Note to Northeast Ohio political candidates: Be careful with how you sell yourself to Hispanic voters.

More than a dozen candidates for state and local offices made pitches to more than 300 people at the Hispanic Roundtable’s first ever candidate forum at La Sagrada Familia church in Cleveland last Wednesday.

Considering the venue and audience, some of the candidates wanted to spice up their rhetoric with Spanish. Some peddled clichés about immigrant parents or grandparents. Those approaches, coupled with some general misunderstanding of this diverse demographic, made for some awkward moments.

Tom Bullock, a candidate for state representative, struggled to read a prepared statement in Spanish and drew a muted chuckle from someone behind me. It was obvious that Bullock doesn’t speak a lick of the language, but his intent was clear: he’d read a statement in Swahili if he thought that would win him a vote. Cuyahoga County executive Matt Dolan (pictured) presented himself well (he stuck to English) but sounded silly when he compared his political status to being a Latino ("I'm a minority in this county, too — I'm a Republican!"). Fortunately he didn't make any "border crossing" jokes about his recent career-related emigration from Geauga County.

County executive candidate Georgine Welo talked about her Serbian father, which was fine, until she added that when he came to the U.S. he didn’t speak English — “like many of you.”

Another county executive candidate, Ed FitzGerald, went straight into his message and declined to mangle the Spanish language (he didn’t want to make ears bleed, he joked). Others did the same; some simply greeted the audience in Spanish and moved on. The only candidate who addressed the audience in fluent Spanish was Don La Botz, a Socialist Party candidate for U.S. Senate who treated the crowd to a passionate, bilingual speech. (La Botz offered to speak exclusively in Spanish, but master of ceremonies Jose Feliciano told him to address the crowd in English.)

Listen up, candidates: The best and most respectful way to approach this group of voters is to be yourself, stick to your message and don’t make assumptions. Latinos in Ohio are a diverse group from different countries (including the U.S.) and backgrounds. Some of us even speak English. — Damian Guevara

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