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Senator Tim Kaine's Español: Not Just Empty Palabras

August 10, 2016

In politics as in everyday life, language is an important issue, and Vice Presidential Candidate, Senator Tim Kaine, who is fluent in Spanish, will be very valuable to Hillary Clinton in reaching out to Latino voters.

San Luis Obispo, CA. - "I didn't have to get a translator at the Republican Convention." CNN political commentator and Donald Trump's supporter Scottie Nell Hughes downplayed with these words Tim Kaine's "Bienvenidos a todos" and other Spanish phrases in his appearance with Hillary Clinton at Florida International University.

Hughes conveniently forgot that at the GOP Convention Spanish was in fact used by Ralph Alvarado. The Kentucky State Senator attacked Hillary Clinton and sang Trump's praise in both English and Spanish. He later explained that using Spanish is a "direct appeal to home" and he knows what "culture is about."

Alvarado is right but he is in a party that does not value nor recognize Latinos and their needs which go far beyond language. Nevertheless language is an important issue and Kaine, who is fluent in Spanish, will be very valuable to Hillary Clinton in reaching out to Latinos.

Even using a limited Spanish can be beneficial in any situation. Just like the patient feels a bit better upon hearing the doctor saying a mere "buenos días," voters appreciate the fact that a politician addresses them in their language. George W. Bush certainly understood it. Although he did not speak Spanish very well, he used it effectively in his 2000 and 2004 campaigns. Latino voters rewarded him at the polls. About 40% percent voted for him, an excellent result for a Republican candidate.

Of course, establishing a correlation between Bush's use of Spanish and his success with Latino voters would be misleading if one would exclude his moderate views on immigration, a very important issue at that time which continues to this day. John McCain, on the other hand, received only 31 percent of the Latino vote in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 did even worse receiving only 27%. Language was not a big issue in these cases but their positions on immigration played a significant role.

In essence, language must be matched with political stands to be effective. The GOP's position on immigration, characterized by building walls and mass deportation, as Trump has advocated, would change little even if the New York tycoon spoke beautiful Spanish. Trump, in fact, has denigrated Jeb Bush early in the campaign for giving interviews in Spanish. Yet, Trump made a very awkward attempt to reach out to Latinos with a picture of him eating a taco bowl on Cinco de Mayo. That is of course classic pandering.

Kaine's use of language, though, is different since it's backed up by substance. The Democratic vice presidential candidate learned Spanish in Honduras as a Catholic missionary. Thus, when he talks about family values shared by Latinos and Americans en español, it rings true and has a profound impact including Latinos who are totally integrated and may or may not speak Spanish. Even Hispanics who may have lost their Spanish completely still feel an emotional link upon hearing the sound of their ancestors' language, viewing it as a valuable skill as well as a symbol of their culture.

It's inevitable that Kaine's linguistic knowledge will emerge in swing States where the increasing Latino vote can make a difference, particularly in Florida, Colorado, and Nevada. However, even in traditional red States such as Arizona español would be beneficial as the rising Latino vote may make them competitive for Democrats.

Hillary Clinton has chosen Kaine not because of his linguistic abilities but rather his experience as governor, US senator, and his ability to step into the presidency if the need were to occur. Yet, his knowledge of Spanish is a definite plus.

Politicians will use any issue regardless of significance to gain advantages over their opponents. These include kissing babies or sampling ethnic cuisine. Some of it ends up being little more than pandering. Language is different. It may not be a fundamental issue for the brain since most Latino voters understand English. Yet, when backed up by substance, it can be a powerful tool to reach voters' hearts. Thus when Kaine addresses voters in Spanish it's not just empty palabras.

Domenico Maceri, PhD, UC Santa Barbara, is a free lance writer living in San Luis Obispo, CA. He is the author of a book on Pirandello, one on Spanish grammar, and another on Italian grammar. He has also published a number of articles in newspapers and magazines around the world, some of which have won awards from the National Association of Hispanic Publications.

Click HERE for more articles by Domenico Maceri.