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The more problematic part of Jill Biden’s ‘taco’ comment isn’t what she said

On Tuesday, I woke up to the news that first lady Jill Biden thinks I am as unique as a breakfast taco and as distinct as a Bronx bodega. Even though I am not sure what that all means, I believe she didn’t intend it to be insulting and that she was trying to illustrate the diversity of the Hispanic community. 

Still, the clumsy remarks convey something that worries me: No matter how liberal, educated and aware they are, the reality is many Democrats still don’t know who Latinos are. And that’s not a situation the party wants to be in ahead of the midterms, in which Latino voters are expected to turn out in significant numbers in several battleground states.

No matter how liberal, educated and aware they are, the reality is many Democrats still don’t know who Latinos are.

The first lady made the faux pas at a UnidosUS 2022 conference in San Antonio. She was praising civil rights leader Raul Yzaguirre, the former president and CEO of the organization, who last week received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the U.S.

“Raul helped build this organization with the understanding that the diversity of this community — 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 — is your strength,” Biden said.

Apparently, breakfast tacos for some in San Antonio are a source of local pride. But for Biden, who is seen as an extension of the White House, a representative for all of the country, the choice of words was tone-deaf.

To add insult to injury, she mispronounced the word “bodega,” a small convenience store owned mainly by Latinos and iconic to New York City, as “bogidas.” 

A clip of the remarks that is doing the rounds on social media has been viewed millions of times in 24 hours.

The National Association of Hispanic Journalists released a statement late Monday urging the first lady and her speechwriting team to understand Latinos’ complexity better.

“Using breakfast tacos to try to demonstrate the uniqueness of Latinos in San Antonio demonstrates a lack of cultural knowledge and sensitivity to the diversity of Latinos in the region,” the organization wrote. “Our heritage as Latinos is shaped by a variety of diasporas, cultures and food traditions and should not be reduced to a stereotype. We are not tacos.”

In a tweet Tuesday, Michael LaRosa, the first lady’s spokesman, said Biden apologized for her words and stressed she was trying to convey her “pure admiration and love for the Latino community.” 

That might be, but it backfired. 

It’s not the worst we’ve been called. Donald Trump called us “bad hombres” at a 2016 presidential debate. So to be called breakfast tacos is an improvement — of sorts. 

The fact that a speechwriter wrote this, thought it was perfect for the first lady and didn’t expect Latinos to take offense says it all.

Yet, the message implies the problematic part: that someone like Jill Biden, an educated and seemingly liberal person, can convey Hispanic diversity only by mentioning bodegas, breakfast tacos and, for reasons I fail to understand, flowers. 

And the fact that a speechwriter wrote this, thought it was perfect for the first lady and didn’t expect Latinos to take offense says it all. 

“You can’t speak to Latinos using platitudes and stereotypes,” Venezuelan writer Yamily Habib told me as we discussed Biden’s remarks. “It continues to make it clear that they have no idea who we are or what we represent to the country. This is why Democrats lose Latino voters — they have no idea how to connect with us other than from the products they consume from our culture.” 

Indeed, the Democrats need to do better, and fast. They need to stop imagining every Latino is the same if they want to bring more of us to their side. A Quinnipiac University poll published in April found that just 26% of Hispanic responders approved of President Joe Biden’s job performance, the lowest ranking of any demographic group. A dramatic drop in Latino support could spell disaster for Biden and Democrats in November.

The administration should remember that although nearly 70% of Latino voters chose Biden in 2020, he still failed to attract enough of us in battleground states to call it a complete success. 

After the mainstream media move on from this controversial moment, the first lady’s comments — however innocent she may have meant them to be — will be remembered among Latinos. So instead of the Biden administration’s relying on a rolled-up breakfast entree to understand us, it will need to learn who we truly are and how best to approach and connect with us in meaningful ways. November is fast approaching, and I might be Latina, but I am not your breakfast taco.  

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