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Latino politicians see importance of Spanish

LA, CA --Before the cameras started rolling at a recent news conference, Los Angeles mayoral hopeful and state Sen. Richard Alarcon tapped his bilingual aide.

"How do you say workers' compensation?" Alarcon whispered.

"Compensacion a trabajadores heridos," the aide answered.

In tens of thousands of living rooms, snippets from the briefing that followed aired later that night on affiliates of Spanish-language networks Univision and Telemundo. Alarcon's delivery in Spanish went without a hitch.


Still, Alarcon's off-camera question to the aide reveals something already known by millions of Spanish-speaking viewers: Many prominent Latino politicians who grew up at a time when their parents insisted they speak only English now struggle to find the right Spanish word, verb tense or gender agreement.

All too aware of the influence of the burgeoning Spanish-language broadcasting media, many have turned to private tutors or classes to improve their rusty Spanish. They're finding that the better they speak Spanish, the more airtime they get -- and the more opportunities to woo voters.

"The Latino community, they rate us on our Spanish all the time. Their expectation for a Latino like myself is much higher than they would have for, say, someone like (Democratic presidential candidate) John Kerry," Councilman Tony Cardenas said.

"The bar has been raised."

In a region where 30 percent of the population speaks Spanish in the home, mastering the language has become critical to garnering the affection of the Latino community.

Councilmen Antonio Villaraigosa and Cardenas, who lost their fluency while growing up, have earned high marks from political observers who have watched their "Spanglish" evolve into Spanish.

Southern California boasts the nation's largest Spanish-language media market, where the No. 1 and No. 2 most-watched evening news shows in the 18-49 age category are both in Spanish. So no matter how good their accent or grammar is, most Latino officials hold bilingual news conferences to reach constituents.

"I have had reporters' mouths drop at interviews who remember my Spanish 11 years ago," said Alarcon, D-Van Nuys, a former councilman who, during his first year as an elected official, hired a private tutor to drill him on verb tenses and phrases.

City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo has also made great strides. He carries index cards to help him through some news conferences, and has hired a tutor to coach him on tricky verb conjugations and pronunciation.

Latino political insiders hablan mucho about who speaks better Spanish and they jokingly rate and tease one another -- if not to their faces, then behind closed doors.

A longtime political observer and executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, Miguel Contreras can rattle off a list of Latinos whose mastery of Spanish has risen to match their political ambitions. He remembers when Villaraigosa regularly "butchered" Spanish and Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante delayed a private dinner banquet because he was "sweating" over his speech in Spanish.

Like Bustamante, Delgadillo was pushed by his father to assimilate in Anglo society, which meant speaking English at home. Today, his father, Albert, is proud that his son is taking the time to learn Spanish.

"Bienvenida," Delgadillo says with open arms, welcoming a visitor into his office. After years of studying with a private tutor, he is comfortable with a number of Spanish phrases.

"I had to pass up many opportunities to speak to communities, to issues that were important -- perhaps the most important to them," said Delgadillo, a former deputy mayor who dedicated himself to learning the language after years of frustration trying to communicate with Spanish speakers.

His Spanish is admittedly a work in progress -- or, as he calls it, "pocho," referring to the hybrid Spanglish developed by second- and third-generation Latinos.

But, he is quick to offer himself up to Spanish-language media and the strategy has paid off. When Delgadillo took aim at con artists swindling immigrants hoping to attain legal status, it became international news on Spanish-language stations.

"It's just smart politics," said Luis Torres, a bilingual reporter at KNX-1070 (AM), Los Angeles' main news radio station.

With more than 20 years in the L.A. news business, Torres has seen the tide change. Where 10 years ago there were just a handful of Spanish-speaking news crews, there is now a gaggle of camera crews searching for that one official with impeccable Spanish.

That type of influence will only grow with the number of Spanish-language broadcast and print news operations proliferating.

According to February's Nielsen ratings, the top rated 6 p.m. news show for the 18-49 age group was on Univision's KMEX Channel 34 followed by Telemundo's Channel 52 -- even though English language stations held the top 2 slots with all age groups.

And while political experts say Spanish-speaking voters choose candidates based on their message -- not how it's delivered -- there's no doubt bilingual officials have a leg up on their monolingual counterparts.

"I trust the politician that speaks my language well. Everyone I know feels that way," said Juan Jara, vice president of the Pacoima Chamber of Commerce. "The Hispanic community, we are very sentimental. We feel more attached.

"If I see (L.A. City Council President) Alex Padilla speaking on television and then I see Richard Alarcon, well, I trust Alex more because he delivers the message the right way and everyone understands. Richard doesn't say the right words all the time."

Assemblywoman Cindy Montanez, D-Mission Hills, who grew up in a Spanish-speaking house, said she is constantly barraged by reporters hungry to find somebody who can communicate the issue of the day, from immigration to California's unwieldy budget.

"The more languages you speak the more effective you are," said Montanez, who counts herself as only one of a handful of Latino leaders who can easily converse in Spanish.

The split among Latino leaders who can and can't speak well often falls among generational and cultural lines.

Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, D-Los Angeles, Montanez and Padilla all are children of immigrants, under 40 and spoke Spanish at home.

Villaraigosa and Cardenas grew up learning Spanish but quickly lost it in English-only schools. Others, like Delgadillo, simply never learned it at home, where English was stressed even though their parents could speak Spanish.

"The generation before mine, it was not only discouraged, people were punished or reprimanded for speaking Spanish in public," Padilla said.

"Times have changed. The Latino community has changed. There are more elected officials speaking fluent Spanish and that is a reflection of our community and its changing dynamics."

Source: Dailynews.com

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