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10 public figures who speak Spanish as a second language

Alejandro Navarro • Feb 27, 2024 • 7 minutes
Updated Feb 27, 2024
10 public figures who speak Spanish as a second language
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Most of the students who take up Spanish have a practical purpose. Some work in healthcare and want to communicate with their Spanish-speaking patients. Others have partners whose families speak Spanish only. There are those who want to travel and those who simply do it for personal enrichment. Learning a language can be rewarding and fulfilling, but sometimes challenging and a bit embarrassing. 

If conversation is your goal, you will need to practice, be patient and humble, and persevere. This is also how the Shaolin monks get good at martial arts, btw. 

We hear stories of people who got discouraged by an interaction with a coworker, a father-in-law, or a warp-speed dialogue in a movie. But if you manage your expectations and control your own narrative, increasingly complex conversations in Spanish can become part of your experience. 

You see, as a learner, you can set the tone. A simple Q+A exchange, a phrase like, “No hablo mucho, pero quiero practicar un poco” or a similar strategy to define your goal in having a conversation can help your audience be more sympathetic, patient, and welcoming of your Spanish. 

Think of it this way: you couldn’t go one one-on-one with Lebron James at the playground, but you could take turns shooting the rock and dropping some buckets, relaxedly. Same with Spanish, you wouldn’t go around explaining to abuela how her tostones could be thinner, but you could say how tasty they are and finish with “El mojo está delicioso!”

As a Spanish language instructor, part of my job is to adjust my tone and speed to the needs of my audience. As a speaker, whether having a conversation at a party, at a bar, or on the subway, my tone and speed will be determined naturally by the quality of the Spanish of the person talking to me. Lebron will bring his A-game if squaring off against Stephen Curry, for example. 

It is in this light that we’d like to rate the Spanish skills of some public figures such as politicians, athletes, and actors (and some parodies of them as well) and add a bit about whether your correspondent would find it worthwhile to have a conversation with them in Spanish or no gracias.

Viggo Mortensen

Viggo Mortensen is so cool that he left Hollywood behind, sort of. It would take a bit of mind reading, but it seems like the man who played Lalín in Carlito’s Way and Aragorn in Lord of the Rings now chooses only roles that are interesting to him. Some of these, like the thriller Everybody Has a Plan happen to be in Spanish, where he pulls off flawless acting with his talent and his porteño accent. As a matter of fact, he plays twin brothers. Viggo lived in Argentina until the age of eleven. 

¿Hablamos? Sí, gracias. Viggo would probably get bored talking to yours truly, as he’s interesting enough to own his own publishing company and has worked with the likes of David Cronenberg, but he has native fluency, a passion for soccer, and probably lots of stories about Hollywood. Dos copas de vino tinto y una porción de empanadas, por favor.

Ted Cruz

Ted Cruz seems to be able to put two words together, but very quickly transitions to English. He seems to lack confidence in his skills and probably tries to connect with voters around other issues. Even when visiting Latino communities or talking to Univisión he seems uncomfortable using his Spanish. In some ways it’s understandable. Politicians are under intense scrutiny. Everything they say can be used against them. Sometimes politicians are disliked when they speak their own native language. Why risk it in one they’re not comfortable in? 

¿Hablamos? No gracias. We wouldn’t want Ted to feel uncomfortable. 

Beto O’Rourke & Cory Booker

These two tried some Spanish sound bites in a debate a few years ago. They are a good example of setting the tone by making limited, controlled statements. They are not trying to dunk on Lebron, they’re just making free throws. Their skills are probably better than what these sentences convey and they get credit for trying. They could probably explain issues in the present tense and suggest some solutions using modal verbs (tener que, deber, necesitar) but most likely they wouldn’t be able to get deep into the issues by using the subjunctive or conditionals. 

¿Hablamos? Eh, sí, pero no tengo mucho tiempo. Tengo que lavar mi ropa y organizar mis libros. 


Bendito! She can explain her limitations and fears about speaking Spanish in Spanish and she does it with a Puerto Rican accent. In this TikTok video Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tells her audience about feeling insecure when discussing policy and legislation with Spanish-speaking media. This makes sense and as she explains, there is a lot of specialized vocabulary that isn’t easy to learn or translate. She could easily visit communities, talk to voters, and get feedback in Spanish. 

¿Hablamos? Con gusto! Ideally sitting down with some coquito, mofongo, and sofrito. 

Michael Bloomberg

As you can understand, Spanish can be a strong asset for a New York politician, and in a field as competitive as Nueva Yol, politicians try. Before getting elected as the hizzoner, Michael Bloomberg was known to be a technocrat, a hard worker, and a very intelligent businessman. In order to connect with Spanish speakers in his city, Bloomberg started studying Spanish, but as you can tell in this video about Hurricane Sandy there’s something off when not even his pronunciation while reading is accurate.

Obviously, his speech read mantengan not mentagan informados. Bloomberg’s Spanish, however, gave us this Fred Armisen impersonation in Saturday Night Live. We are sharing the video at the start of the parody, but the whole thing is worth watching. 

Hablamos. En inglés, por favor. 

Gwyneth Paltrow

¿Apartamentos gigantescos? ¿Vacaciones en Aspen? ¿Cosméticos y cremas de lujo? Gwyneth could tell you all about them in a very convincing Spanish accent. As she explains in this video, with a slight error in p. perfecto vs imperfecto, she spent some time in Spain and adores the language and the culture. 

¿Hablamos? Bueno, no tenemos muchas cosas en común, but sure, maybe we can talk about movies, Viggo or Spain, but hopefully not about Ted, Beto or Cory. 

Marco Rubio

He kind of looks like the guy who did nothing but study from the first day of kindergarten to the last day of high school, and beyond. He always had his homework ready, his shirt was always tucked in and he never got into trouble. Politics aside, your correspondent is not likely to be friends with such types. In terms of language skills, Senator Rubio is impressive. His accent, pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary are nearly perfect. In this clip, which is the only short one we could find, Rubio was actually funny and we can hear his Spanish. All the other ones were about the budget or immigration and almost twenty minutes long. 

¿Hablamos? Well, he traded barbs with Ted Cruz at a debate, and called him out on being kind of bad at Spanish. He probably has some good tea on the Texas Senator and even if he overheard us, he probably wouldn’t understand everythingDos Mojitos, por favor. 

Dan Crenshaw

This House Representative from Texas graduated from Colegio Nueva Granada, a spiffy private school in Bogotá, Colombia. His Spanish is very impressive, and his life story is interesting, to say the least. In this video he talks about foreign policy and other issues connected to Latin America with a journalist who (your correspondent is almost certain) attended his same school. 

¿Hablamos? He probably has some crazy stories about his high school days in Bogotá, let alone his time in the military. Colombian gossip sounds less harrowing. Cuente algo, chino. This, btw, is how you egg your friends on to spill the tea if you are in Bogotá. 

Nate McLouth

Ok, Nate McLouth is not a household name. From this video we know he’s a ballplayer, and a quick search reveals he’s from Minnesota, a fact that is confirmed by his looks.

Alex Rodriguez, a much more famous and accomplished player than McLouth, once said he was más dominicano que el plátano, or more Dominican than plantain. Granted, in this interview A-Rod is talking about steroids, expressing his regretas and he sounds gloomy and contrite. But if we are going to compare Dominican accents and diction, it is McLouth who knocks it out of the park. 

¿Hablamos? Claro, dos cervezas Presidente, tostones y conversación. 


Remember, you can set the tone for your practice conversations outside of the classroom setting. Take the lead in asking questions. Try not to panic and default to English. Use the old reliable, No entiendo, but follow it up with ¿Puede repetirlo? Estoy aprendiendo. Share a few things about yourself. Have fun and remember growth happens outside of your comfort zone. Out of these peeps, who would you like to talk to? And whom would you avoid?  

Alejandro Navarro
Alejandro Navarro

Alejandro Navarro is a former Spanish language instructor at Berges Institute.

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