Opinion: Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio’s great Spanglish debate

This past Saturday night, I was watching the NBA 3-point shooting contest when my Twitter feed blew up. Apparently Ted Cruz had chewed out Marco Rubio in Spanish during the South Carolina Republican debate. Here’s the clip if you missed it.

The run-in went like this: Cruz told the audience that Rubio’s comments about immigration on the Spanish-language Univision were different from comments he has presented in English. Rubio questioned how Cruz could know what Rubio said on Univision, considering Cruz doesn’t speak Spanish. To that, Cruz had this retort:

“Marco, si quiere, díselo ahora, ahora mismo en español, si quieres.”

Loosely translated, what Cruz said meant something like this: “Marco, if you like, tell it to him now, right now in Spanish, if you like.” Or, in other words: ¿Deseas hablar español? Bring it on.

To my ear, as an English-dominant product of Littleton, Colorado, Cruz’s response showed decent pronunciation but not a great ability to quickly respond in Spanish on his feet. Nothing to be ashamed of, especially given that the typical monolingual English speaking voters in South Carolina or elsewhere would have no way to judge. What most viewers probably took away from the back-and-forth was that Rubio was attempting to come off more Latino than Cruz because, as he alleged Cruz doesn’t even speak Spanish, and that effort blew up in Rubio’s face because it turns out Cruz speaks Spanish after all.

To the 37 million Spanish speakers in the U.S. – a group defined loosely enough to include both Sen. Cruz and myself – reactions varied.

Some viewed Rubio as a bully. When you’re from South Florida — one of the few places in the U.S. where Spanish language abilities are truly valued –- it’s uncool to kick down on someone from, say, Texas, where speaking Spanish is considered less of an asset.

For others, it seemed ridiculous for two Cuban-American presidential candidates to argue over whose policies towards immigrants would be the least tolerant while at the same time getting into a symbolic battle over who’s the more authentic Latino. Still others dismiss the premise that speaking Spanish is an indicator of who’s considered Latino, pointing to politicians like Julian Castro who’ve risen from strongly Spanish-speaking areas with less than perfect fluency.

As far as I am concerned, all candidates – Latino or not — should be prepared to speak Spanish on the trail or suffer consequences. Until recently, it was unthinkable that a candidate for national office in Canada would not campaign fluently in both English and French. While American Spanish-speakers lack the nationalist tendencies of the Quebecois, politicians who attempt to learn and speak Spanish – even the weak Spanish of former President George W. Bush — communicate respect and inclusion toward Spanish-speaking Americans and rightfully benefit from doing so. The question shouldn’t be whether it’s OK for a Latino candidate such as Ted Cruz or Julian Castro to make it onto the national stage without great Spanish speaking abilities. The question should be why aren’t all candidates – regardless of their heritage — comfortable enough to speak off-the-cuff in a language 16 million Americans say they speak better than they speak English.

For too long, we as a nation have failed to recognize how valuable it is that such a significant population speaks both English and Spanish. Bilingualism should be seen for what it is – a mark of an educated person, whether that education is formal or informal, and an asset that can help a person travel the world or work with a larger pool of people who are comfortable only in one language or the other. Let’s all call out candidates not speaking Spanish – even candidates whose last names aren’t Spanish. And let’s hope future responses are even better than the one Cruz gave.