Now that first lady Jill Biden has apologized for saying that Latinos are as “unique” as breakfast tacos, it’s time to pause from the latest manufactured right-wing outrage and examine why her comments, although slightly problematic, pale in comparison to years of even more dangerous rhetoric against a community still fighting back against lazy stereotypes.
Her comments, although slightly problematic, pale in comparison to years of even more dangerous rhetoric against a community still fighting back against lazy stereotypes.
The political world was in flames because Biden and her speechwriters said in the friendly confines of the annual UnidosUS conference in San Antonio that Latinos in the United States were “as distinct as the bodegas of the Bronx, as beautiful as the blossoms of Miami and as unique as the breakfast tacos here in San Antonio.” That phrase also included a mispronunciation of “bodegas.”
Biden’s words led Sen. Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican, to tweet a photo of a taco. Cassy Garcia, a Latina Republican and former staffer for Sen. Ted Cruz running for Congress in Texas, started selling “unique as a taco” campaign T-shirts. Other Latino Republicans reveled in Biden’s gaffe.
How quickly they all forget.
As much as they don't want to admit it, Democrats, particularly the Bidens, have been uncomfortable practitioners in not understanding the complexity of the Latino community. Last year, the first lady mispronounced the iconic “Sí se puede” chant in Spanish, leading to some head shakes. About 10 years ago, then-Vice President Joe Biden, speaking to the National Council of La Raza (the previous name of UnidosUS) made a bizarre analogy between Mitt Romney’s tax returns and Latinos having to show their immigration papers, as if immigration status is what solely defined the community. Partisan supporters applauded his comments back then, but it felt a bit disconnected, just like the time when candidate Hilary Clinton in 2016 was being compared to an abuela. But are Republicans really the right ones to launch their criticism at Biden, and at Democrats more widely, when it comes to serving Latinos?
Compared to what then-presidential candidate Donald Trump said in 2015, Biden’s taco comments were tame, an unfortunate but innocent mistake.
"When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending the best,” Trump said then. “They're sending people that have lots of problems and they're bringing those problems. They're bringing drugs, they're bringing crime. They're rapists and some, I assume, are good people, but I speak to border guards and they're telling us what we're getting."
No Republican outrage against such hate speech happened at the time. Enabling such beliefs and making them mainstream have only exposed the reality that as much as the GOP thinks it has made inroads with Latinos, it just comes across as hypocritical.
If 2022 Republicans think Latinos are not tacos, they had no problem thinking we were all taco bowls in 2016, when Trump tweeted his Cinco de Mayo peace offering to Latinos with an actual taco bowl.
Spare the faux conservative anger against Biden. It's just an extension of how Republicans have found the right strategy to combat “wokeness,” whether it's weak comparisons to tacos or the obsession with the word “Latinx.”
Still, Biden’s gaffe further exposed a much deeper point that goes beyond political partisanship and merits more attention: To Democrats and Republicans, Latinos are still a cultural sideshow. Political parties continue to view the country’s second-largest voting cohort through simplistic lenses, many of which are rooted in years of institutional racism.
Biden’s gaffe further exposed a much deeper point that goes beyond political partisanship and merits more attention: To Democrats and Republicans, Latinos are still a cultural sideshow.
“We are not tacos. Our heritage as Latinos is shaped by various diasporas, cultures and food traditions. Do not reduce us to stereotypes,” the National Association of Hispanic Journalists tweeted Monday said in response to the first lady’s speech (full disclosure: I am a lifetime member).
“We hear ongoing mischaracterizations and harmful rhetoric used in the national discourse that perpetuate false stereotypes and create dangerous narratives about Latinos,” Yvette Cabrera, the association's national vice president/online, added when I reached out to the organization on Tuesday. “Regardless of party affiliation, this is a concern for NAHJ. Latinos deserve to be represented accurately and fairly in the media to ensure a healthy and prosperous democracy.”
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Biden’s San Antonio taco comment comes at a time when a new New York Times/Siena College poll has the president’s approval ratings with Latinos — albeit a small sample size — at just 32%.
Maybe the Bidens will learn from their past mistakes and try to get beyond it. Because something needs to give.
“We hope that this incident triggers a more thoughtful discussion in the future about how to convey the diversity, complexities and issues facing Latinos in the United States,” Cabrera told me.
For whatever reason, it’s clear that Latinos suddenly matter again to the GOP. But their tweets and taco memes will just ring hollow if Republicans selectively decide when to speak out and when to stay silent. Seven years have passed since Trump made anti-Mexican and anti-Latino sentiments that quickly became a foundational part of the party’s platform, yet here we all are giving more attention to breakfast tacos.
Defending the Latino community first starts by calling out stereotypes and ignorant rhetoric from all sides of the political spectrum. Biden and her team paid another political price that was both self-inflicted and overblown by political opponents who capitalized on the opportunity.
Republicans nonetheless don't get to pick and choose their critiques. Either they are consistent, or they are not, because in the end, the Latino community deserves and commands more respect. Being constantly used as a political tool can only last so long.
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