May 14, 1999

Hispanic Legislators Hard-Pressed To Learn Spanish

The Associated Press

SACRAMENTO - Although California has more Hispanic lawmakers than ever before, many of them don't speak Spanish and are scrambling to learn the language as Gov. Gray Davis tries to improve U.S.-Mexico relations.

Some of the 17 Hispanics in the Assembly and seven others in the Senate recently completed intensive Spanish-language courses at ``Centro Bilingue,'' a popular language institute in Cuernavaca, Mexico. With Hispanics making up 9.9 million, or about 31 percent of California residents, and a boom in Spanish media, others are prepared to do the same.

About 1.6 million Hispanics in California registered to vote in the 1996 election and accounted for about 12 percent of the vote, according to the National Association of Latino Elected Officials in Los Angeles.

``Elected officials know that speaking a group's native language helps garner their support,'' group spokesman Marcelo Gaete told the North County Times in a story published Sunday. ``Latino legislators are no different, except that some of them may feel self-conscious about not knowing how to speak Spanish.''

Assemblyman Rod Pacheco, the first Hispanic Republican leader in the California Legislature, said assimilation is the major reason he cannot speak Spanish.

``Educators used to discourage parents from teaching kids Spanish, saying it would slow them down academically,'' said Pacheco, R-Riverside. ``That's why so many of us don't speak it.''

Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante - California's Assembly speaker and the first Hispanic elected to statewide office in more than 125 years - is one of several lawmakers who recently attended the Centro Bilingue.

Lawmakers pay for the courses and related expenses out of their own pockets, aides said.

Using Spanish to reach out to Hispanics is not new. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who spoke some Spanish, helped lure the Hispanic vote for President John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential campaign. Most recently, Texas Gov. George W. Bush's fluency in Spanish proved instrumental in garnering overwhelming support from Hispanics in that state.

In November, California candidates for governor held the first bilingual debate, while other non-Spanish-speaking candidates turned to bilingual family members to convey their message to Hispanics.

``It's accurate to assume that some Latinos will vote for candidates who speak Spanish,'' Pacheco said. ``Because people vote for those they perceive have a connection to them. It's like, 'You speak my language; you've had a similar life experience, so you must know how I think.'''

But candidates should learn Spanish to enhance their ability to communicate with constituents, not to woo the Hispanic vote, Pacheco added.

``If any legislator learns Spanish to extend their political career, then that's the wrong reason,'' Pacheco said. ``I want people to vote for me because they think I'm the most qualified person for the job, not because I speak Spanish.''

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