Pandering in Broken Spanish: Evaluating Booker, Castro & O’Rourke’s Spanish at the First Democratic Primary Debate

During the first Democratic Party primary debate, three of the ten candidates partly answered questions in Spanish.  It’s unclear what they attempted to do with this move – show off, pander or something else – but at least they succeeded in having people talk about them online.

In order to help non-Spanish speakers evaluate how Booker,  Castro & O’Rourke did yesterday, here is a short analysis on what they said in Spanish.

julian castroJulián Castro introduced himself in Spanish.  The fact that he did so in the middle of the debate, rather than when he had his first opportunity to speak, was sort of off-putting.  It suggested to me that he was trying to show that he, too, could speak some Spanish, rather than to actually show respect for Spanish speakers in the audience.

What the said was very simple, and yet he still committed two mistakes:

Me llamo Julián Castro y estoy postulando por Presidente de los Estados Unidos.

This means “my name is Julian Castro and I’m running for President of the United States.” What he should have said, however, is:

Me llamo Julián Castro y me estoy postulando para Presidente de los Estados Unidos.

Basically, Castro forgot the reflexive pronoun before the verb postular (to postulate), and he confused the prepositions por and para. The latter is a common mistake, as both para and por are often translated as for in English. I have the same problem with the prepositions in and on in English, which both translate into me in Spanish.

Beto O’Rourke spoke twice in Spanish, the first time earning a side eye from Cory Booker. The first time he said:

Necesitamos incluír cada persona en el éxito de esta economía. Pero si queremos hacer eso, necesitamos incluír cada persona en nuestro democracia. Cada votar … cada votante … necesitamos la representación y cada voz necesitamos escuchar.

What he probably meant to say, however, was:

Necesitamos incluír a cada persona en el éxito de esta economía. Pero si queremos hacer eso, necesitamos incluír a cada persona en nuestra democracia. Necesitamos representar a cada votante y necesitamos escuchar a cada voz.

This would translate into: 

We need to include every person in the success of this economy. But if we want to do that, we need to include every person in our democracy. Each voter needs representation and we need to listen to every voice.

In the first two sentences, Beto forgot to use the Spanish preposition a (to), which is generally used in Spanish when a verb refers to a human being.  He also used the wrong gender pronoun when modifying the word democracia. In Spanish, every word has a gender, and any word that modifies that noun (articles, possessive pronouns, adjectives, etc.) need to have the same gender as the noun.  

I’m not exactly sure what Beto tried to say in his last sentence, because he mangled both subject-verb agreement and word order. A literal translation of what he said would be “Each vote … each voter … we need the representation and each voice we need to listen”.

O’Rourke spoke in Spanish again later in the debate and said:

Vamos a tratar cada persona con el respeto y dignidad que merecen como humanos.

which means “we will treat each person with the respect and dignity they deserve as humans.”   What he should have said was:

Vamos a tratar a cada persona con el respeto y dignidad que merecen como seres humanos.

So basically he once again missed the preposition a. He wasn’t really wrong in saying “como humanos” or “as humans”, but in Spanish we tend to use the full term “seres humanos” or “human beings” rather than just the adjective human/humanos by itself.

All in all, Beto O’Rourke spoke as someone who has taken a few years of Spanish in High School, or one or two years in college.  He is able to communicate and make himself understood, but he doesn’t speak with fluency and he makes common grammatical mistakes.

Despite their grammatical mistakes, both Castro and O’Rourke pronounced the words correctly (or as correctly as non-native speakers can pronounce them).

Now for Cory Booker. I listened to him several times, and this is what I hear him saying:

La sit(incomprehensible)… La situación ahorra es ineceptable. Es de presidente ha atacado, ha dimonadado los emigrantes. Es ineceptable voy a cambiar reste.

This is what he probably meant to say:

La situación ahora es inaceptable. Este presidente ha atacado, ha demonizado a los inmigrantes. Es inaceptable, voy a cambiar esto.

which means:

The situation now is unacceptable. This President has attacked, has demonized immigrants. This is unacceptable, I’m going to change this.

The problem was that his accent is very thick (I can relate, having a thick accent in English) and that he totally mispronounced words. Ahora (now) has a soft “r” (the closest sound in English is “d”) but for some reason he rolled it. He said “este” (this) as two separate words, which sounded as “es de presidente” or “is of president”.  This made his sentence hard to understand when he said it (after replaying it a few times, I figured out what he meant). He totally mispronounced “demonized” and made it sound like “demanded” (demandado), and he mispronounced inaceptable the two times he said it. Finally, he ended with “reste”, which is not a word in Spanish at all, when, I assume, he meant to say “esto” (this).

All in all, I got the impression that Cory Booker speaks Spanish in the same way I speak French (after taking one semester in college), which is taking English words, then adding a Spanish pronunciation to them and hoping he gets them right.

In all, Cory Booker could have spent 20 minutes perfecting the short phrase he said in Spanish so that it was correct and understandable – he didn’t, and thus showed a lack of respect to Spanish speakers in his audience.