“Buenas noches,” said Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
“Cada voz debemos escuchar,” said Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman.
“La situación ahora es inaceptable,” said Cory Booker, a U.S. senator from New Jersey.
“Me llamo Julián Castro, y estoy postulando por presidente de los Estados Unidos,” said the former secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
The four candidates were hablando español* during the first round of the Democratic primary debates, on June 26 and 27. The question afterward: Were they demonstrating “how down they are with Hispanic and Latinx voters” (the fastest-growing segment of the American electorate), as NPR’s Code Switch put it, or were they hispandering?
I first wrote about hispander, a portmanteau meaning “to pander to the Hispanic vote,” during the 2012 presidential race, when it was the Republican candidates—Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Marco Rubio—who were trotting out their sometimes tortured Spanish on the campaign trail. I traced the term back to a 2002 Slate post by Mickey Kaus, who used it to criticize Representative Dick Gephardt, the Missouri Democrat who would run for president two years later. (Blogger and language maven Mike Pope pointed out that a New Yorker online reporter, Silvia Killingsworth, was also claiming authorship of hispander. In February 2012, Killingsworth wrote: “Besides being hard to identify, the Latino vote is not a winner-take-all proposition. That hasn't stopped any of the [Republican] 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.”)
In March 2016, after a debate moderator asked whether candidate Hillary Clinton was “Hispandering,” the Washington Post fine-tuned the antedating, referencing a 2012 “Among the New Words” entry in American Speech, the journal of the American Dialect Society. Authors Ben Zimmer and Charles Carson cited a July 2001 issue of the newsletter of the conservative Federalist Society. The newsletter’s “Quote of the Week”—a critique of President George W. Bush—comes “from the ‘Hispandering’ File.”
The 2020 campaign’s large field of Democratic candidates includes only one Latinx, Mr. Castro, the three-time mayor of San Antonio, who was born in the United States, as was his mother. But his Mexico-born abuela spoke Spanish, and he grew up understanding the language but not speaking it. In recent years he’s been studying Spanish “but is still apprehensive about using it,” according to an NBC News profile. Mayor Pete, as as well known, has some command of six, seven, or eight languages (the count varies) in addition to English.
tomorrow night if Mayor Pete doesn't answer every question in Norwegian i swear to gosh
— Alexandra Petri (@petridishes) June 27, 2019
* Well, tratando de hablar, anyway. Verb tenses were mangled, prepositions were confused, grammatical gender was ignored, and at least one word was invented. Read the Miami Herald’s language critique.