Latinos Gaining Clout — Numbers Matter


Editor’s Note: We are glad to announce that the Hartford Courant is now teaming up with to feature our local op-eds. Our special thanks to Carolyn Lumsden, Editorial Page Director at the Hartford Courant.  This opinion article is the first published this past Sunday by the Hartford Courant and is based on a news story that first appeared in  
By Diane Alverio and Wayne Jebian
State Rep. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown, with his fair skin, brown hair and blue eyes, does not “look Latino” in the stereotypical way and his last name is not Spanish. Last month, when Lesser asked to join the General Assembly’s Black and Latino Caucus, there was some quiet head scratching in some corners of the state Capitol. As it turns out, Lesser’s mother came from Argentina.
State Sen. Art Linares, R-Westbrook, has a Cuban father and, as the recipient of his father’s name and some telltale genetic features, his “Latino-ness” preceded him. As the freshman senator met some of his fellow Latino lawmakers for the first time in January, he asked, “How do I join the caucus?” and was told, “You’re already in it.”
Even the “Latino-ness” of new pope of the Catholic church has not escaped questions in certain circles. Some wonder if the Argentinean son of Italian immigrants was a convenient choice to boost the loyalty of the church’s significantly large Latino members, yet still be viewed by the Roman church as European.
The question of who is a Latino is being scrutinized more closely than ever in many arenas, due to the emerging Latino social, economic and political muscle across the country.
On one side of the argument, some Latinos view those who have newly discovered their roots as opportunists. On the other side, there is a sense that the larger the numbers, the better. Yet others say, why waste time on this topic, when so many pressing issues face Latinos and the country?
Does it matter?
Actually, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, the question of who counts as Latino matters quite a bit. Census population estimates are the major source of demographic data and the basis for distributing billions of dollars in federal funds.
Combine this with the political clout that was demonstrated in the last presidential election cycle as well as the economic consumer power that is driven by numbers, and the question of who counts as Latino should be everyone’s concern.
So what makes someone more Latino than another person? Is it because of a father’s or husband’s name? Where they were born? Or once you’re a second- or third-generation Latino, what defines how Latino you are? Do you have to speak Spanish? Who should count?
The U.S. Census Bureau is grappling with updating an official government definition. It currently counts Latinos by self-identification, a method that means, if Lesser had not filled in the box on his census form, the U.S. might be short one Latino. But the census wants to change the system to exclude the Hispanic box, and have people self-identify by race, a proposal that must be fought vigorously by Latinos, who have been waiting patiently on the sidelines to finally get a seat at the table.
In Connecticut, the General Statutes’ definition is quite general in determining who is a Latino. But the Connecticut secretary of the state’s office uses only easily recognizable traditional last names to identify Latino voters — a faulty system that raises more questions than it settles.
Consider two former University of Connecticut basketball players, Rebecca Lobo and Diana Taurasi. Taurasi’s parents grew up in Argentina before coming to the United States. Her father was born in Italy, so the family has an Italian name. Lobo, on the other hand, has a Cuban/Polish father and a German/Irish mother. Hairsplitters could argue that Taurasi is more Latina than Lobo, but it is Lobo who would be counted among the Latino/Hispanic population when determined by last names.
The debate is complex.
That’s because the term “Latino” was invented by academics and emerged post-World War II as a method to examine regions of the world. The intelligence and foreign service communities were seeking to understand Central and South American countries and their cultures for political purposes. Puerto Rico, as a U.S. protectorate, was not included under this definition of Latino.
So, under this academic definition of who is Latino, Connecticut’s first Puerto Rican born Supreme Court justice, Carmen Espinosa, would be excluded. She would not be considered a Latina, even though many surely consider her more Latina than Lobo.
Without a doubt, the question of who is really a Latino, or even the right word to use for this group, brings never-ending viewpoints from Latinos and non-Latinos alike. Although some might think it’s a matter of semantics or just a good philosophical discussion, think again. It’s a matter of power and influence.