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Clinton Campaign Hopes Tim Kaine's Spanish Helps Woo Latino Voters


Here's something you've probably heard a lot already about the Democratic vice presidential candidate - Tim Kaine speaks Spanish.


TIM KAINE: (Speaking Spanish).


MCEVERS: When Hillary Clinton first announced her running mate, it happened in Miami. Kaine welcomed the crowd and said, we are all Americans. The location was no accident because the campaign believes Kaine's Spanish could help woo Latino voters. But the question is - will it? NPR's Eyder Peralta has been looking into that question.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: It does not take long before the Latino caucus at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia hears about Tim Kaine's prowess with the language of Cervantes. It comes from Hilda Solis, the former labor secretary who, in 2009, became the first Latina appointed to a cabinet position.


HILDA SOLIS: We are here to support Tim Kaine, our next vice president (speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: He speaks Spanish better than she does, she says. But that is not the only reason she's endorsing him. She says that Kaine was a missionary in Honduras, and she's seen him fight hard in favor of immigration reform.

SOLIS: I think he does bring a genuine self of sensitivity to our culture.

PERALTA: Despite Solis' enthusiasm, Kaine is a controversial figure in the room. Rocky De La Fuente, who is running for Senate against Marco Rubio in Florida, calls Kaine a, quote, "terrible choice." Yes, he says, Kaine's Spanish is better than two of the Latinos thought to be in the running for vice president, but that doesn't mean much to him.

ROCKY DE LA FUENTE: That does not mean that he understands the issues. That doesn't mean that he knows what it is to be discriminated upon.

PERALTA: What we know from polls is that the Latino electorate isn't all that impressed by Spanish. The Pew Research Center found that 9 in 10 U.S.-born Latinos say speaking Spanish is not necessary to be considered Latino.

MARK HUGO LOPEZ: We are now seeing many young Latinos grow up in a household where only English is spoken, while the share that live in a household where only Spanish spoken is on the decline.

PERALTA: That's Mark Hugo Lopez, who directs Hispanic research at Pew. He says we're at a point in history where old school political overtures - speaking Spanish, appearing with a mariachi, for example - may not hold the same sway they once did. The Latino population in the country, Lopez says, has changed.

LOPEZ: It's one that's become much more aware of its position in the United States, and also its potential impact in elections. And while speaking Spanish is great, today it's not necessarily the case that speaking Spanish will be the one thing that will win a Hispanic voter's vote.

PERALTA: Back at the Hispanic caucus meeting, I find Celina Vasquez and Saul Gonzalez lingering. They're Latinos from Texas. Gonzalez wore a Lone Star button-up, and Vasquez wore a sequined cowboy hat. Both of them speak Spanish, and both of them have mixed feelings about Kaine and his Spanish.

CELINA VASQUEZ: I'm going to quote my mother. And she always said something like this - (speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "A person who speaks two languages is worth two."

VASQUEZ: So kudos to Mr. Kaine for that. Pero...


SAUL GONZALEZ: Pero it isn't the same to be able to speak two languages as being bicultural.

PERALTA: Celina Vasquez says part of understanding the culture is knowing that for Latinos, speaking Spanish in this country comes with all kinds of baggage.

VASQUEZ: Our culture and our history, it has been one of discrimination, specifically to our language and not allowing us to speak our language in schools and actually being punished for it.

PERALTA: In fact, in Texas it wasn't until the 1970s that bilingual education was legalized. Kaine, Vasquez says, will never understand that experience. Solis, on the other hand, says give him a chance.

SOLIS: He has a following that is very big. And I think once the community, the Latino community, immigrant community and other communities understand what his values are, they will come.

PERALTA: But maybe not because he speaks Spanish. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.