Commentary: Sorry, Jill Biden, but Latinos want more than your praise of breakfast tacos

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FILE - First lady Jill Biden waves as she speaks during a tour of a health facility, July 1, 2022, in Richmond, Va. Jill Biden is apologizing for saying Latinos are "as unique" as San Antonio breakfast tacos. Through a spokesperson, the first lady apologized Tuesday for "words that conveyed anything but pure admiration and love for the Latino community." Jill Biden was in San Antonio on Monday to address the annual conference of UnidosUS, a Latino civil rights and advocacy group. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)
First Lady Jill Biden, shown during a health facility tour in Richmond, Va., on July 1, apologized this week for comparing Latinos to San Antonio breakfast tacos. (Steve Helber / Associated Press)

I don’t think I’ve ever had a breakfast taco.

I’ve had all kinds of tacos — fish, beef, chicken, among other savory fillings — but never ones as unique as the San Antonio breakfast tacos that First Lady Jill Biden alluded to Monday while speaking at the annual conference of Latino civil rights group UnidosUS.

The first lady, attempting to praise the Latino community’s diversity in America, said we’re “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.” She also mispronounced bodegas, New York City’s famed local grocery stores, and later apologized for the whole debacle. The gaffe was as cringe-worthy as when her husband played the Spanish-language pop song "Despacito" at a Florida campaign appearance.

As a Latino, I’m not angry that the first lady compared me to a breakfast taco. I’m more upset that she hasn’t pushed for a proposal such as "Medicare for All" — and that she thinks Latinos would rather hear platitudes about “admiration and love” than support for the policies we actually need.

I want elected officials who think boldly and critically about what Latinos want, and polling shows there’s a slew of policies Jill Biden and her husband could be pushing for.

Take Medicare for All, the ambitious proposal to create a single-payer healthcare system that progressives have called on the Biden administration to support (they haven’t). Polls show 55% of all Americans back the concept, and roughly 7 in 10 think a public health insurance option is a good idea.

Latino voters have repeatedly said healthcare should be a top priority for politicians. That’s hardly a surprise when Latinos are less likely than both white and Black Americans to be insured, with roughly half saying that limited access to quality medical care is a major reason for worse health outcomes.

Democrats have struggled with messaging since the 2020 presidential election, when Latinos made a less impressive showing than some Democrats hoped for. Latino men, in particular, turned out in higher numbers for Trump compared to the 2016 election. It’s true that Latinos aren’t a monolith, and that they’re driven by a diverse set of concerns, including the economy, immigration, COVID-19 and, of course, healthcare. These issues were, to varying degrees, the reason Trump made strides among our community, according to some scholars.

Trump spoke to economic frustrations and emphasized his desire to grow the economy and find jobs, messaging that may have moved Latinos in places such as South Texas, which is stricken by high rates of poverty and was hit hard by COVID-19. In the counties near the Texas-Mexico border, Joe Biden won by 17% in 2020 compared with Hillary Clinton’s 33-point margin in 2016. Nationally, Trump earned 28% of Latino votes in 2016 and approximately 32% in 2020.

But I think this shows why Democrats can’t try to placate Latino voters with platitudes and flimsy taco praise. Democrats need to be far more attuned to the economic and social policies that Latinos have said they care about. That's one reason Bernie Sanders, the self-proclaimed democratic socialist, gained favor among Latinos, who turned the tide in his favor during key primaries. Sanders got 53% of Latino voters in Nevada; 49% in California and 39% in Texas. He addressed the everyday economic issues that affect many Latinos and earned their trust.

"He has a lot of credit in the Latino community because he’s honest and he doesn’t pretend to be something he’s not," Belén Sisa, Sanders' former deputy press secretary, said in a 2020 interview with Jacobin. "He’s not going to throw out a few phrases in Spanish and assume that’s enough for you to feel that you can trust him."

Jill Biden was probably well-intentioned in her remarks at the San Antonio conference. I'm sure breakfast tacos are unique and delicious. But instead of hearing truisms about our community, Dr. Biden could make a bigger impact by declaring her support for the legislation we desperately need.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.