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Jill Biden causes minor flap by comparing Latino diversity to tacos

The first lady apologizes, saying she meant to convey only “pure admiration and love for the Latino community.”

First lady Jill Biden speaks in Richmond earlier this month. (Steve Helber/AP)
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“We are not tacos.”

That was the message the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and others sent first lady Jill Biden after comments at a conference of Latinos in San Antonio on Monday in which she seemed to compare Hispanic people to tacos.

Addressing the annual UnidosUS conference in Texas, the first lady praised the diversity of the community, saying it was “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.”

Biden also mispronounced “bodegas” while attempting to laud the Latino community, and a video clip of her remarks attracted more than 2 million views.

The backlash was swift. In a tweet, NAHJ wrote that the organization “encourages @FLOTUS & her communications team to take time to better understand the complexities of our people & communities. We are not tacos. Our heritage as Latinos is shaped by various diasporas, cultures & food traditions.”

“Do not reduce us to stereotypes,” the tweet concluded.

By Tuesday morning, Michael LaRosa, a spokesman for the first lady, had tweeted an apology, writing, “The First Lady apologizes that her words conveyed anything but pure admiration and love for the Latino community.”

Most Hispanic and Latino groups did not publicly criticize the first lady’s comments. But that did not stop some Republicans from seizing on the analogy and using it to hammer her and her husband, President Biden.

Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) tweeted out a video of Biden’s comments, writing, “Jill Biden says Hispanics are as ‘unique’ as tacos and calls bodegas ‘bogidas.’ No wonder Hispanics are fleeing the Democratic Party!”

A Washington Post average of polls of Hispanic Americans found 49 percent approving of how President Biden is doing his job, higher than voters as a whole. Still, his approval rating has declined among Hispanics since last year.

In a series of tweets, Irene Armendariz-Jackson, a Republican running for Congress in the Texas district that includes El Paso, was especially sharp. “I’m an American who was born to legal Mexican immigrants,” she tweeted. “I do not identify as Latinx. I do not identify as a bo-guh-da. I do not identify as a breakfast taco, either. I’m a proud American woman. I’m a proud Hispanic woman. Enough of this idiotic racist pandering, please.”

And Danielle Alvarez, communications director for the Republican National Committee, released a statement accusing the Bidens and Democrats of taking the Hispanic community for granted.

“Their attempts to pander are disrespectful and derogatory,” Alvarez said in the statement. “With Jill Biden comparing us to tacos, it makes sense why Hispanics overwhelmingly disapprove of this out-of-touch, failed administration and are leaving the Democrat Party in droves.”

Biden’s remarks to the annual conference of Latinos underwent the regular White House process for such a speech, requiring sign-off by several White House units — including the offices of intergovernmental affairs, legislative affairs and public engagement — according to a person familiar with the speech, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal dynamics.

Biden’s team also provided UnidosUS with an early draft of the first lady’s speech, which the group read through for fact-checking and pronunciation purposes, but the organization did not view its role as signing off on the content of the remarks, said someone familiar with the process, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter.

Janet Murguía, president of UnidosUS, said that among the 1,500 attendees in the room, Biden’s comment “was actually a light moment in the speech where several people actually applauded and cheered.”

“For those of us who were there, we took the comment as it was intended, to reflect that the diversity of the Latino community as a strength of this country,” Murguía said.Our attendees were smart enough to know how she is actually substantively supportive of the community and on our side. But it does seem like some of the right-wing extremists know that they can’t fight Biden on policy, so they reach for and resort to some cheap shots.”

Still, she added: “Could it have been better said? Yeah.”

As first lady, Biden has emerged as a key administration messenger to the Latino community and immigration activists. That role has met with a mixed response from activists, who say they appreciate that she is a direct line to the president but wish they had more direct inroads to White House policy officials.

Biden began learning Spanish during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, and during the 2020 campaign she began weekly meetings with small groups of Latino members of Congress, sharing their concerns with her husband. During the campaign, she also crossed the border to serve a Christmas meal to asylum seekers in a refugee camp in Matamoros, Mexico.

After her husband was elected, one of Jill Biden’s first acts was appointing three Latinos to serve as top members of her team — Anthony Bernal as senior adviser, Carlos Elizondo as social secretary and Julissa Reynoso as chief of staff.

Since then, Biden participated in a 2022 naturalization ceremony in Bakersfield, Calif., ahead of Cesar Chavez Day. She took a three-city tour in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month in October, and chose Latin America as the place for her third solo trip in May, making a six-day, three-country diplomatic visit to the region.

In her comments Monday, a person familiar with the matter said, Biden was trying to highlight — however awkwardly — a point of local pride in San Antonio: the breakfast taco.

In an interview, Yvette Cabrera, vice president of online for NAHJ, said that after Biden’s comments, the group’s rapid-response team huddled to assess its own reaction. Members realized that the first lady had intended to praise the community, she said, but also concluded that her remarks were tone-deaf, and they decided to offer a “proportional” response — a tweet, rather than a full statement on the group’s website.

“I understand her intention was positive — she was trying to compliment the uniqueness of Latinos — but in fact what she did was resort to a stereotype that truly didn’t represent the diversity of the Latino community in the United States,” Cabrera said. “It was disappointing, because it felt like it was resorting to a shallow stereotype when she could have used the opportunity to examine and give some examples of that diversity.”

Cabrera added that there are myriad complex challenges facing the community — difficulties in getting access to reproductive health care and abortions, for instance, or obstacles to voting access — that Biden could have mentioned to better showcase her understanding of Latinos.

“It would have been great to see her exhibit her understanding and knowledge of those issues,” Cabrera said.

The first lady is not the first political figure to veer awry when using food to try to relate to the Latino community. In 2016, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump tweeted out of photo of himself eating a taco bowl in honor of Cinco de Mayo.

“The best taco bowls are made in Trump Tower Grill,” Trump wrote at the time. “I love Hispanics!”

Mariana Alfaro and Emily Guskin contributed to this report.

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