Immigration Debate: Señor Kaine Goes to Washington

I couldn’t believe my ears. Senator Tim Kaine spoke in español on the Senate floor in support of the bill that proposes to overhaul our immigration system. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (and his alter ego @ElBloombito) isn’t the only politician who can “speaky the spanish.”

The junior Senator from Virginia received high snaps for making history as the only person to give a full speech before the Senate in a foreign language. Click below to hear Senator Kaine speak “in the Spanish”:

To speak a language other than English on the Senate floor, the bilingual Senator from Virginia garnered unanimous consent.

This is likely the most consensus the 113th Congress will secure on most legislation, not just immigration.

But why do it? Senators Bob Menendez, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio (who submitted an amendment requiring English proficiency to earn citizenship) speak perfect English (Menendez and Rubio both also show off native Spanish fluency).

I tweeted my hunch:

Senator_Kaine_Speaks_Spanish_Senate_Viviana_Hurtado-TheWiseLatinaClub

Senator_Kaine_Speaks_Spanish_Senate_Viviana_Hurtado-TheWiseLatinaClub

In addition to these election results numbers, I will add an acknowledgement by Camp Kaine and the Democrats of the power of Spanish language media where this Senador speaking the language of Cervantes played very well.

Let’s set aside desire to create identification, outreach, manipulation, cynicism, or political stunt.

It’s notable that Senator Kaine retained the Spanish he learned while volunteering one year with Jesuit missionaries in Honduras. But he doesn’t win praise from me because I believe he sent a bad message:

That English is optional.

It may be if you’re a successful white man. But many Latinos don’t have this privilege. Like Senator Kaine whose own father worked as a welder, they are “moving on up.”

What is different is that for immigrants, learning and mastering English is arguably the most important determinant of upward mobility as I write and vlog in “Espanglish No Existe Says a National Humanities Medalist.”

Don’t believe me? The next time you’re in New York City, ask your cab driver what was his profession in his homeland. And why he’s driving a cab and not practicing medicine or working as an engineer.

Spanish is not the language of the barrio as if this “place” is bad. But if you want to make it out, if you aspire to move up in life professionally and financially, if you want to build wealth and offer its benefits to your children, then you better write and speak English perfectly–besting Barrington Harrington Carrington the Thhuuuddd–something that anyone who comes from a working class background never forgets, as well as the unusually high standard to which you’re held. If you’re Latino (African Americans and in certain fields women), add having to justify every day why you belong and that you didn’t take someone else’s spot.

Which is why the principle more than Kaine’s heavy “gringo” accent went against my grain. How could he forget that in this country, English is the language of success and power? If not having legalized status means these immigrants can now only go so far, this will be repeated if they don’t learn and master English–your potential and dreams pegged not to immigration documents but to English proficiency.

Think about this Senator Kaine–and any other Democrat while the debate continues–before you decide to wax on again in Spanish.

Speak in English.

Given that the demographic growth of Latinos is fueled by the U.S. born, chances are we’ll understand you in the language of Shakespeare.

And if we don’t, we’ll have to figure it out. In the future when we close contracts with big decision-making honchos and take out a line of credit to buy a building, we’ll thank you for the English lesson.

This post is part of the original The Wise Latina Club series “Anatomy of an Immigration Debate” which analyze the charged political and social context of this debate within the context of the extraordinary demographic changes confirmed by the 2010 U.S. Census. Click here to read previous entries.

Weigh in: was Senator Kaine’s Spanish Senate speech a “do” or a “don’t”?

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