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Commentary: 'English-only' debate rule lost in translation

  • Story Highlights
  • Presidential candidates Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd speak fluent Spanish
  • Candidates made to speak in English by Spanish-language network Univision
  • Most candidates duck promoting Spanish as a second national language
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Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Special to CNN
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SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- In politics, Hispanics are a bundle of contradictions.

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Ruben Navarrette Jr.: Presidential debate aimed at Hispanic voters has built-in contradiction.

Although most are registered Democrats, they've supported moderate Republicans -- i.e., President George W. Bush, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, Arizona Sen. John McCain and others. They tell pollsters that they care about issues besides immigration -- education, health care, Iraq, etc. -- and yet, when GOP hardliners try to score points off their backs by resorting to racism and trying to demagogue the immigration issue, they'll circle the wagons and go elephant hunting.

So you'd expect a presidential debate aimed at Hispanic voters to come with a built-in contradiction? As the sponsor of last night's Democratic presidential forum, Univision, the nation's largest Spanish-language network, made a big deal of the fact that the 90-minute broadcast was in Spanish with the help of translators. And one of the first questions was whether the candidates were willing to promote Spanish as a second national language of the United States.

Aiy, muy caliente! That's a hot one. No wonder most of the candidates ducked it.

The contradiction was that, in setting the ground rules for the debate, Univision had prohibited the two candidates who speak fluent Spanish -- Bill Richardson and Chris Dodd -- from answering questions in that language and insisted that all candidates answer the questions in English and have their answers translated into Spanish. Apparently, this was meant to level the bilingual playing field.

During the debate, Richardson called the network on its hypocrisy. Identifying himself as the first major Latino presidential candidate, he said it was unfortunate that Latinos in the United States couldn't "hear one of their own speak Spanish." Then Richardson accused Univision of promoting -- gasp! --"English-only."

Bravo. He's right. It was a dumb rule, obviously intended to prevent the monolingual front-runners -- Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards -- from being at a disadvantage.

As for the question itself, that was also dumb -- oops, I mean, tonto. (In honor of my friends at Univision.) Many on the Latino Left would agree with me that it's wrong, arrogant, and unnecessarily divisive for some to push English as the national language. Yet now, suddenly someone is talking about putting the zapato on the other foot and elevating Spanish to a second national language.

No way, Jose. The open border lobby tends to forget it, but immigrants are supposed to adapt to America, not force Americans to adapt to them. Besides, this is still the United States and English is our common language. Congress shouldn't decree it our national or official language, but it is our common language. No one understands that better than the Latino immigrants who are filling English-as-a-second-language classes and battling the public schools to get their kids out of that linguistic warehouse known as bilingual education.

Too bad, that lesson didn't get through to the folks at Univision, which has made billions of dollars trying to establish the primacy of Spanish. Say, maybe it got lost in the translation.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the editorial board of The San Diego Union-Tribune and a nationally syndicated columnist. You can read his column here.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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