Memo to Ted Cruz: It's time to get better at speaking Spanish

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Ted Cruz won't sit around and wait, because waiting is a loser's game.

Cruz, the first-term Republican senator from Texas, officially announced his candidacy for president of the United States early Monday morning.

While there are many fascinating aspects to Cruz's candidacy announcement—his climate change denials, his political grandstanding that led to a government shutdown— there is one question that immediately arises in my mind: What will he, a Cuban-American, do to speak directly to Latino voters over the next several months?

Cruz has been dismissed in the past for not being “Latino enough.” And although he doesn’t speak fluent Spanish or deliberately champion “Latino issues,” now would be a good time for him to make a shift. Not to pander, but to connect and reach out. To not begin rigorously tapping into a demographic that makes up 17 percent of the U.S. population would be a mistake worthy of the theoretical grave. Cruz must prove that he cares about what Latinos care about. There is a misconception that all Latinos pay attention to is immigration. But as important of an issue as immigration is, Latino voters also care deeply about education, health care, and jobs—and in many cases they care about these issues more.


Latinos, who have long been a swing vote, know their support is extremely valuable to those hoping to win the White House. Democrats have historically proven to be better at connecting with Latinos and young people than have Republicans. According to an analysis of exit polls by the Pew Hispanic Center, Latinos voted for President Barack Obama over Mitt Romney 71% to 27% in the 2012 elections—an ocean of a margin.

The first ever Latino to serve as a U.S. senator from Texas, Cruz's campaign entry puts him swiftly on every Latino voter's radar. If he's to make a positive impression going forward, he'd better take things up a notch, laying out clear policies that appeal to Latinos, from economic growth to education.

Should he win in the November 2016 election, Cruz would be the first Latino president in our nation's history. The mere thought of that can be a huge draw to people in both red and blue states. Still, when it comes down to it, Cruz won't be able to simply coast on his last name, or on having a father who fought against Fulgencio Batista's dictatorship alongside Fidel Castro during the Cuban Revolution.

As one of only three Latinos currently serving in the Senate, a trio that includes Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla, Cruz is the only one who doesn't speak Spanish. He has called his Spanish "lousy" and said he grew up "speaking Spanglish." Sure, it's not the most important thing, but it's certainly not unimportant.


Of course it would be erroneous to think that one's authenticity should be based on whether or not one speaks a certain language well enough or is hypothetically “real” enough. In 2007, then-candidate Barack Obama and his ability to relate to African-Americans was questioned on account of his being biracial. It's safe to say that compassion is a much more prized commodity than bilingualism. But again, being able to at the very least defend oneself in a language that 45 million people in the United States speak can only improve a Latino politician's chances at winning over the fastest-growing group of voters. In fact, they could potentially seal a candidate's fate in 2016.

So while he's out courting donors and making his rounds, it wouldn't hurt Cruz to practice rolling his r's and getting a little personal. It matters.


The fact that Cruz has just released a Spanish-language campaign ad, which promises to put "fe, libertad, y opportunidad" ("faith, liberty, and opportunity”)  at the forefront of his message tells us he knows the stakes.

Juan Vidal is a writer and critic for NPR and a contributor to Esquire, VIBE, and The Daily Beast. He's on Twitter: @itsjuanlove


Juan Vidal is a writer and critic for NPR and a contributor to Esquire, VIBE, and The Daily Beast. He's on Twitter: @itsjuanlove

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