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Primary Season Is Here And 'Hispandering' Is Back

Former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke (third from left) speaks as Sens. Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar look on during the first night of the Democratic presidential debate, Wednesday in Miami.
Joe Raedle
Getty Images
Former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke (third from left) speaks as Sens. Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar look on during the first night of the Democratic presidential debate, Wednesday in Miami.

It's happening ... again. We have a presidential primary field full of candidates who (with one exception) aren't Latinx, trying to demonstrate how down they are with Hispanic and Latinx voters. Sure, politicians have to reach out to voters from across the cultural and racial spectrum — it's part of the job. But if that outreach is all style and little substance, it can come across as what some people call "Hispandering."

Wednesday night, in a debate full of attempted (and sometimes failed) power moves by Democratic presidential hopefuls, Spanish-speaking households heard their language spoken by someone other than a network interpreter. It all started when the debate turned to marginal tax rates: Beto O'Rourke tried his best to code switch, delivering his answer in Spanish.

It didn't stop there. When Sen. Cory Booker was asked about the current state of the immigration crisis on the southern border, he voiced his displeasure with the Trump administration's policies in Spanish, too. Thursday night's debate is likely to bring up even more of these moments (cue Tío Joe).

The presence of Spanish at Wednesday's debate brought back memories of the last runup for president, when politicians gifted late-night talk show hosts with plenty of material based on their cringeworthy efforts to appeal to Latinx voters.

So we're taking a look back at one of our Word Watch classics, from the 2015-2016 presidential primaries.

Hillary Clinton got side-eyed after blasting Jennifer Lopez's "Let's Get Loud" at a campaign stop in San Antonio where she called herself "La Hillary" and "Tu Hillary." Jeb Bush earned eye rolls after debuting a Spanish-language ad celebrating Cinco de Mayo.

Both were accused of "Hispandering": a mashup of "Hispanic" and "pandering" that means faking interest in Hispanic issues and culture for self-serving reasons.

So what counts as Hispandering, and what doesn't? Who decides? Since Latinos are the largest minority group in the U.S., and, as you may have heard, Hispanic voters have the numbers to move the needle in next year's election, we're digging into the history and evolution of a term we'll probably be hearing again.

It goes back to at least 2002, when pioneering political blogger Mickey Kaus, writing at his Slate blog Kausfiles, noted a "recent Hispandering proposal" from then-House Democratic Minority Leader Dick Gephardt to legalize some immigrants who are in the U.S. without documents. That's the first searchable online reference to the term Hispandering, according to research done by the NPR librarians.

It should be mentioned that Barry Popik, etymologist extraordinaire, spotted the phrase in a conservative email digest sent in 2001, but Popik gives Kaus props for "popularizing" the term. Kaus, for his part, says he came up with it independently, saying it wasn't an aha moment so much as "just another night on the blog."

"I'm always looking for puns," says Kaus. "And, I was wondering, what can we do to mock this trend of, 'God, we've got to appease the growing Latino vote?' " He tried a few different versions before landing on the word that would go on to be a hashtag. "None of the ones with Latino worked, so I tried Hispanic."

When politicians seem to spend less time understanding Latino issues and more time dining at <em>taquerias,</em> well, there's a word for that.
Sam Howzit / Flickr
When politicians seem to spend less time understanding Latino issues and more time dining at taquerias, well, there's a word for that.

Kaus says it's nice to have a shorthand term for a very specific kind of political pandering, the kind he felt Gephardt was up to back in the summer of 2002. "It's good to have a term that can be used as an epithet," he says.

Initially, Hispandering was picked up by conservatives and anti-immigration reform pundits who aimed it at politicians they felt were disingenuously wooing Latino voters with friendlier stances on immigration, like pathways to residency for workers in the country illegally or softening border enforcement.

Fast-forward to the 2012 election, and something interesting starts to happen to Hispandering — Latino political watchers began adopting the H-bomb for their own purposes.

Syndicated columnist Esther J. Cepeda wrote in 2012 that the term "perfectly captures the spirit of the moment," condemning both President Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney for Hispandering, which she described this way:

"Never mind policy, trot out some Hispanic stars, drop a few words en español as you talk about how very important 'Hispanic issues' are — as if they weren't the same as all Americans' issues — and do everything but don a golden-threaded mariachi sombrero while promising 'el mundo.' "

In a 2012 post at Latino Rebels, site founder and digital media director of NPR's Latino USA Julio Ricardo Varela employed the term after Vice President Biden scolded Mitt Romney for not revealing more of his tax records. "He wants you to show your papers, but he won't show us his," Biden said in a speech to the National Council of La Raza. Given the Obama administration's deportation record and unfulfilled promises on immigration reform, Varela wrote, Biden's remarks were "just another case of classic Hispandering."

Varela says he loves using Hispandering to call out politicians and brands for what he sees as cheap attempts to grab Latino votes and dollars. He says behind the pun is a genre of sharp critique by Latino political observers and commentators.

"We are talking about how politicians continue to miss the boat when it comes to Latinos," Varela says. They may have "gotten the memo" about the importance of the Hispanic vote, he says, "but there's this lack of understanding about the nuances."

Of course, Latinos aren't a monolith, and not all Latinos feel the same way about Hispandering or the types of political gestures that tend to trigger the label. As Cepeda wrote in her 2012 piece about the term:

"This is not to say that there isn't a vocal minority of Hispanic voters who adore Hispandering. They want candidates who preach to the choir — be it about 'Latino empowerment' or immigration — and do it while invoking civil-rights heroes Cesar Chavez or Dolores Huerta. These people are rejoicing because the Obama campaign just kicked off his 'Latinos for Obama' website."

Political experts also have conflicting views about the word and what it represents. Sylvia Manzano of the political opinion research firm Latino Decisions says the term "breaks her heart" because it seems to be used anytime a candidate engages with a majority Latino audience to discuss issues that are important to it. She says it sets up a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" trap for politicians who, historically, have ignored Latinos.

"Talking to Latino audiences about immigration isn't pandering. We know that is an issue that matters to this electorate. It disproportionately affects this electorate. So, if candidates are talking about immigration, that's the right thing to do," says Manzano. She says that while clunky overtures like visiting taquerias or speaking in broken Spanish can appear cringeworthy, they don't all come from a bad place.

What bothers Pilar Marrero, senior political reporter for La Opinion, about the word is that it's the only one like it. Politicians have been accused of pandering to the elderly, African-Americans, and farmers since the dawn of time, she argues, so why does it only get called out with special language when it comes to Hispanics? "I think it's kind of ridiculous," says Marrero. "I don't like these denigrating terms."

José Dante Parra, a former senior adviser to Harry Reid while Reid was Senate majority leader, says Hispandering is a dangerous word to throw around, but very powerful if used properly. "I can tell you what Hispandering is, by telling you what it isn't," says Parra, who now runs a consulting firm in Washington called Prospero Latino that helps clients connect with Latinos in the U.S.

Parra says politicians can steer clear by engaging the Latino electorate early on in the campaign, hiring Latino staffers who understand the nuances within the demographic, addressing the issues important to the community (like immigration) and following through on campaign promises. The way he sees it, if politicians make symbolic gestures that go nowhere, it's reasonable to wonder whether they were just Hispandering.

Parra says both Democrats and Republicans have wised up and learned to avoid the most obvious hallmarks of Hispandering. At this point in the game, you're not likely to catch Bernie Sanders sporting a guayabera on Calle Ocho in Miami or spot Ben Carson chowing down on a King Taco in Los Angeles.

He even credits the conservative Libre Initiative, a Koch-funded nonprofit, for its approach to winning over the Latino electorate — which recently included handing out Thanksgiving turkeys to low-income Hispanic churchgoers in exchange for filling out a questionnaire. He says Libre put political operatives in key states early in the 2016 election cycle and hired truly bilingual spokesmen.

"I debated three different people from Libre and all of them were very, very articulate in Spanish," says Parra. "Five years ago, six years ago they would have put someone on the job based on their last name being Rodriguez."

At the end of the day, of course, deftly avoiding Hispandering minefields is one thing, and genuinely connecting with voters is another. As columnist Cepeda pointed out during the last run for the White House, it's a mistake to treat Hispanic voters as one entity. "Hispanics' political views are as dramatically varied as those of white voters," she wrote. "Hispanics want to be acknowledged, welcomed in the political arena, listened to and respected."

NPR Code Switch intern Michael Paulino contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shereen Marisol Meraji is the co-host and senior producer of NPR's Code Switch podcast. She didn't grow up listening to public radio in the back seat of her parent's car. She grew up in a Puerto Rican and Iranian home where no one spoke in hushed tones, and where the rhythms and cadences of life inspired her story pitches and storytelling style. She's an award-winning journalist and founding member of the pre-eminent podcast about race and identity in America, NPR's Code Switch. When she's not telling stories that help us better understand the people we share this planet with, she's dancing salsa, baking brownies or kicking around a soccer ball.

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