A Politician Walks Into King Taco ... A Look At The Political Term 'Hispandering'

Dec 8, 2015
Originally published on December 10, 2015 1:27 pm

Hillary Clinton got side-eyed after blasting Jennifer Lopez's "Let's Get Loud" at a campaign stop in San Antonio where she called herself "La Hillary" and "Tu Hillary." Jeb Bush earned eye rolls after debuting a Spanish-language ad celebrating Cinco de Mayo.

Both were accused of "Hispandering": a mashup of "Hispanic" and "pandering" that means faking interest in Hispanic issues and culture for self-serving reasons.

So, what counts as Hispandering, and what doesn't? Who decides? Since Latinos are the largest minority group in the U.S., and, as you may have heard, Hispanic voters have the numbers to move the needle in next year's election, we're digging into the history and evolution of a term we'll probably be hearing again.

It goes back to at least 2002, when pioneering political blogger Mickey Kaus, writing at his Slate blog Kausfiles, noted a "recent Hispandering proposal" from then-House Democratic Minority Leader Dick Gephardt to legalize some immigrants who are in the U.S. without documents. That's the first searchable online reference to the term Hispandering, according to research done by the NPR librarians.

It should be mentioned that Barry Popik, etymologist extraordinaire, spotted the phrase in a conservative email digest sent in 2001, but Popik gives Kaus props for "popularizing" the term. Kaus, for his part, says he came up with it independently, saying it wasn't an aha moment so much as "just another night on the blog."

"I'm always looking for puns," says Kaus. "And, I was wondering, what can we do to mock this trend of, 'God, we've got to appease the growing Latino vote?' " He tried a few different versions before landing on the word that would go on to be a hashtag. "None of the ones with Latino worked, so I tried Hispanic."

Kaus says it's nice to have a shorthand term for a very specific kind of political pandering, the kind he felt Gephardt was up to back in the summer of 2002. "It's good to have a term that can be used as an epithet," he says.

Initially, Hispandering was picked up by conservatives and anti-immigration reform pundits who aimed it at politicians they felt were disingenuously wooing Latino voters with friendlier stances on immigration, like pathways to residency for workers in the country illegally or softening border enforcement.

Fast-forward to the 2012 election, and something interesting starts to happen to Hispandering — Latino political watchers began adopting the H-bomb for their own purposes.

Syndicated columnist Esther J. Cepeda wrote in 2012 that the term "perfectly captures the spirit of the moment," condemning both President Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney for Hispandering, which she described this way:

"Never mind policy, trot out some Hispanic stars, drop a few words en español as you talk about how very important 'Hispanic issues' are — as if they weren't the same as all Americans' issues — and do everything but don a golden-threaded mariachi sombrero while promising 'el mundo.' "

In a 2012 post at Latino Rebels, site founder and digital media director of NPR's Latino USA Julio Ricardo Varela employed the term after Vice President Biden scolded Mitt Romney for not revealing more of his tax records. "He wants you to show your papers, but he won't show us his," Biden said in a speech to the National Council of La Raza. Given the Obama administration's deportation record and unfulfilled promises on immigration reform, Varela wrote, Biden's remarks were "just another case of classic Hispandering."

Varela says he loves using Hispandering to call out politicians and brands for what he sees as cheap attempts to grab Latino votes and dollars. He says behind the pun is a genre of sharp critique by Latino political observers and commentators.

"We are talking about how politicians continue to miss the boat when it comes to Latinos," Varela says. They may have "gotten the memo" about the importance of the Hispanic vote, he says, "but there's this lack of understanding about the nuances."

Of course, Latinos aren't a monolith, and not all Latinos feel the same way about Hispandering or the types of political gestures that tend to trigger the label. As Cepeda wrote in her 2012 piece about the term:

"This is not to say that there isn't a vocal minority of Hispanic voters who adore Hispandering. They want candidates who preach to the choir — be it about 'Latino empowerment' or immigration — and do it while invoking civil-rights heroes Cesar Chavez or Dolores Huerta. These people are rejoicing because the Obama campaign just kicked off his 'Latinos for Obama' website."

Political experts also have conflicting views about the word and what it represents. Sylvia Manzano of the political opinion research firm Latino Decisions says the term "breaks her heart" because it seems to be used anytime a candidate engages with a majority Latino audience to discuss issues that are important to it. She says it sets up a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" trap for politicians who, historically, have ignored Latinos.

"Talking to Latino audiences about immigration isn't pandering. We know that is an issue that matters to this electorate. It disproportionately affects this electorate. So, if candidates are talking about immigration, that's the right thing to do," says Manzano. She says that while clunky overtures like visiting taquerias or speaking in broken Spanish can appear cringeworthy, they don't all come from a bad place.

What bothers Pilar Marrero, senior political reporter for La Opinion, about the word is that it's the only one like it. Politicians have been accused of pandering to the elderly, African-Americans, and farmers since the dawn of time, she argues, so why does it only get called out with special language when it comes to Hispanics? "I think it's kind of ridiculous," says Marrero. "I don't like these denigrating terms."

José Dante Parra, a former senior adviser to Harry Reid while Reid was Senate majority leader, says Hispandering is a dangerous word to throw around, but very powerful if used properly. "I can tell you what Hispandering is, by telling you what it isn't," says Parra, who now runs a consulting firm in Washington called Prospero Latino that helps clients connect with Latinos in the U.S.

Parra says politicians can steer clear by engaging the Latino electorate early on in the campaign, hiring Latino staffers who understand the nuances within the demographic, addressing the issues important to the community (like immigration) and following through on campaign promises. The way he sees it, if politicians make symbolic gestures that go nowhere, it's reasonable to wonder whether they were just Hispandering.

Parra says both Democrats and Republicans have wised up and learned to avoid the most obvious hallmarks of Hispandering. At this point in the game, you're not likely to catch Bernie Sanders sporting a guayabera on Calle Ocho in Miami or spot Ben Carson chowing down on a King Taco in Los Angeles.

He even credits the conservative Libre Initiative, a Koch-funded nonprofit, for its approach to winning over the Latino electorate — which recently included handing out Thanksgiving turkeys to low-income Hispanic churchgoers in exchange for filling out a questionnaire. He says Libre put political operatives in key states early in the 2016 election cycle and hired truly bilingual spokesmen.

"I debated three different people from Libre and all of them were very, very articulate in Spanish," says Parra. "Five years ago, six years ago they would have put someone on the job based on their last name being Rodriguez."

At the end of the day, of course, deftly avoiding Hispandering minefields is one thing, and genuinely connecting with voters is another. As columnist Cepeda pointed out during the last run for the White House, it's a mistake to treat Hispanic voters as one entity. "Hispanics' political views are as dramatically varied as those of white voters," she wrote. "Hispanics want to be acknowledged, welcomed in the political arena, listened to and respected."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

OK, now for a bit of political lingo you might not be familiar with, but it's only a matter of time before it's everywhere.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Hispandering.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Hispandering.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Hispanders.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Hispanders.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: What I call hispandering.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: And if you think I'm not using that at least 15 times this week...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: You're his-crazy.

CORNISH: Latinos are the largest minority group in the United States. They have the numbers to move the needle in next year's elections, so politicians are aggressively going after those votes. NPR's Shereen Marisol Meraji from our Code Switch team says many are doing it by pandering to the Hispanic electorate.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: Some people rolled their eyes and said Hillary Clinton was hispandering for this.

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HILLARY CLINTON: I want you to know I am not just la Hillary. I'm also tu Hillary.

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MERAJI: That's Clinton at a campaign event in San Antonio, Texas, referring to herself as the Hillary and your Hillary in Spanish. And Donald Trump - yes, Trump - the man who said Mexican immigrants were rapists and drug dealers, brought a Latino on stage at one of his campaign rallies, and here's what she said.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: I'm Hispanic, and I vote for Mr. Trump. We vote for Mr. Trump - yeah, Mr. Trump.

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MERAJI: So yeah. Hispandering is bipartisan, a mash up of Hispanic and pandering. It basically means faking interest in Latino issues like immigration and culture - think mariachis - for votes and/or dollars. Its roots are political. A Nexus search turned up the first time it was used on the World Wide Web was way back in 2002 by pioneering blogger Mickey Kaus for Slate. In a short blurb that July, he noted a recent hispandering proposal from then House minority leader Dick Gephardt to legalize undocumented workers. I called him up, and he told me, yep, he just might be the originator.

MICKEY KAUS: I thought I was coming up with it. I mean, I'm always looking for puns.

MERAJI: But when I asked him to take us back to that summer night 13 years ago and give us the play-by-play...

KAUS: I don't remember. I have had some a-ha moments. I don't think that was one of them.

MERAJI: I want a really, really good origin story, and you're not giving me one.

KAUS: I'm sorry. I don't know (laughter). What could you say? It was just another night on the blog.

MERAJI: Oh, boy.

KAUS: Sorry about that.

MERAJI: That unmemorable night on the Kausfiles blog gave us a word that's evolved into a hashtag. Kaus says it works for him because he's against comprehensive immigration reform. So he and others could use it as an epithet. And early on, anti-immigration reform pundits and conservative media lobbed the term at politicians they faulted for wooing Latino voters with friendlier stances on immigration, softening border enforcement or proposing pathways to legal residency for immigrants in the U.S. illegally. But fast forward a decade, and Latino political watchers, many left-leaning, started using it for their own purposes.

JULIO RICARDO VARELA, BYLINE: It's created sort of this genre of political observation and political critique.

MERAJI: Julio Ricardo Varela from the public radio program Latino USA says behind the term hispandering lays a sharp critique of politicians who think taqueria stops, broken Spanish and talking solely about immigration is the way to win Latino votes.

VARELA: Voters are just so tired of it, and specifically Latino voters. And so when they see politicians now, quote, unquote, "hispandering," it's almost, like, become a running joke.

MERAJI: Varela says his Twitter followers frequently send him links to examples of hispandering. For Latino USA, he whittled them down to the top five of 2015. They include president Obama's Cinco De Mayo celebration speech where he mentioned immigration but opened with...

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BARACK OBAMA: Tacos and churros and margaritas.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #6: And tequila.

OBAMA: And tequila.

MERAJI: So hispandering - will you ever use it?

PILAR MARRERO: No. I've never used it.

MERAJI: Pilar Marrero is the senior political reporter for the Spanish-language daily La Opinion. Marrero says what irks her about the word is that it's the only one like it. She says politicians have been accused of pandering to the elderly, African-Americans, farmers. So why is there only special language when it comes to Latinos?

MARRERO: I think it's kind of ridiculous. You know, I don't like these kind of denigrating terms.

MERAJI: Political strategist Jose Dante Parra says he's seen campaigns get more to sophisticated over the years, so you probably won't catch Ben Carson in a Guayabera on Calle Ocho or Bernie Sanders at King Taco in Los Angeles. Parra, who was the senior adviser to Harry Reid when he was Senate majority leader, even credits the conservative Libre Initiative, a Koch Brothers funded nonprofit, for its approach to winning over the Latino electorate.

JOSE DANTE PARRA: I debated three different people from Libre, and all of them were very articulate in Spanish, whereas five years ago, six years ago, they would have just put somebody on the job based on their last name being Rodriguez.

MERAJI: Deftly navigating the minefields of hispandering is one thing. Genuinely connecting with voters is another. The way Parra sees it - if a politician makes symbolic gestures to the Latino community that go nowhere, it's totally reasonable to wonder if they were just - well, you know the word. Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.