09/13/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Language of Paying Respects: The English-Spanish Connection at a Chicago Business Who's Who

I had never noticed it in all the years I've been attending the Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce's annual Business Expo breakfast, but about five minutes into the remarks I started keeping score of each speaker's use of the Spanish language.

Last week's event started off with ABC 7's John Garcia light-heartedly making fun of his own tortured language skills - "if Spanish is my second language then it's a distant, distant second" - an especially funny observation given that there wasn't a soul present that needed any translation. I'd say about 25% of the well-heeled crowd was extremely Caucasian, with the rest representing the cream of the second-generation Hispanic business crop.

I'll tell you who made me sit up and pay attention: Illinois State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias who - somehow - graciously managed not to drop a certain Hyde Park basketball-playing VIP's name.

"Good morning to all of you and thank you for inviting me to speak to you this morning...the Latino communities, businesses and buying power is growing faster than in any other group in the United States and your contribution to the international market is indispensable," the U.S. Senate candidate said. "When I came to your membership meeting in April, I promised to stay in contact with you and make issues affecting the Latino community a top priority."

Boilerplate, sure, but why was nearly everyone on the very edge of their seat?

It was delivered in nearly flawless Spanish, and some of those words were hard!

And so it went as I started keeping score of who - of Chicago's who's who (which included Governor Pat Quinn, Hizzoner Mayor Daley, Congressman Luis Gutierrez, and County Board President Todd Stroger) - was at the Chamber breakfast to pay their respects to the hot Hispanic businessmen and women of our town. And who did so in Spanish.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all about all English everywhere all the time, but I have to admit, I love it when non-Latinos speak "my language."

No - I'm not a fan of pandering for pandering's sake - but there's just something about someone addressing you with words they're unfamiliar and maybe a little uncomfortable with. It shows not only a level of respect, but of warmth.

For instance, Ellen Costello, President and CEO of Harris Financial Group - who's just as white as white can be, god bless her - got up in front of us and said, "Good morning and thank you for coming" in that halting way where you just knew she was nervous and unsure but, by golly, she did it. I found myself silently cheering her on with each word and being honestly proud of her - and impressed - when she finally got through it.

And there's the flip-side: sticking with the English because you don't have to prove yourself. Governor Pat Quinn and Mayor Daley may not have ventured into rolling-R territory but they really said it all about the nature of their respect for the Latino Business community by just being there.

Congressman Luis Gutierrez was all over the map - he spoke Borriquen, English, Spanish, and Spanglish (almost too much considering the crowd). For a minute there I thought he was going to break out the Urdu, but that's just Luis.

Interesting aside: Gutierrez made some very clear remarks about the possibility of a Hispanic being elected as the next Governor of the great state of Illinois, adding: "A Rodriguez, Gonzalez or Martinez will become governor and that day is coming in Illinois." Foreshadowing? They were all names ending in "ez." Hmmmmm.

Final interesting observation about language and of walking the fine line of pandering to and pitching your audience: Of all the luminous speakers addressing all the Hispanic who's who, not a single one of them acknowledged the historic nomination of (now) Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, or gave a rah-rah about the 2016 Olympic bid. How weird is that?

Just goes to show that some things can get lost in translation even when they're unspoken.

Esther J. Cepeda writes about political panderings and much, much more on