A few days ago, Obama’s campaign manager, Jim Messina, caused a stir when he cherry-picked a quote from a Washington Post opinion piece about Latino voters. He tweeted, “Line of the day from WAPO’s Dana Milbank: ‘The chimichanga? It may be the only thing Republicans have left to offer Latinos.’” @RNCLatinos responded to Messina by retweeting a follower who felt insulted, and RNC Specialty Media Press Secretary @franceschi_alexcalled for an apology. Milbank had been referring to a speech John McCain gave on the Senate floor, in which he named the chimichanga as an example of Arizonan ingenuity, even as Republicans filibustered and then delayed a confirmation vote for Adalberto Jose Jordan, who was born in Cuba, to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. Milbank lifted the funny foreign word and turned it into a sloppy weapon to make a point about the Republican Party’s failure to grasp the interests, or diversity, of the Latino population.
Latinos are the fastest-growing segment of the American electorate, and they tend to vote Democratic. In 2008, they voted for Barack Obama over John McCain by a margin of two to one. But what—or who—exactly is a “Latino”? Or is it “Hispanic”? The U.S. Census Bureau uses both, and has an entire page dedicated to the topic of “Hispanic Origin.” Even the word “Latino” is a shibboleth—pronouncing the “t” in “Latino” as a dental consonant indicates identification. You may have also heard the term “Chicano” (or “Xicano,” from “Mexico”), a politicized self-identification that lately tends to apply to U.S. citizens of Mexican descent. In Bill Buford’s 2006 cooking memoir, “Heat,” he touched briefly on the term “Latins,” which, like “Orientals,” can strike one as tin-eared. And then there’s the questionable geopolitical syntax of this sentence from the Wikipedia entry on “Latin Americans” (not to be confused with “Hispanic and Latino Americans”): “The most important migratory destiny for Latin Americans are the United States, Western Europe, Canada and Australia.”
Besides being hard to identify, the Latino vote is not a winner-take-all proposition. That hasn’t stopped any of the candidates from trying to pander to Hispanics—heck, let’s coin a new term here: “Hispandering”—by using their only common denominator: the Spanish language. Last month, I wrote about how Mitt Romney trotted out his Spanish-speaking son, Craig, on the campaign trail. Days later, at a Hispanic Leadership Network lunch in Florida, Craig, in a neat trick of Mormon matryoshka dolls, hoisted his own five-year-old son, Parker, up to the microphone merely to say, “Hola.”
Mitt Romney’s own father was born in Mexico, in a Mormon settlement there, and in an interview on Spanish-language television station, Univision, Jorge Ramos asked Romney if he felt he could claim Hispanic status. Romney replied, “I don’t think people would think I’m being honest if I said I was Mexican-American.” He added, with a laugh, “I would appreciate it if you could get that word out.”
Newt Gingrich, who was once criticized for seeming to say that Spanish was the language of “the ghetto”—his defense was that he thought the same of other non-English languages—has also been out Hispandering. At the event in Florida, he said in broken Spanglish, “I would like to extend el sueño americano to every single person in the country, of every background”; his execution on the word “sueño” was about as awkward as it was later on the word “tweet.” (Say we discover life on the moon. Will Newt attempt to say a few words in a lunar language?)
Then there’s Marco Rubio, the Cuban-American junior senator from Florida and the favored candidate for Vice-President (he won the CPAC straw poll last week). Yesterday, Harry Reid cast doubt over Marco Rubio’s support for Hispanic values, and again Hispanic conservatives bristled, asserting that all Latinos should be offended. Reid’s spokesman, Jose Dante Parra, backed him up, citing Rubio’s support for “Arizona’s law legalizing the racial profiling of Latinos” and his opposition to the DREAM act. Rubio speaks flawless Spanish, but he’s not about to pipe up in any language in favor of real immigration reform. (Update: Rubio’s spokesman, Alex Conant, emailed to say that the Senator opposes racial profiling; an earlier version of this post hadn’t made it clear that Parra was referring to the Arizona law. I’ve adjusted the language.)
But what about the chimichanga? Its origins are actually in dispute, as is its definition. (At Applebee’s it once connoted a deep-fried cheesecake, and now it’s enjoying a second life as a deep-fried hamburger). Knowing where everything, and everyone, comes from is one thing; knowing whether they wrap food in parchment made of corn, wheat, rice, or banana leaves is impressive. A knowledge of where they are now, and a belief in where they’re going, is entirely another. And so far the candidates are nowhere near addressing one of the most important issues to Hispanic voters. The word “inmigración” has an unusual sequence of consonants that can make it hard to pronounce; they better get practicing.