accessibility to Spanish speakers in the state. Canales has pushed for the House to translate its website into Spanish.
Hispanics make up about 21 percent of the state Legislature, and a majority of them are fluent Spanish speakers. The six Hispanic senators — all Democrats — are fluent in Spanish. In the House, there are 32 Hispanic representatives, but not all speak the language.
Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, isn’t a native Spanish speaker but previously said he was learning Spanish for his daughters because the importance of speaking Spanish in Texas goes beyond political advantages.
“My parents didn’t speak Spanish, but the demographics are changing,” Villalba told The Texas Tribune this year. “We need to be able to communicate with folks who might not speak the same language.”
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