At Saturday’s Republican debate, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio went head-to-head over an unexpected subject: language. It began when Ted Cruz basically insinuated that Marco Rubio expresses different stances on immigration depending on whether he’s speaking in Spanish to Univision or to English-language news. (This isn’t true, for the record.)

“Marco has a long record when it comes to amnesty,” Cruz said, according to Vox. “As a speaker in the state of the house, he supported in-state tuition for illegal immigrants. In addition, he went on Univision in Spanish and said he would not rescind President Obama’s illegal executive amnesty on his first day in office. I have promised to rescind every single illegal executive action, including that one.”

Rubio clapped back in a way that cuts to the quick for many second and third generation Latinos: by pointing out that Cruz’s Spanish is not good. “First of all, I don’t know how he knows what I said on Univision because he doesn’t speak Spanish,” Rubio said.

Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A flummoxed Cruz then attempted to retort in Spanish, a clear attempt to defend his “Latino” card: “Marco, si quiere dícelo ahora mismo,” he replied. “Dícelo ahora si quieres. En español, si quieres.”

https://vine.co/v/inP99gXJUjw

It wasn’t long before media outlets were clowning Cruz for his awkward phrasing. And yes, it’s hard to resist the temptation to make fun of Cruz – who wants to kick much of our Spanish-speaking population out – for his language skills. This is, after all, a man who in 2012 told Fox News that his Spanish is “lousy” and refused to conduct political debates in his Cuban father’s native language.

But as The Washington Post recently pointed out (and as many of us know from our own experiences), Spanish-speaking has long been a fraught part of Latino identity formation, and there are many reasons why second or third generation Latinos may not be able to speak it well – not least of which is a powerful social stigma that for decades encouraged assimilation at the expense of preserving our Latino cultural heritage.

Back in the day, speaking Spanish outside of the home was discouraged and even punished. In the 1960s and 1970s, students were subject to paddlings and corner-time for speaking Spanish in school, and Cruz could very well be a product of that environment.

“Cruz may have been born in Canada — much to Donald Trump’s delight — but he grew up in Texas during the final decades when the ideas described above could be repeated in public without so much as a single side eye,” Janell Ross wrote in her Washington Post piece.

Spanish is not the marker of someone’s Latinidad – just ask Gina Rodriguez. The Jane the Virgin actress says she’s not fluent in Spanish, but she fully identifies as Latina.

“There’s no part of me that wants to be mean to somebody who speaks fluent Spanish,” she told The Cut. “It’s either, ‘Oh, you think you’re so Latina because you speak perfect Spanish,’ or ‘You don’t speak Spanish at all. You aren’t even considered Latino.’ What does that make you – stronger than someone else? No, you get nothing out of it.”

This puts us in the uncomfortable position of having to actually defend obnoxious windbag Cruz. At the end of the day, Cruz considers himself Cuban, and no one has a right to define his identity for him. In 2012, he was quoted as saying, “I’m Cuban, Irish and Italian.”

Unfortunately for Cruz, Saturday was not the first time someone tried to get him to be “more Latino.” In 2012, he was challenged to a debate in Spanish by Republican David Dewhurst. And there was also that time last year when Mark Halperin tried to make Cruz speak Spanish on command, thus treating his Latino background as more of a sideshow attraction.

Either way, we should all stop questioning Cruz’s Latinidad, and instead criticize his hardline stance against a path to citizenship, or the fact that he shamed a woman who appeared in his campaign ad for having appeared in soft-core porn. There’s plenty of fodder. Trust.

Cruz in his high school yearbook; he was president of the drama club.

Cruz in his high school yearbook

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