Florida’s overwhelmingly conservative and English-speaking Republicans last fall set aside ethnic considerations and enthusiastically nominated for the U.S. Senate a Cuban-born candidate over a field of outstanding “Anglos,” including both a veteran U.S. congressman (Bill McCollum) and the dynamic speaker of the state’s House of Representatives (Johnny Byrd).
MelquÃ?Æ? Âades (“Mel”) Martinez became the party’s rank-and-file choice because 1) he had miraculously risen from being a penniless, Spanish-speaking-only teenage immigrant in a U.S. foster home to becoming a powerful, facile-tongued American trial lawyer and the able chief executive of big Orange County (Orlando); 2) President George W. Bush had named him to his cabinet; and 3) Mr. Bush intervened in the Florida GOP primary election to endorse him over all his non-Hispanic opponents.
Weeks later, in the general election, Mel Martinez defeated a popular Florida Democrat to become the first foreign-born Latino elected to the U.S. Senate. He immediately helped cement Republicans’ growing appeal to all Hispanics, who just two years ago became the nation’s largest ethnic minority (surging past blacks). With his unaccented, perfect English, personal charm, and studded rÃ?Æ? Â©sumÃ?Æ? Â©, Sen. Martinez promises to be a major force in American politics and a charismatic key to the Grand Old Party’s dominance at all levels of government into the 21st Century.
Republican voters’ starry-eyed swoon over “Swell Mel,” however, just days ago took a linguistic skid into a cultural brick wall. Delivering his maiden Senate speech (an event typically used by a new member to define priorities), Martinez shattered the spoken (yet, ironically, unspoken) tradition of The World’s Most Exclusive Club: He glibly and suddenly broke into a foreign language, Spanish, to praise the newly confirmed U.S. attorney general and fellow Latino, MexTexan Alberto Gonzales.
Proudly noted Sen. Martinez, Sr. Gonzales represents “todos nuestros sueÃ?Æ? Â±os y esperanzas para nuestro hijos.” Now, no fellow senator (except for quirky John Kerry, who is prone to bi-directionality on all issues) could possibly object to a colleague’s speech praising “all of our hopes and dreams for our children.” Nevertheless, every senator present for the speech appeared to be “uncomprehending,” according to the pristinely multicultural Miami Herald, which further reported that a “stunned Senate stenographer looked up quizzically and just typed: ‘speaking Spanish.’ ”
Senate historian Don Ritchie scoured his fastidious library and discovered that before Mr. Martinez strode onto the hallowed floor, there is no record of a U.S. senator giving a speech in a language other than English. (In 1798, when Tennessee’s wily William Blount was expelled from the Senate for scheming to seize colonial Florida from its legal owner, even the most pro-Spain senators debated the issue in English.)
If Sen. Martinez truly wishes to remodel the Senate into a Potomac Tower of Babel, say Florida Republicans, then most voters back home in the Sunshine State (even among the numerous Spanish-speaking) will politely remind him, “Ã?â?? Â¡Basta ya!”
In the teeming pubs, bodegas, honkytonks, and delicatessens from Pensacola to Cayo Hueso (now called Key West), and from Tampa’s inner Ybor City to Miami’s fabled Little Havana, that roughly translates into, “Enough already!”
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