The generic Latino

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President Obama’s nomination of Sonia Sotomayor for Supreme Court justice has been widely hailed as a triumph for Latinos. But it could just as likely spell the end of the very idea that there is such a thing as Latino America at all.

News accounts suggest that Latinos at large are thrilled with her nomination, and there’s no doubt that there are many -- particularly among the political elites -- who are. But if you dig deeper into the rather loosely knit nature of American Latino “identity,” you’re likely to find a more nuanced view on what this nomination may mean to the roughly 50 million people in the United States of Latin American descent.

“Latino” or “Hispanic” are generic terms that are used to lump a variety of national origin groups into one category. They’re used a lot, especially in the media. But their popularity notwithstanding, generic Latino-ness doesn’t trump national origin for most people who, to some degree or another, fit the category. In other words, a person of Peruvian ancestry is likely to see himself as a Peruvian American first and as a Latino second. His links to the culture, stories and food of his or her family’s country of origin tend to be stronger than those that tie him to Latinos of different national origins. Think of the distinction between being French or being European. The former is more deeply lived and felt than the latter.


A 2002 Pew Hispanic Center survey found that, when asked what terms they would use first to describe themselves, “Hispanics were much more likely to identify themselves by country of origin than as a ‘Latino/Hispanic.’ ” Likewise, “when asked whether Latinos from different countries have separate and distinct cultures or share one Hispanic or Latino culture, respondents overwhelmingly (85%) say Latinos from different countries had different cultures, and only 14% say Latinos share one Hispanic/Latino culture.” Latino unity was also elusive when politics was brought into the mix. When the Pew Center asked whether Latinos from different countries work together politically, 43% said yes but 49% said no.

It was only in the early 1970s that Mexican American activists on the West Coast and Puerto Ricans in the East sought to join forces to create a national Latino identity for political purposes. In 1975, politicians founded the National Assn. of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO). A year later, four Democratic members of the House of Representatives from Texas, California and New York joined with the resident commissioner-elect of Puerto Rico to form a Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Despite the differences between conservative, rural Mexican American-dominated districts in Texas and urban Puerto Rican barrios in New York, caucus members sought to forge a common national Latino agenda.

Even then, it didn’t seem like a great idea to everyone. Some lawmakers found the term misleading but useful. Others saw it as a way for their groups to compete with the national category of African Americans for federal money. As one elected official put it: “Some people believe that Hispanics are a political force that has to be dealt with, that they’re a voting bloc, and that’s not necessarily true. But as long as we can give that impression and make them deal with us on that basis, hey, it’s politically wise for us to do it.”

Frank del Olmo, the Los Angeles Times columnist and associate editor, put it more squarely than most when he called the adoption of the catchall term “shortsighted” and “self-defeating.” Del Olmo was instrumental in establishing which term the newspaper would adopt -- “Latino” -- but he also argued, in these very pages, that because Mexican Americans made up 65% of all Latinos (compared with 10% Puerto Rican and 4% Cuban), the generic term was more advantageous to non-Mexicans than it was to Mexican Americans.

“The term Hispanic allowed other Latinos to use a large and growing Mexican American population to increase their influence,” he wrote. “Add up all the Cubans and Puerto Ricans on the East Coast, for instance, and they are still outnumbered by all the Mexicans in the Los Angeles area alone.”

When Obama named Sotomayor on Tuesday, the headlines made use of the generic shorthand, trumpeting her as the first Latina or the first Hispanic nominee, and fitting her into a long tradition of Supreme Court nominees that signal the acceptance and achievements of minorities and women in the U.S. As political scientist John R. Schmidhauser wrote as far back as 1959, “The pattern of judicial selection has tacitly recognized the coming of age politically of many, but not all, of the ethnic and religious groups in America.”


That this was specifically on presidents’ minds is born out by 20th century history. In 1956, Dwight D. Eisenhower wanted to appoint a Catholic for political reasons when he named William J. Brennan Jr. Since 1916, there has been a “Jewish seat” on the bench. When Thurgood Marshall, the first black justice, resigned in 1991, President George H.W. Bush made a point to select another African American jurist. When Ronald Reagan appointed Sandra Day O’Connor in 1981, he was upholding a campaign promise to name a woman to the court. In 1986, Reagan and members of Congress saw the selection of Antonin Scalia as a way of reaching out to Italian Americans.

But as historic as Sotomayor’s nomination is, how well does it do that kind of outreach work? If most Latinos see themselves first as Mexican American or Cuban American or Dominican American, does the singling out of a Puerto Rican really indicate that their group has “come of age” politically in the United States?

I know just as many Mexican Americans who were moved by the nomination of a Puerto Rican woman to the Supreme Court as those who were not. I suspect that many voters may be happy enough about Sotomayor’s achievement, but at the same time, they will realize that the elevation of a “Latina” goes only so far and not far enough. I suspect that they may even understand that Sotomayor’s nomination could come at Mexican Americans’ expense. Because the media and the political elites make no distinctions among Latino groups, Mexican Americans may find themselves waiting a very long time for one of their own to be nominated to the Supreme Court.

They may still decide that Frank del Olmo was right -- becoming generic Latino or Hispanic was self-defeating. Maybe it’s time to dump the catchall terms.