Why Sen. Kaine’s Español Is More Than Just A Spanish Speech

During Tuesday’s debate on the Senate’s immigration bill, Virginia’s Democratic Senator Tim Kaine took to the podium and launched into a nearly 14-minute floor speech entirely in Spanish, making him the first senator ever to do so. 

Before beginning, Kaine asked permission to deliver the speech in Spanish. Heidi Heitkamp, the Senate’s presiding officer, gave him this permission, but only after she hesitated in her speech and made a quick double take in Kaine’s direction.

During his speech, the Virginia Democrat spoke of his decision to address the Senate in Spanish saying:

I think it is appropriate that I spend a few minutes explaining the bill in Spanish, a language that has been spoken in this country since Spanish missionaries founded St. Augustine, Florida in 1565.  Spanish is also spoken by almost 40 million Americans who have a lot at stake in the outcome of this debate.

On Twitter supporters commended Kaine for his bold move. Ali Noorani, the executive director of the National Immigration Forum, wrote: "After so much talk about English proficiency, kind of awesome for @TimKaine to deliver his Senate floor speech on #immigration in Spanish."

Kaine’s proficiency in Spanish even drew praise, where one tweet read: “Tim Kaine’s Spanish is pretty good, guys.”

But Spanish isn’t a new language to Kaine. Not only did he learn Spanish in Hondoras years ago during the 1980s, but he told the New York Times in an interview that he speaks Spanish everyday.

“It is a sign of the changing nature of Virginia,” he said.

As of 2011, 8.2 percent of Virginians are Hispanic or Latino, according to Census figures.

But Kaine’s point to acknowledge the history of languages in the U.S., as well as the current Spanish-speaking population, is important because, in doing so, he reminded all of us of the diversity of this country. His 14-minute long Spanish worked to give an authentic voice to the wide range of ethnicities and languages living and speaking in the U.S. today. And, perhaps more importantly, it gave voice to the history of this country and its Hispanic roots.

As one Hispanic civil rights group put it to the New York Times, “we are being heard, finally.”

The fact that Kaine went against the norm to achieve these ends is in itself not only the act of a smart politician, but the act of the every day kind of activism we can all participate in.

It is significant (and possibly telling), then, that Senator Marco Rubio, one the Senate’s most high profile Hispanics, did not include Spanish in yesterday’s debate. In fact, according to the Senate Library, he has never made remarks in Spanish.

Perhaps Rubio is afraid of receiving some of the backlash remarks Kaine received on Twitter:

  • “while working for the American people speak our American language.#TimKaine"
  • “Dem breaks into Spanish on Senate floor...  ...to endorse amnesty legislation! (still America, asshole. English is spoken here) #TimKaine

But what should be made clear is that Kaine’s decision on Tuesday was not meant to spark a debate between Spanish and English. What Kaine’s speech illustrates is not the need to ‘pick a side’ between Spanish and English, but that the U.S. is unique in its plethora of languages and ethnicities, and even more unique in its history. We are, as all politicians, Republican and Democrat, like to say, a nation of immigrants.

And with a topic like immigration reform, it’s important that we seize the opportunity unique to the U.S. to debate these issues in other languages besides English and Spanish.

As Kaine put it:

“I’m going to cross my fingers that some of the other senators with language fluency might pop up and do the same thing,” he told the Washington Post. “[If Senator James Webb was still in office] he’d be able to speak Vietnamese.”

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