Which Potential Candidates Speak Spanish—and Will It Matter?

Jeb Bush does. The Democrats’ Castro brothers do not. Ted Cruz knows ‘Spanglish.’ But fluency and being able to talk to Hispanics are two entirely different matters.

Jason Reed/Reuters

The ability to speak Spanish is a prized commodity on the campaign trail, a way to prove your bona fides with Hispanics—the fastest-growing bloc of voters—and to show your inclusiveness in a rapidly changing country. Lots of Anglos are proficient in Spanish. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a potential presidential candidate, speaks nothing but Spanish at home, and has for years. His wife, Columba, is from Mexico.

A more recent phenomenon in the political universe is politicians of Hispanic heritage who are not fluent in Spanish. Maybe this shouldn’t be surprising. Many first-generation children of immigrants don’t speak their parents’ language. The urge to assimilate is strong, and it’s a way for kids to rebel and build their own lives in America.

Still, it came as a shock to many Democrats when they learned that two of their most prized new-generation stars, the 40-year-old twin brothers, Julian and Joaquin Castro, are not fluent Spanish speakers. Raised in San Antonio by a single mother who was a political activist and ran unsuccessfully for the city council, the brothers grew up in an environment that prized political engagement, but didn’t hone their Spanish skills.

With Julian a member of Congress representing San Antonio, and Joaquin in Obama’s Cabinet as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, the political bright lights are beckoning. The twins recently appeared together at the annual Gridiron Dinner where they shared the podium and did a shout out of Spanish phrases, taking turns to see who was making more progress in learning the language.

Turning what would otherwise be an embarrassment into a joke had everyone at the dinner laughing and declaring the brothers first-rate political performers. When one (you can’t tell them apart) shouted out “Ted Cruz,” the other responded, “That’s not Spanish. That’s Canadian.”

Speaking of Ted Cruz, he’s candid about his Spanish-speaking skills. He declined an invitation in 2010 to debate his opponent in Spanish, telling Univision that, “My Spanish is a situation many of your viewers will recognize, which is that as a second-generation immigrant, my dad came from Cuba when he was a teenager not speaking English. And I grew up here speaking Spanglish,” a combination of Spanish and English words. “That’s the world in which I grew up, and that’s a world in which a lot of second-generation immigrants find themselves.”

Another prominent Latino politician who doesn’t speak Spanish is Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, who just won reelection and is likely to challenge Democrat Harry Reid for the Senate in 2016. If Sandoval weren’t pro-choice, he would be talked about for the national ticket in 2016.

Whether Spanish proficiency matters depends on where you are, says Jack Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College. “If you’re in Los Angeles County, where a substantial number of voters speak Spanish at home, a politician who can speak to them can campaign here in a way that other Republicans could not. That’s not to say Jeb Bush can carry Los Angeles County. If you’re a Republican you’re not going to carry the Hispanic vote, but if you’re Jeb Bush campaigning in Florida, you may pick up a few points, and that could make the difference.”

Any conversation about Spanish-speaking politicians leads back to Bush. His fluency “will help him communicate his policies on Telemundo and Univision,” says Sam Popkin, a political-science professor at the University of California San Diego. “There’s a divide in the Republican Party between keeping the country as what it was, and living with what it becomes.” Bush’s progressive stance on immigration is future-oriented, and could position the GOP to regain the 30 to 40 percent share of the Hispanic vote that George W. Bush received, and that Ronald Reagan got when he was governor of California in the ’70s.

Reagan used to say that Hispanics are conservatives, they just don’t know it yet—a view that Popkin echoes. “There’s a lot of middle-class, small-business-oriented Hispanics… But you can’t just eat a taco and give a speech in Spanish. It’s about your policies.”

The consensus appears to be that if you’re Hispanic and don’t speak Spanish, there’s no penalty. There’s even precedence in California of Hispanic candidates who can’t speak Spanish running against non-Hispanics who can, and the winner isn’t decided on language skills.

Over time with inter-marriage, these distinctions will become even less important. Pitney points out that he has a great niece who is Hispanic on her mother’s side but has red hair, freckles, and an Irish surname. Popkin made the case even more personally, saying he doesn’t speak Lithuanian or Russian, his ethnic heritage. “I don’t even speak Yiddish,” he adds, “But I’m still a Jew.” In other words, Hispanics like every other ethnic group know who’s with them, and who’s not, and it has less to do with the language that’s spoken than with the message that’s conveyed.