Some candidates tried to hablar español in Miami. Spanish teachers everywhere cringed.

Did the candidates pass their Spanish test?

Some candidates tried to speak Spanish during the first Democratic debate in downtown Miami on June 26 and 27, 2019. How did they do?
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Some candidates tried to speak Spanish during the first Democratic debate in downtown Miami on June 26 and 27, 2019. How did they do?

Cervantes would have laughed. Or cried.

That’s because the author of the most famous novel in the Spanish language, Don Quixote de la Mancha, would have had a hard time understanding the Democratic candidates who tried their hand at speaking en español at the first Democratic debates in Miami on Wednesday and Thursday.

Sure, in part that would be because Don Miguel de Cervantes y Saavedra spoke medieval Spanish, akin to Shakespeare’s use of thees and thous and forsooth. But also because none of the candidates was completely fluent in the language of Lope de Vega, Gabriel Garcia Márquez or Mario Vargas Llosa.

Let’s look at their efforts in turn, pretend we’re Spanish teachers and assign them a grade.

Beto O’Rourke

The former Texas congressman was the first to break the ice, answering a tax question in Spanish. He gets points for being almost fluent. “Almost” because he flubbed subject-verb agreement and forgot a couple of times that Spanish is a gendered language, in which nouns and most adjectives are either masculine or feminine — and when they go together, the genders must match. He dropped a couple of articles. He also mangled his sentence structure (“Cada voz debemos escuchar” — Each voice, we must to listen to — a Yoda-like construction that sounds just as bad in Spanish as it does in English.) Still, O’Rourke gets credit for speaking Spanish twice, and for a reasonably understandable accent. We give the gentleman from Texas a B.

Julián Castro

The former member of President Barack Obama’s Cabinet is Hispanic, but has admitted he doesn’t speak Spanish well. So he was smart and kept his comment short, literally one sentence, translated roughly as “My name is Julian Castro and I am running for president of the United States.” And roughly is the right word. Castro flubbed the verb tense, so it translates more as, “I am postulating by president of the United States.” Because he sounded as if he found the words individually in a dictionary and then strung them together, we’ll give him a C.

Cory Booker

The junior senator from New Jersey gets a barely passing grade just for trying. But that’s all it was: trying. His accent was so bad he was almost impossible to understand in one listen. He might as well have been speaking Greek. And he did manage to invent a word at the end of his comment, “reste.” That’s not Spanish. Perhaps it’s Klingon. We give him a D, and really, it’s that high mostly because he made the effort.

Pete Buttigieg

It’s been said the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, speaks eight languages, Spanish among them. He didn’t try to dazzle the debate audience with any Thursday night, other than thanking host Jose Diaz Balart after the moderator welcomed him in Spanish. But that little bit was not impressive. “Buenas noches, gracias de invitarnos” is garbled español. It translates to “Good evening, thanks of inviting us.“ And yes, that “of “ is just as wrong in Spanish as it is in English. But hey, he has seven other languages to fall back on. Just for being octolingual — and getting four words out of five right — we’ll give him a B minus.

Honorable mention: Bill de Blasio

Take the word “honorable” with a grain of salt. The New York City mayor did not attempt to speak at Wednesday night’s debate. Instead, he spoke to a group of striking workers at Miami International Airport on Thursday. Mostly he spoke in English, and we’re certain he now regrets lapsing into Spanish at the end of his speech for FOUR WORDS. Unfortunately, the words were “Hasta la victoria, siempre.” It roughly translates as “Ever on to victory.” The mayor probably thought they were inspiring words. You know who else thought they were inspiring? The man whose use made them a revolutionary slogan: Che Guevara. The words of one of Fidel Castro’s top lieutenants didn’t go over well in Miami, even among fellow Democrats, and a few hours later de Blasio found himself apologizing. His accent and pronunciation were decent. His knowledge of history and of Miami’s politics? Not so much. We gotta give hizzoner an F.