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After Rep. Grace Napolitano casts her vote on the House floor, she always heads straight for the same corner: the “barrio in the back,” as it’s called by those who know it.
Just to the right of the door closest to the elevators, near the back of the House chamber, congregate those lawmakers who are fluent in Spanish. There they chat about “anything and everything,” the California Democrat said, from a piece of legislation to a newly drawn district to a family member’s health.
“That’s our little area,” she said. “Sometimes we’ll find other Members sitting there and we’ll ask if they got permission. ‘What’s your password, you need the password.’ And we’ll start laughing. ... It’s very cordial, sometimes its comical. There’s always pranksters in our midst. They prank in English and in Spanish.”
The same group of lawmakers usually frequents the corner, including Reps. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), Charlie Gonzalez (D-Texas), Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.), José Serrano (D-N.Y.) and Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.). Most who congregate there are Democrats from California or Texas, though the group welcomes anyone, especially those who speak Spanish.
“If you’re a Republican coming up, they just chat, they don’t say go away,” said Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), who learned Spanish while in El Salvador with the Peace Corps. “I’ve never seen them reject anybody.”
Nor do they reject those who don’t speak Spanish.
“They’re curious and they’ll ask, ‘What’s the big joke or whatever?’” Napolitano said. “I don’t think anybody’s ever offended simply because we’re discussing.”
Still, the group’s inherent exclusivity makes some wary, according to Honda.
“People say, ‘Why don’t you speak English?’ People are uncomfortable because they think we’re talking about them — and maybe we are,” he said, laughing.
Theirs isn’t the only group to gather in an area of the House floor. Napolitano was quick to point out that just like tables in a high school cafeteria, every Congressional clique has a unique space on the floor. The Congressional Black Caucus tends to gather on the left side of the House, while the Blue Dog Coalition prefers a spot near the middle left.
And just like those high school cliques, the group of Spanish speakers has its shining stars.
“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.
“There’s a saying in Spanish that for every language you learn, you gain another soul,” said Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.), who learned Spanish during a Peace Corps trip to Colombia. “It’s true. It’s absolutely true. With that language comes an interest in dance, in food, in jokes, comedy, lifestyles and geography. ... It opens up another side, like doubling the ability to double your joys.”