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Mediocre Spanish Is the Surprise Star of the First Democratic Debate

Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

In his first comment on the first night of the first Democratic primary debate, Beto O’Rourke offered a bilingual answer to a question on the economy from moderator Savannah Guthrie.

In response, Senator Cory Booker gave the audience its first meme of the debate cycle, staring at the former Texas congressman as if showing off his serviceable Spanish broke the evening’s rules of engagement.

Perhaps it was just a moment of fear, as Booker realized he would have to break out his study-abroad Spanish, doing so with a little hesitancy:

In his closing statement, Julián Castro also threw in an “adios,” although he mostly stuck with English. (In an interview with New York’s Gabriel Debenedetti in February, Castro discussed how he and his brother, Representative Joaquin Castro, aren’t “completely fluent” and how that might be a misconception about how the language is used now.)

Before the debate was over, candidates began to crack jokes at the strategic employment of a second language, as everyone else began to wonder about what the polyglot candidate, Pete Buttigieg, will do tomorrow night. And after the debate, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gave her thoughts on the candidates’ sometimes “humorous” Spanglish.

The bumpy roll-out probably won’t kill this trend. With Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden leading in recognition among Hispanic voters in a recent Univision poll, Spanish-speaking candidates like O’Rourke, Booker, and Kamala Harris will most likely continue to pitch to voters in the language.

This post has been updated.

Bad Spanish Is Surprise Star of the First Democratic Debate