Newsflash: Obama Stirs Hispanic Populace With a Big 'If'

Accentuating the Need for Accent Management in the Media

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Rochelle Newman-Carrasco Rochelle Newman-Carrasco
"He speaks Spanish," the CNN reporter announced. Excitement was in the air as CNN, covering Barack Obama in Nevada, discovered that the presidential hopeful was, in the network's expert analysis, a Spanish speaker. My own pulse surged as I waited for the commercial break to end. Could CNN have gotten it right? Could Barack be bilingual? Now that Richardson was out of the race, was Obama ready to fill his proverbial zapatos?

In a page from the playbook that brought us "Ugly Betty," the Obama campaign has taken an existing phrase from Latino-centric politics and brought it into the English language mainstream. "Yes, we can," a rallying cry most closely associated with César Chávez, rises again. I waited with bated breath for the JFK, MLK, and now CC protégé to launch into an impassioned speech en español.

All he said, however, was "Sí, se puede." That was it. Sounding a bit stiff in his delivery, as if working with a phonetics card that might have read "See, say, poo-wed-day," Obama spoke exactly three words in Spanish. The same three words over and over again. And that's what threw CNN into a tizzy? Does the writers strike have anything to do with the network's continuing displays of inaccuracy and flights of fancy.

I thought this overreaction to Obama's ability to articulate "Sí, se puede" was an isolated incident, but then the print media, both on and off line, took the whole thing one step further. The New York Times blog "The Caucus" reported the following: "Throughout Mr. Obama's remarks, chants of 'Si Se Puede! Si Se Puede! Si Se Puede!' rang from the audience. Mr. Obama joined along, too, in what has become a new mantra for his campaign. (It is essentially translated to the slogan he started on New Hampshire primary night, 'Yes we can!')."

Countless other newspapers, websites and blogs quote Obama as saying "Si se puede." So what's the problem? The problem is that the print media has changed the rallying cry from "Yes, we can" (Sí, se puede) to "If we can" (Si se puede).

Worse yet is the Obama campaign's decision not to use the accent in some of its own Spanish-language TV ads. In fairness, it's debatable as to whether or not capital letters--the tagline in Obama's TV spots are upper case--have to carry accents. This would make SI, SE PUEDE a possible, but debatable, option. Not so, however when "Sí, se puede" appears in upper and lower case. Leaving out the accent is just plain wrong.

If we can! If we can! If we can! That's what happens when you don't have an accent over the i. 'Yes' becomes 'if.' There's also the issue of missing upside down exclamation marks, a punctuation reality that English-language media still can't quite figure out. But we can work around that. It doesn't change the fundamental meaning of the phrase.

The bottom line is that the use of the Spanish language by non-Spanish speakers (be they Latino or non-Latino) requires an added degree of fact-checking and spell-checking to avoid putting one's "pie" (foot) into one's "boca" (mouth). (Pie in mouth sounds like just dessert in English, but in Spanish it's not as tasty).

At least it's not as bad as Al Sharpton's 1994 misstep with the same rallying cry. According to, Al Sharpton told delegates that like some Republicans, he'd learned some Spanish, too. In a call-and-response about the issues they can achieve, Sharpton repeatedly barked: "Sí se puerta. Yes we can." But Sharpton apparently needed more lessons. He was saying "Yes we door."
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