Just weeks after José Manuel Gallegos triumphed in a contested election in 1853, becoming New Mexico’s first Hispanic Territorial Delegate in the U.S. House, he found himself in a difficult quandary. Gallegos spoke no English and his request to use an interpreter on the floor failed to win his colleagues’ support. Unable to converse, read, or write in the language needed to legislate, Gallegos relied on bilingual Members of Congress to help him draft resolutions and legislative statements on behalf of his majority Mexican-American constituency.
Yet, Gallegos’s early experience didn’t constitute the final word on the use of foreign languages on the House Floor. Indeed, for reasons that ranged from personal preferences to promoting diplomatic engagement, Representatives have greeted constituents and international guests, argued in favor of legislation, and expressed solidarity with others on the House Floor in languages other than English. And, occasionally, they have done so in Spanish.
In April 1926, the Pan-American Congress of Journalists—a group of more than 100 editors and journalists from more than 20 Latin American nations—attended a six-day conference in Washington, D.C. Recognizing an opportunity to further diplomatic ties with neighboring countries to the south, Members of the 69th Congress (1925–1927) extended the nation’s greetings in English and Spanish when the journalists visited Capitol Hill. Representative Harry Wurzbach of Texas and Resident Commissioner Félix Córdova Dávila of Puerto Rico greeted the journalists in Spanish while Clerk of the House William Tyler Page subsequently read a prepared translation of their remarks. Wurzbach hoped the guests would sense “a feeling of friendship and sympathetic interest in our individual and mutual problems” throughout their journey. Dávila considered the gathering a “most brilliant opportunity of making my voice heard in this Congress, [as] . . . I am the only Member of this body who represents . . . a country of Latin origin.” Dávila hoped that the trip would “diffuse a mutual confidence amongst the two peoples” and that Puerto Rico “may well hope to be the bridge across which these two civilizations . . . can stretch hands and learn to understand and appreciate each other.”
Others eventually followed. In his first speech on the House Floor in January 1973, Puerto Rican Resident Commissioner Jaime Benítez opened with a Spanish blessing. He noted that addressing his first words in his native tongue “symbolize[d] my deep feelings on this occasion.”
In October 1981, Texas Representative Mickey Leland spoke in Spanish to highlight his support for extending language provisions in the Voting Rights Act. “You perhaps cannot understand them nor participate in their culture, but these are citizens of the United States,” noted Leland, an African-American Member speaking on behalf of his large Hispanic, south Texas constituency. “[T]heir culture is an American culture, an intimate part of our culture which makes it more rich and more strong.” (New Jersey Representative Millicent Fenwick briefly interrupted Leland’s speech with words of solidarity in both Spanish and Italian.)
And more than 150 years after Gallegos struggled to have his native tongue understood in the House Chamber, in March 2004, Representative Brian Baird of Washington expressed condolences for a terrorist attack on a train in Madrid, Spain, using words Spaniards would know well. “When I lived in Spain and was taught this beautiful language by my dear friends, I was struck by the fact that the English phrase ‘I am sorry’ is lo siento, literally, I feel it,” Baird noted in the English translation printed in the Congressional Record. “Let me say to my friends in Spain that we feel your losses.” It was a condolence that Gallegos would have well understood.
National Hispanic Heritage Month runs from September 15 to October 15. For more information, see The Creation and Evolution of the National Hispanic Heritage Celebration.
Sources: Congressional Globe, House, 33rd Cong., 1st sess. (5 January 1854): 128; Congressional Globe, House, 33rd Cong., 1st sess. (27 February 1854): 490; Congressional Record, House, 69th Cong., 1st sess. (7 April 1926): 7041–7043; Congressional Record, House, 93rd Cong., 1st sess. (30 January 1973): 2563–2564; Congressional Record, House, 97th Cong., 1st sess. (5 October 1981): 23187–23188; Congressional Record, House, 108th Cong., 2nd sess. (18 March 2004): 4622–4623.