Rep. Mike Honda, who learned Spanish while in El Salvador with the Peace Corps, is among the Members who often speak the language together.
“You never want to see Nydia Velázquez get angry,” said Honda, who himself learned a great many swear words from Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.). “She’ll just tongue-lash you in English or in Spanish. And José Serrano, that guy’s funnier than hell. He’s so cool. ... There’s a comfort level that they have among each other. It’s just a camaraderie that’s enhanced by the language.”
Throughout history, Congress has been filled with bilingual — and even multilingual — Members.
In the 18th and 19th centuries the numbers were higher, since the United States shared the continent with a number of other colonial powers, according to House Historian Matt Wasniewski. Rep. George Perkins Marsh, a Vermont member of the Whig party, spoke and wrote as many as 20 languages.
When Rep. José Gallegos first came to Congress in 1853 as a Democratic delegate from New Mexico, he didn’t speak any English at all. He relied instead on other Members to translate for him. He requested a translator, a request they denied both when he asked them to pay and again when he offered to pay for the service himself.
“No one could speak for him on the floor or translate for him on the floor,” Wasniewski said. “He ended up losing his seat to another Hispanic Member from New Mexico who was bilingual.”
Nowadays, speaking Spanish during official debate is frowned upon. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) remembers the first and only occasion on which he attempted to deliver a speech in Spanish on the House floor, before he became a Senator.
“The clerks just put down their pens,” said Kirk, who learned Spanish during a college exchange experience in Mexico. “I didn’t realize we had a rule that was English only, and I provided a translation, but I remember looking from the rostrum and seeing the clerks just put down their pens.”
Whether or not it has a place in debate, Spanish-speaking Members note how helpful their bilingualism is in politics. “A lot of the constituents feel more comfortable speaking to someone who can speak their language because they’re able to articulate a little better,” Napolitano said. “... If you use Spanish, you’re not viewed as a government official, you’re somebody who’s reaching out to them. A lot of these immigrants come from countries where you are a marked person if you speak up, if you go to a government official. When they hear it from somebody in their own language, they’re more prone to listen.”
It’s an effect felt by Members who speak languages other than Spanish, too. Former Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.), who was interviewed for this piece before his resignation, noted that his fluency in Chinese helped him relate to many of his constituents. He spent his first six years in China; it was his first language.
“Many [Chinese-Americans] feel distanced from the American political system,” he said. “I try to encourage their participation — many of them do want to participate. Speaking Chinese helps with that tremendously.”
Whether they’re speaking Spanish in a corner of the House floor or on a podium in front of thousands of their constituents, Members agree that their understanding of another language and culture transformed their lives.