Hispanic identity has no easy definition

Peggy Orchowski is the congressional correspondent for Hispanic Outlook magazine and author of “Immigration and the American Dream: Battling the Political Hype and Hysteria.”

After living in Latin America and covering Latinos for years as a journalist, one thing is clear. No one really knows who exactly is a Latino, an Hispanic, a member of “La Raza” or even a Chicano. But ever since President Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor as a Supreme Court justice, the media has gone wild with the mantra “the first Hispanic justice.” Oh, really?

Benjamin Cordoza was a Supreme Court justice in 1932. His name, Cordoza, is a familiar Spanish, Hispanic, Latino, Chicano name. By the U.S. Census definition today, he was Hispanic.

But it’s complicated — as complicated as the multicultural, diverse people who are citizens of the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean today. You see, Benjamin Cordoza was Jewish. Does that make him not Latino? Born in New York City (as was Sotomayor), his family came from the Iberian Peninsula. His ancestors fled the Inquisition there and may have been Portuguese. Does that disqualify him as a Hispanic? Some say Portuguese are not Latinos.

Spaniards are not considered by Latino advocates to be Latinos; Italians are not either. Activists usually define Latinos as those who come from Central and South America. Sotomayor’s family is from Puerto Rico and some say that Caribbeans are not Latino. In addition, neither Cardoza or Sotomayor were immigrants — Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens and don’t need immigration visas. Are they still considered to be Hispanic or Latino in the political sense?

This is the problem with U.S. identity politics. Ethnic identity is used to fit a political agenda, not a reality.

Central and South Americans don’t bother with the nomenclature “Latino” or “Hispanic.” In the democracies of Latin America there have been presidents not only with Spanish, Portuguese and indigenous heritage, but also with English last names (Fox), Arab (Menem) and Asian (Fujimori).

During World War II, South America was extremely open to Jewish immigrants — far more than the U.S.A. Millions of Jewish refugees from Europe and the Middle East settled and thrived there; generations of their children are now fully integrated South American citizens.

“It’s time for Latinos to make their top priority integration into the American mainstream,” writes Frank Cisneros in his book “Latinos and the Future of the Nation.” The key to such integration is dominating English and completing a high school and college education. Dozens of organizations such as Excelencia for Education are dedicated to helping youths of Latino heritage achieve this success. Sotomayor is a role model.

The U.S. is enriched by the multiple national heritages of our citizens. Like most New World countries, the U.S. is a nation of immigrants. But our success is largely due to integrating these mixed heritages.

Some Mexican advocacy groups who recognize the importance of integration call themselves “American Mexicans.” That’s a good idea. But it’s too complicated for most. I for one am a proud quadra-lingual American/Californian with a Colonial/Tory/New England/Texas/English/Austrian/Dutch/Protestant/Catholic/Jewish/Mormon heritage. Many so-called Latinos have similarly mixed heritages that frame our world views. The only identity that makes sense is “American.”


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