“He doesn’t speak Spanish”: Cruz, Rubio and meaning in the Republican debate

Why was I drawn into a news-story that Spanish was a part of last night’s presidential election? Was it because I am a weird linguistic anthropologist? Yes. But there’s more. It was also click bait for me and many others that would not normally tune into the Republic debate because languages other English seem antithetical to the Republic party. This reading is especially strong in this election cycle, which has seen Donald Trump soar to the forefront of the race in part by appealing to White working class voter’s fear of seeming outsiders (such as Muslims and non-White immigrants).

This positioning of the party however is not without tension. It is also widely known that the Republic party has a demographic problem; Latinos make up an increasingly important segment of American’s electorate and they overwhelmingly swing democratic. Given this fact, it is not surprising that one of the Republican party’s rising stars for the last couple of years has been someone who can seemingly resolve this issue: Marco Rubio. The junior senator from Florida and a son of Cuban immigrants, his background and abilities in Spanish appear to allow him (and potentially the party) to transcend the idea that Republicans are somehow inherently anti-Latino.

Last night Rubio’s bilingualism was front and center in the debate when Senator Ted Cruz began to attack Rubio’s stance on immigration policy. Have a look at the video (transcript below) and then we will dive in:

1 Cruz: I would note not only that, Marco has a long record when it comes to amnesty. In Florida as speaker of the house he supported in-state tuition for illegal immigrants. In addition to that, Marco went on Univision [.] in Spanish and said he would not rescind President Obama’s illegal executive amnesty on his first day in office. I have promised to rescind every single illegal executive action, including that one.

2 Crowd: [Cheers]

3 Cruz & Rubio: [Overlapping speech]

4 Rubio: First of all, I don’t know how he knows what I said on Univision because he doesn’t speak Spanish. And second of all [crowd cheers/laugh], the other point I would make –

5 Cruz: Si quieres, díselo ah ahora mismo dice-lo ahora, en español si quieres

If that’s what you want, say say it right now, in Spanish, if you want.

6 Rubio: Look, this is a disturbing pattern now [.] For a number of weeks Ted Cruz has just been telling lies. He lied about Ben Carson in Iowa.

Journalists have been quick to jump on analyzing this “Spanish-off.” Vox, for instance, interpreted Rubio’s comment about Cruz’s Spanish as an indirect speech act (Searle, 1969):

[…] when Rubio said Cruz “doesn’t speak Spanish,” he is likely trying to say, I’m the real Latino candidate, vote for me.

This actually seems like a quite plausible account of the social meaning of Rubio’s statement. But how do we know that this is what the Florida senator meant? Looking at the transcript, this reading is not at all apparent.

On Searle’s (1969) account, this indirect speech act (that is, with a meaning distinct from its propositional content) would stem from a set of rules about how conversations work (1. Be relevant, if not 2. cooperate, if not 3. … etc.). While this can account for the supposed “meaning” of many utterances, it completely fails for this one and others. This particularly the case for utterances that take place as a part of transparently non-dyadic interactions. Indeed, Vox’s gloss of Rubio suggests that he was actually addressing himself to the American Latino electorate as opposed to his interlocutor Cruz or even the moderator. In situations like debates we transparently see the ways in which interactions are almost never between an ideal speaker & addressee but rather have shifting participation frameworks as people use utterances to take up different footings (Goffman, 1981) vis-à-vis people that may or may not be actual conversational partners.

Taking this into account, linguistic anthropologists propose a radically different way of interpreting the meaning of utterances:

“Something more flexible than rules mediates between the cues in a utterance and the interactional positioning that utterance accomplishes” (Wortham, 2001, p. 36)

For Wortham, this mediation is captured by the concept of a “contextualization cue” (Gumperz, 1982) or what Silverstein calls “indexicality” (1976). Utterances contain cues that indexically point out or create relevant aspects of context that allow humans to provisionally read what someone is really doing or saying (that is, interactionally).

This all may sound insane. What the hell is indexicality? Bear with me.

The funny thing about linguistic anthropological approaches to people talking is that humans intuitively seem to do exactly what linguistic anthropologists describe albeit without any of the fancy metalanguage. For instance, in the Vox piece, the author doesn’t just interpret Rubio’s utterance blindly. To arrive at it she attends to what she deems the relevant context:

Cruz and Rubio are both vying for the legacy of being the United States’s first Hispanic and Latino president, but most Hispanic and Latino voters don’t share their conservative values.

This year will mark a record number of 27.3 million eligible Latino voters in the United States – more than any other racial or ethnic group in the nation according to a Pew Research study. Nearly half of these voters will be millennials. Projected to represent nearly 12 percent of all eligible voters, Latinos have the potential to have a substantial impact on the 2016 presidential election.

So when Rubio said Cruz “doesn’t speak Spanish,” he is likely trying to say, I’m the real Latino candidate, vote for me.

The Washington Post offers a further layer of analysis stemming from a deeper ethnographic understanding of what a non-Spanish speaker might mean to some in the Latino community:

The goal was […] also to associate Cruz with a particularly modern kind of alleged cultural failing. Cruz’s opponent knew that might have meaning in a state with a lot of Latino voters.

The inability to speak fluent Spanish has become a source of embarrassment for some Latinos. […] There are some […] Spanish-speaking Latinos who regard the inability to speak Spanish as an indicator of capitulation to old-school, self-loathing, and bigotry-fueled pressure to assimilate by emulating white Americans.

Both of these accounts strike me as appropriate readings of the relevant context. Nonetheless, all of our interpretations are potentially provisional. Future utterances down the road from Rubio could offer new information about what he may have meant, either directly (by referring to this altercation) or indirectly (by making similar remarks about the importance of speaking Spanish to understand Latino concerns, for instance).

Returning to the interaction itself, how did Spanish even come up in the debate? Let’s go back to Line 1 in our transcript:

1 Cruz: I would note not only that, Marco has a long record when it comes to amnesty. In Florida as speaker of the house he supported in-state tuition for illegal immigrants. In addition to that, Marco went on Univision [.] in Spanish and said he would not rescind President Obama’s illegal executive amnesty on his first day in office. I have promised to rescind every single illegal executive action, including that one.

Note the power of represented speech here. Cruz invokes Rubio’s former statements as a means of presenting the Florida senator’s position on “immigration.” One could argue that that this is pretty reasonable interactional move: the two are presumably there to present their differing policy positions to Republican primary voters (and perhaps Americans more broadly). But typifying someone else’s speech is also an extremely important resource in accomplishing other kinds of interactional positioning. While linguistic anthropologists often focus on “verbs of speaking” (e.g., say, yell, report, slander, insult etc.), here what is relevant is that Cruz actually goes out of his way to explain both the context (Univision interview) and the code (Spanish) of his reported speech. How did this serve Cruz and what did it mean? The Washington Post again provides an interpretation based off an ethnographic understanding of the United States and in particular the typical voters in a Republic primary:

Cruz told viewers that Rubio made statements on Univision — the nation’s highest-rated Spanish-language network — indicating that Rubio, if elected, would not rescind one of Obama’s most consequential executive orders. It gave a deportation reprieve to millions of so-called “Dreamers.” The implication was that Rubio says and does things behind your backs, overwhelmingly white and English-Speaking only Republican voters, of which you may not be aware.

Note how the author does not just bring up the demography of the Republic party to justify her interpretation. She also highlights Cruz’s own words prior to his Univision-Spanish comment. Bringing up Univision and Spanish in itself does not mean that ‘Rubio can’t be trusted by White Republicans.’ Certainly, this reading is probable given what we know about Cruz, Rubio and the likely positions of Republicans. But dropping his comment about Rubio’s Spanish language appearance on Univision WHILE discussing the thorny Republican issue of immigration bolsters this reading of his interactional move. Cruz’s own prior utterances thus provide an immediate frame of relevant context for interpreting his statement regarding Univision, Spanish and Rubio. This highlights the power of utterances to entextualize (Silverstein & Urban, 1996) other utterances in a process that can make meaning emergent in immediate interaction and not just from a larger context.

But not only Cruz’s words (in the denotational sense) help establish this reading; more minute linguistic features also enter into the equation. Note in line 1 the stress on Univision and the slight pause [.] before “in Spanish.”. While not attended to by the Washington Post and at a level of awareness of that less immediate than that of the words themselves, I’d argue that these paralinguistic and discourse features serve as strong contextualization cues that hint at what exactly Cruz is doing in this conversation turn.

Neither Vox nor the Washington Post truly attends to Cruz’s retort in line 5 after having been called out as not speaking Spanish:

5 Cruz: Si quieres, dice-lo ah ahora mismo dice-lo ahora, en español si quieres                              If that’s what you want, say say it right now, in Spanish, if you want.

In fact, the Washinton Post veers wildly away from its prior sophistication. First, it eschews its own historically informed account of linguistic discrimination against Spanish-speakers by categorizing Cruz’s brave foray into emergent bilingualism (García, 2009) as “grammatically unorthodox.” Second, it abandons sophisticated albeit non-technical discourse analytic work and views Cruz’s Spanish utterance as the ” […] thing you might say when flustered, when non-fluent and or when trying intentionally to sound tough.”

Wait so which one is it? Was Cruz flustered? Overwhelmed? Is he a semi-lingual monster in Chomsky’s homogenous monolingual speech community dreams? Or was he just saying ‘I am tough’ to both Rubio and the American people?

The Washington Post analyst balks at understanding Cruz’s non-English utterance and ultimately chalks it up to what she and the Vox journalist intuitively rejected at the start of their analyses: Cruz’s head.

We can’t say for sure which of those three really dominated Cruz’s response here. Only Cruz really knows.

In the face of an utterance that interactionally is not taken up and therefore does not seem to mean much at all, the author throws emergence, contextualization and indeed all of linguistic anthropology out and instead seeks shelter within Searle’s mentalist vision of meaning residing in one’s head.

While Cruz’s Spanish may not have meant much in the debate itself–as neither Rubio nor the other participants responded to him–it is provisionally meaningful in an opaque sense: it points to potential meanings (e.g, Cruz was flustered; Cruz can’t speak Spanish; Cruz is tough etc.) but without being taken up as a part of larger pattern across other interactions, it likely just means ‘Cruz was willing to speak back to Rubio in this debate tiff. Only time will tell if our working definition of Cruz’s Spanish utterance in interaction last night will need to be re-worked as the campaign moves on, but clearly, as their earlier analyses of this Spanish-off suggested, the meaning is not in the Senator’s head.

While not all audience members were likely thinking of this part of the debate in the terms I have outlined above, I think that my analysis importantly highlights that we are all linguistic anthropologists in terms of how we handle and interpret interaction. In this sense, the very meaning of Cruz and Rubio’s utterances did not depend on an analyst’s ability to explicate a moment that the Washington Post characterized as “full of history and emotion and deep social meaning that a good portion of the audience likely did not fully comprehend.” It rather depended on our ability to read history (as relevant context) and emotion (as interactional moves) to define the deep social meaning as that we audience created and are creating.

One thought on ““He doesn’t speak Spanish”: Cruz, Rubio and meaning in the Republican debate

  1. Coleman, first of all I think your description here is really cool and I will definitely come back to this if I am teaching a discourse analysis class one day and want an intro to thinking about “context” in understanding language.

    Second, I have been thinking since this debate moment and reading your post: I really, really, really hope that somehow “diselo, diselo, ahora mismo, en español, si quieres” becomes a meme in Spanish classes all around the country. Like, if your student doesn’t want to speak up, you can just quote Ted Cruz but in a way that’s recontextualized to be encouraging. I am not a Spanish teacher but I am a Spanish student so I will try to make this happen at the scale of one class in Pennsylvania.

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