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Spanish-Speaking Members Bring Camaraderie, Constituent Comfort

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Rep. Mike Honda, who learned Spanish while in El Salvador with the Peace Corps, is among the Members who often speak the language together.

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 its 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 members health.

Thats our little area, she said. Sometimes well find other Members sitting there and well ask if they got permission. Whats your password, you need the password. And well start laughing. ... Its very cordial, sometimes its comical. Theres 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 youre a Republican coming up, they just chat, they dont say go away, said Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), who learned Spanish while in El Salvador with the Peace Corps. Ive never seen them reject anybody.

Nor do they reject those who dont speak Spanish.

Theyre curious and theyll ask, Whats the big joke or whatever? Napolitano said. I dont think anybodys ever offended simply because were discussing.

Still, the groups inherent exclusivity makes some wary, according to Honda.

People say, Why dont you speak English? People are uncomfortable because they think were talking about them and maybe we are, he said, laughing.

Theirs isnt 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.). Shell just tongue-lash you in English or in Spanish. And José Serrano, that guys funnier than hell. Hes so cool. ... Theres a comfort level that they have among each other. Its just a camaraderie thats 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 didnt 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 didnt 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 theyre able to articulate a little better, Napolitano said. ... If you use Spanish, youre not viewed as a government official, youre somebody whos 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, theyre more prone to listen.

Its 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 theyre 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.

Theres 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. Its true. Its 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.

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