How do you say “gerrymandering” in Spanish?

Pilar Marrero | Ethnic Media Services
Photo Credit: Elliott Stallion / Unsplash

There are terms that are hard to translate and concepts that are foreign, even if you can find a word in another language to say them. If not, just ask Miguel Rivera, from the Texas Civil Rights Project.

One day, Rivera tried to explain to his parents what he does for a living. His formal title is “redistricting expert” for the organization. That title itself is hard to translate: What average person really knows what that’s all about? Many wouldn’t know how to explain it in English or Spanish or any other language.

“When I talked about this with my parents, I realized how disconnected they were from this process,” Rivera said. “We are in Texas. If we want to activate the Latino community to participate in an issue that is vital to their well-being, we have to agree on the terms we use to explain it.”

The truth is that many people don’t even know what it means in English.

What is this all about?

Every ten years, after the decennial census, all levels of government – federal, state and local–redraw the political boundaries for each jurisdiction that elects representatives in a process called redistricting.   Depending on where you live, you will be part of one district or another, and that will determine what candidates you get to vote for to represent you: congress people, state legislators, county supervisors, city councilmembers, school board members, etc.

If you are in the same district with others who have similar interests, then your issues will be addressed. If you are not, they won´t.

It sounds simple enough, but it is a process that can define what communities get government attention and what ones do not over a ten-year term. Let’s say it’s as important a process as voting in elections, and much less understood. As in elections, it is also necessary to participate in order to defend the resources and voices of underserved communities over the next decade.

There are terms that experts agree on: Redistricting and Gerrymandering are the most important.

These are a constant headache for journalists in Spanish-language media and for experts and activists like Rivera, who knows how important these concepts are for the political power and well-being of the Latino community in Texas and the rest of the country.

How to translate these words into other languages so that they can be understood by other communities in the United States?

The first challenge for Rivera, he explained, was to translate the basic concept of redistricting. In Spanish, the word redistricting is “redistribución” — but it’s not very helpful in explaining we’re talking about here.

“In order to run an effective campaign that explains to Latino communities in Texas why they need to participate in this redistricting process, we have to agree on the words we will use,” Rivera said.

Organizations such as La Union del Pueblo Entero (LUPE) in Texas have been using “re-design” which seems simpler than “redistricting.”

Then comes an even more “curious” word: Gerrymandering.

“Gerrymandering,” which some want to “Hispanicize” by changing the pronunciation to something sounds like “jerrymanderin,” is manipulating election lines to include or exclude certain groups within a district or to divide certain communities that have common interests, or share the same ethnicity or race, to prevent them from having the power to elect a representative.

This is what sometimes makes an electoral district so oddly shaped and includes under the same representative wealthy communities in Santa Monica, California with poor areas of South Los Angeles, to give an example.

The problem is that the word “Gerrymandering,” invented in English to explain this concept, does not exist in other languages, Rivera said.

“We ended up agreeing that “manipulation of districts” is the best we have, although I think the meaning is not as strong as it should be to reflect how harmful that practice is,” he said. “They basically gerrymander district lines to ensure that certain politicians preserve their seats, or certain parties, and almost always the ones who lose are the racial minority communities.”

The problem is not just with the Spanish language. “It also happens with Asian languages,” Rivera added. “We work with other organizations in the Chinese community, and it has been very difficult to translate these terms and concepts in Mandarin.”

It’s work that needs to be done, Rivera says. He calls it “language justice.”