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Democrats took a risk by speaking Spanish during the debate

It was worth it.

Former housing secretary Julian Castro and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) react during the first night of the Democratic presidential debate on June 26, 2019 in Miami, Florida. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Several Democratic candidates really wanted to show off their Spanish-speaking skills to the Miami audience at the first presidential debate on Wednesday.

Beto O’ Rourke and Cory Booker didn’t just sprinkle in a few words or phrases à la George W. Bush (remember “mi casa es su casa”?). No, they were determined to answer debate questions with long, somewhat tortured Spanish sentences.

It was a cringeworthy to hear — and also a bit endearing.

O’Rourke, a border native who feels comfortable speaking Spanish, started with the Spanish right away. Moderator Savannah Guthrie asked him if he would support a 70 percent top tax rate on the highest earners.

O’Rourke didn’t seem to want to answer that. Instead, he started speaking in Spanish.

“We need to include every person in the success of this economy,” he said in Spanish, mixing up a few masculine and feminine words. “But if we want to do this, we need to include everyone in our democracy. We need the representation of every voter, and we need to hear every voice.”

His Spanish is fluent, with a thick gringo accent. It was so surprising that even Booker couldn’t hide his amazement. Look at his reaction here:

It also caught Latinx viewers by surprise:

Of course, Booker didn’t want to be outdone. When asked what he would do about the border crisis, the senator paused, then stumbled through an answer in Spanish. It was nearly incomprehensible.

“The situation right now is unacceptable. The president has attacked and demonized immigrants. It’s unacceptable. I will change this,” he said, speaking slowly in what seemed to be a rehearsed response.

It wasn’t long before memes and jokes appeared on Twitter.

Julián Castro, the only Latino candidate in the race, didn’t seem as desperate to show off his Spanish. But he threw in a line or two also.

“I am Julián Castro and I am running for president of the United States,” he said proudly, with the best Spanish pronunciation of them all.

It was jarring to hear Democrats speaking Spanish casually on a national stage, knowing millions of viewers would not understand. But it also made sense. They were speaking to a Miami audience, a key voting bloc for Democrats. About 69 percent of Miami residents are Latinx, and most of them feel more comfortable speaking Spanish than English.

Democrats really, really need Florida Latinos to vote for them and flip Florida back to blue. And the audience ate it up.

The candidates’ efforts to speak Spanish were significant, and meaningful, to many Latinx Americans; 41 million people in the US speak Spanish, and it’s rare to be addressed on a national stage and shown that respect.

Moderator José Díaz-Balart, a well known Spanish-language news anchor on Telemundo, even asked O’Rourke an entire question in Spanish.

“Congressman O’Rourke, what would you do on the first day as president about the reality of what’s happening at the border?” he asked.

“We are going to treat each person with the respect and dignity that they deserve as humans,” O’Rourke answered in Spanish. It was the best Spanish line of the night.

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