Would Sotomayor really be the first Supreme Court Latino?

Reporting from Chicago — When President Obama nominated federal Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court, ethnic advocacy groups praised the selection of the first Latino to the nation’s highest court.

Yet some political opponents, such as Republican strategist Karl Rove, sought to downplay the nomination’s significance by pointing out that Benjamin N. Cardozo, who served on the Supreme Court in the 1930s, was born to parents who claimed Portuguese descent. So did that make him the first Latino?

 
  • Sotomayor's story

The question since has been hotly debated in the blogs and other media. Then on Thursday, the Pew Hispanic Center issued a report that said Sotomayor, whose parents were Puerto Rican, is indeed the first Latino Supreme Court nominee. But the authors added that the category depends on how people define themselves, meaning that Cardozo might argue differently were he still alive.

If that sounds confusing, consider the fact that “Hispanic” is a word made up by federal bureaucrats preparing for the 1980 U.S. census, in an attempt to categorize what was becoming an increasingly diverse population of residents with roots in “Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico” and other Spanish-speaking places, according to the Pew report.

Jeffrey Passel, a senior researcher who co-wrote the study, said that initial efforts to define who might fit into such a category faltered.

“People didn’t really know what the word meant . . . and that seemed to be true of Hispanics and non-Hispanics,” he said.

By the mid-1980s, however, the term was used widely enough to make it into the Oxford English Dictionary, which partly defines it as “pertaining to Spain or its people.” The first definition in Webster’s New World is “Spanish or Spanish-and-Portuguese,” adding force to the argument that Cardozo was Hispanic.

In fact, 12% of America’s small Portuguese population and about 15% of Brazilian immigrants identified themselves as “Hispanic” in the 1980 census. Those responses dropped to 1% and 4% in 2007, Passel said.

In the 1980s, a decade in which U.S. involvement in Latin America’s civil wars fanned historical resentment over imperialism and the Spanish conquest, the term “Hispanic” was rejected by activists who preferred to call themselves “Latino.” That word “has much more, in its roots, the indigenous connotation as well as the Spanish connotation of the people from Latin America,” said Sylvia Puente, executive director of the Latino Policy Forum.

The term was coined in Chicago, Puente said. Although initially used mainly on the East Coast, it gained enough traction elsewhere in the country during the 1990s to be included along with “Hispanic” in 2000 census questions.

But, because the Census Bureau does not confirm respondents’ heritage, anyone can say they’re Hispanic/Latino.

“It really depends on how you feel about yourself,” said Angelo Falcon, president of the National Institute for Latino Policy in New York.

And that brings the issue back to Cardozo. When he was confirmed to the Supreme Court in 1932, the New York-born justice was embraced by the Jewish community there as a son of Sephardic Jews, which is how his parents identified themselves.

Today, he might have recognized the political advantages of identifying himself with the nation’s fastest-growing demographic group, Passel said.

“We don’t know because he’s not alive to tell us,” he said.

Nelson de Castro, the Portuguese consul general in Chicago, said that “in the context of the United States,” most descendants of Portuguese immigrants “see themselves as Hispanic.”

But he said the Portuguese in general might see it differently.

“First and foremost,” he said, “the Portuguese identify themselves as European.”

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