SAN DIEGO – Let’s say you’re a smart and accomplished Latino politician with big dreams, impressive credentials and what many people agree is a bright future. Only one thing stands in your way: You don’t speak Spanish.
Will that fact cause you any grief, open you up to criticism or prompt the media to pounce? If you’re a Republican, the answer is likely yes. If you’re a Democrat, then probably not.
The 2016 election is adding a new twist to familiar accusations of bias in the media. Latinos are at the center of the controversy, with two of them waging well-funded and credible campaigns for the Republican presidential nomination (Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida) and three more in the wings as possible running mates (Republican Govs. Brian Sandoval of Nevada and Susana Martinez of New Mexico, and Democrat Julian Castro, the secretary of housing and urban development).
It’s a new world, and the elite Beltway media can’t keep up. In an interview with Castro’s twin brother, Joaquin, a congressman from San Antonio, NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell made reference to his “Cuban-American” heritage. But, as the congressman pointed out, he and his brother are Mexican-American. Last August, The Washington Post introduced a blurb about Julian Castro dining with former President Bill Clinton under the tacky subheadline: “We’ll need more fajitas.”
That’s plain ignorance, the kind that grows like fungus in a petri dish in the laboratory of mostly white newsrooms where people who are paid to know a little about everything know virtually nothing about 54 million Latinos in the United States.
Yet bias is different. That’s where you crucify someone for an omission and an offense, and then you let someone else skate for doing the same thing – all because you’re playing favorites.
Now back to the Spanish. Julian Castro doesn’t speak it. And neither does Ted Cruz. But only one got pilloried.
In a recent article about how Castro was auditioning for the position of Hillary Clinton’s running mate by labeling as a “witch hunt” the Republican attempts to question her use of a private email server as secretary of state, Washington Post reporter Amber Phillips wrote:
“Castro has a resume that seems tailor-made for higher office in 2016: He’s a former San Antonio mayor, a Harvard Law grad, was named in 2010 to Time Magazine’s “40 under 40” American political leaders and has the Hispanic pedigree that might round out a Democratic ticket nicely. (Fun fact: He doesn’t speak Spanish.)”
Fun fact? Look, this bright young Latino – who happens to be a rising star in the Democratic Party and might even be on the short list of Clinton’s possible running mates – doesn’t speak the language of his grandparents. How fun!
But wait. Since when did that become relevant? It hasn’t been an issue with non-Latino candidates. Rick Santorum is once again running for the Republican nomination. His father came from Italy. Does the former senator from Pennsylvania speak fluent Italian? I don’t think any member of the media has ever asked him.
Yet, Cruz got asked about speaking Spanish. In fact, that’s putting it mildly. Actually, the Cuban-American got raked over the coals, and all but accused of being a cultural impostor.
On April 30, in a wince-inducing interview, Mark Halperin – host of Bloomberg Politics’ online show “With All Due Respect” – tried to determine if Cruz was the real thing. He asked him to welcome his colleague, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, to the presidential race “en espanol.” Cruz politely refused.
After a firestorm ensued, Halperin issued a carefully worded non-apology.
Cruz did not look like he was having fun during the interrogation. He later called the questions “silly” and “ridiculous.”
How times have changed. When Julian’s mother, Rosie, was growing up in San Antonio in the 1950s, Mexican-American kids would get paddled for speaking Spanish in public schools. Today, some Latino politicians can get publicly excoriated for not speaking it.
Should we call this progress? It feels more like a double standard, as Cruz himself noted after the interview. It also seems like something worse: a brazen attempt by the mainstream media to tell Latinos who should lead them and who shouldn’t, who they can relate to and who they can’t, and who they should criticize or excuse for not speaking Spanish.
These are not fun facts. The fact is, this sort of patronizing attitude from the media is offensive and something we can do without.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.