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On Sunday evening, Univision, the nation’s largest Spanish-language network, aired what I believe is the first Spanish-language presidential candidates’ debate. The University of Miami became the locale for this historic event that has many political implications. The courting of Latino voters is no surprise to many, as projections by the Pew Hispanic Center are that 10 percent of the U.S. electorate will be Hispanic in the 2008 election. Both Democrats and Republicans have made some efforts in the last decade to appeal to Latino/a voters. In 2004, 40 percent of Hispanics voted Republican. In the 2006 midterm elections, 30 percent of Hispanics voted Republican. In recent presidential history, both the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations made concerted efforts to reach out to Latino voters.
Many polls and pundits seek to understand and measure the influence of the Hispanic vote in such swing states as New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado, and Ohio. While some people see a presidential debate that is translated into Spanish (the candidates all spoke in English) as an ominous, threatening act to “American culture,” may I suggest a different interpretation? When candidates, be they Republican, Democrat, or Independent, choose to speak in a language other than English (Mandarin, Spanish, Korean, Italian, etc.) they are embracing a fundamental motto of U.S. self-understanding, namely, “e pluribus unum — out of many, one.”
The powerful vision behind democracy is that it allows for diversity while holding to unity. Still, it would be a critical mistake to understand unity as uniformity. Addressing the multiple concerns of U.S. Latinos (such as U.S. foreign policy in Latin America and the Caribbean, educational and housing challenges, immigration reform, and the men and women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan) means that one holds a fundamental appreciation for the principles of genuine democracy, namely, a plurality of voices. These concerns are not just Latino concerns; they have implications for the whole country. For me the question continues to be, how do we as a country continue to hear the concerns and promise of all no matter what language they speak?
Politics in Spanish is a model of what “democracy in America” (to borrow a phrase from Tocqueville) could be. Politics in Spanish/Korean/Italian/English, etc. (speaking metaphorically), may be a small step to moving beyond a national debate that demonizes the other into a civil discourse where people disagree respectfully. I learned something when services in my local congregation were translated from English to Spanish and Mandarin. You must allow time for people to hear, digest, and respond. Perhaps this small case study can help the country move beyond polarizing rhetoric that dehumanizes Republicans, Democrats, Independents, or nonvoters. Perhaps the practice of listening to others may allow us to be more civil to one another. We are at a great juncture in our political history where we can choose the road of civil discourse or go down the path of escalating, hurtful rhetoric. I believe our faith calls us to be prophetic and priestly simultaneously. May this be the model we leave for our children and the next generation. May my own words challenge me first.
Rev. Gabriel Salguero is the pastor of the Lamb’s Church of the Nazarene in New York City, a Ph.D. candidate at Union Theological Seminary, and the director of the Hispanic Leadership Program at Princeton Theological Seminary. He is also a board member for Sojourners/Call to Renewal.