Arizona News Anchor Is Drawn Into Debate on Her Accent and the Use of Spanish
PHOENIX — An Arizona news anchor defended her pronunciation of Spanish words during English broadcasts, saying she delivers them the way the language is intended to be spoken.
In a broadcast on Monday, Vanessa Ruiz, who works for 12 News here, waded into the running debate over the use of Spanish that has divided Americans in different ways for years, and has been percolating on the campaign trail.
Ms. Ruiz, who was raised in a bilingual household, said some viewers had questioned her way of pronouncing Spanish words. Sandra Kotzambasis, the station’s news director, said viewers were asking why Ms. Ruiz “rolled her Rs.”
In the broadcast, Ms. Ruiz said, “Some of you have noticed that I pronounce a couple of things maybe a little bit differently than what you are used to, and I get that, and maybe even tonight you saw a little bit of it.
“I was lucky enough to grow up speaking two languages, and I have lived in other cities, in the U.S., South America, and Europe,” she continued. “So yes, I do like to pronounce certain things the way they are meant to be pronounced. And I know that change can be difficult, but it’s normal and over time I know that everything falls into place.”
The use of Spanish in the United States has been contested in a range of ways over the years, from objections to its use in the Pledge of Allegiance; to casual conversation on school buses, such as in Nevada; and in a New Mexico supermarket accused of having singled out Spanish-speaking employees with an “English-only” policy, according to some of the cases pursued by the American Civil Liberties Union.
It has most recently reached into the political stage among rivals for the Republican presidential nomination, such as when Donald J. Trump said this week that Jeb Bush should “really set the example by speaking English while in the United States.”
The United States has more than 55 million Hispanics and, according to the 2011 American Community Survey, 38 million residents age 5 and older who speak Spanish at home. But questions about the use of Spanish persist.
In Arizona, where the Hispanic population is at 30 percent and is growing, the conversation about language has included questions over the English fluency of candidates for public office. It has surfaced regularly in schools, notably in a state law banning, with some exceptions, b ilingual education.
In July, an appeals court agreed to give challengers a chance to void a state law designed to end an ethnic studies program in Tucson’s school district, where 60 percent of the children enrolled were of Mexican or other Hispanic descent. A former state school superintendent championed the law, taking particular issue at a popular district’s Mexican-American studies program.
Timothy M. Hogan, the executive director of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, has worked on some state laws involving the use of Spanish in public schools. “My observation is people generally feel threatened by use of communication that they are unfamiliar with,” he said. “Underlying all of that is the implied threat to the vanishing majority.”
Ms. Ruiz was born in Miami, grew up in Colombia, and studied in Spain before a career in journalism that has taken her on international assignments. She joined 12 News in July.
She followed her comments on air with a statement posted on the station’s website: “Let me be clear: My intention has never been to be disrespectful or dismissive, quite the contrary. I actually feel I am paying respect to the way some of Arizona’s first, original settlers intended for some things to be said.”
According to Ms. Kotzambasis, the station’s news director, some viewers objected to the way Ms. Ruiz pronounces Mesa, the third largest city in Arizona. “Locals pronounce it ‘May-suh,’ but many Spanish speakers and natives say ‘Mess-uh,’ ” Ms. Kotzambasis said. In addition, she said, viewers noticed that Ms. Ruiz “rolls her Rs when pronouncing Spanish words.”
On Thursday, Ms. Ruiz posted a Facebook message saying she was surprised that her on-air remarks had led to such a “dynamic conversation.”
“My comments about some of your inquiries were made out of respect and acknowledgment for some of those who watch us and wondered why I pronounced certain things a certain way in Spanish,” she wrote. “I was more than happy to explain and/or clarify. Nothing more.”
She added: “I am more proud now than ever to be an American, and also, a Latina. Thank you. Gracias.”
That day, at a coffee shop in downtown Phoenix, Viridiana Gonzalez — a bilingual mother of three bilingual children who uses the Spanish pronunciation for her name (bee-RRREE-dee-AH-NAH) — said she was “surprised” when she first heard Ms. Ruiz deliver the news.
“That Spanish sound, that’s not what we’re used to listening to in English-language TV,” said Ms. Gonzalez, 35, whose mother is from the state of Chihuahua, Mexico, and whose father is from Arizona. “I think I kind of pumped my fist and celebrated. Hey, look, she’s not afraid of her heritage.”
Fernanda Santos reported from Phoenix, and Christine Hauser from New York