Message more important than language

Neither man was perfect

There was nothing wrong with the television set Friday night. Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls Dan Morales and Tony Sanchez were in fact debating in Spanish in Dallas.

Although many agree the Morales-Sanchez debate was groundbreaking for bilingualism, it’s doubtful the Hispanic vote will hinge on a misplaced accent or mispronunciation, bilingual educators and political science scholars said.

“Sanchez came off more relaxed in Spanish than he did in English,” said Ray Leal, a political scientist and law professor at St. Mary’s University School of Law. “Dan Morales came off as stilted, but I think he showed us that he speaks Spanish better than a lot people thought.”

Sanchez is from Laredo, where seemingly everyone is fluent in Spanish. His Spanish accent is that of someone from Northern Mexico.

In the months leading up to this debate, Sanchez knocked Morales for his inability to speak “good Spanish.”

Although reared in San Antonio’s Northwest Side by bilingual parents, Morales has said he wasn’t comfortable speaking Spanish until later in life. In his mid-20s, he studied at a language school in Cuernavaca, Mexico, and his accent is that of someone who learned it as a second language.

Sanchez was more eloquent than Morales speaking a “commoner’s” Spanish, but neither was grammatically perfect in either language, said Joe Bernal, a Sanchez supporter, state board of education member and former state legislator who helped establish bilingual education in Texas.

“Sanchez is worth $600 million, but he talks Spanish just like the rest of us,” Bernal said. “Morales mispronounced some words, but so do I sometimes. Who doesn’t?

“The older generation of people might criticize Dan for his degree of fluency in Spanish, but the younger generation is in his same boat,” Bernal added.

“Neither have a strong mastery of the language,” said Howard Smith, assistant professor of Bicultural-Bilingual Studies at UTSA.

Smith, who’s bilingual, has completed his doctorate studies in language, reading and culture.

“Neither one is extremely articulate in Spanish,” he said. “Maybe it has something to do with nerves, but you can tell they haven’t really kept up with the language.”

It was pointed out several times that of the more than 7 million Hispanics in Texas, a majority prefers to communicate in Spanish. Bilingualism has become so important that Gov. Rick Perry studied Spanish last summer in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

“Nowadays, if you’re in politics, you have to at least make an effort to speak Spanish to the voters,” Bernal said.

“I don’t think anyone lost many votes,” he said. “I think ultimately their message will be more important than how well they got it across. And they all seemed to get their messages across.”

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