A “Lesser” Latino? The Question of Who Counts

State Rep, Matthew Lesser is a Latino, but you may not know it to look at him.
State Rep. Matthew Lesser – Is he Latino?

By 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 Black & 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.”
The question of who is a Latino is one the U.S. Census is grappling with. Currently, part of how the census counts Latinos is by self-identification, a method that would include Lesser, but since census officials know they can’t count every head, they factor into overall census figures an estimate based on the percentage of Spanish last names in a population pool. Had Lesser never filled in his census form, the U.S. might be short one Latino.
The Census is proposing in a controversial step to change its questions on ethnicity about Hispanics (it doesn’t use the word Latino) to now be one of race. Since 2000, people have been able to mark one or more race, but only one Hispanic ethnicity.
But it’s clear the question of who is a Latino will also be debated on many other levels. What makes someone “more” Latino than another person? It is because of a father’s or husband’s name? Where they were born? And why does this matter?
Actually, according to the Pew Hispanic Center it matters quite a bit. “The accuracy of these census population estimates is important not only because they are the major source of basic demographic data in the years between census counts, but also because they are the basis for distributing billions of dollars in federal funds during those years.”
Combine this with the political clout that was demonstrated in this last Presidential election cycle as well as the economic consumer power that is driven by numbers and the question of who counts as Latino is everyone’s concern.
In Connecticut, what can be considered one official definition for a Latino can be found in the CT General Statutes. Its definition is “Hispanic Americans is … all persons of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American, or other Spanish culture or origin, regardless of race.” People with origins in the Iberian Peninsula, including Portugal, are considered minorities but not Hispanic by the state’s legal definition.
The Connecticut Secretary of State’s Office, however, uses easily recognizable traditional last names to identify Latino voters: a system that might raise more questions than it settles. Consider two former UConn basketball players, Rebecca Lobo and Diana Taurasi. Taurasi has two parents who grew up in Argentina before coming to the United States. Her father was born in Italy, so now the family has an Italian name.
Lobo, on the other hand, has a Cuban/Polish father and a German/Irish mother. Hair-splitters could argue that Taurasi is “more” Latina than Lobo, but it is Lobo who would be counted among the Latino/Hispanic population in census estimates. Meanwhile, both have a perfectly sound case to self-identify as Latina. Lobo’s brother, Jason, is a member of the Connecticut Hispanic Bar Association and a recently announced nominee to the Connecticut Superior Court.
And if you want to become even more technical on the usage of terms, Appeals Court Judge Carmen Espinosa, appointee to the State Supreme Court, was born in Puerto Rico. Some might consider Judge Espinosa “more” Latino than Lobo, while the census would call them equally Latino.
However, official academic definitions of Latino would exclude Espinosa. As unlikely as this sounds, it holds water because the very term, “Latino” was invented by academics.
“Latino is a word that emerged post World War II as a part of area studies,” said Charles Venator-Santiago, assistant professor of Political Science at UConn. “The intelligence and foreign service communities needed a way to study and understand Central and South American countries and their cultures for political purposes. Puerto Rico, as a U.S. protectorate, was not under this definition.”
Dr. Venator-Santiago says that by the same token, many people who came to the United States from Mexico or South America, and went through the immigration process, view the Puerto Rican experience as different enough to put them in a different category. This is where personal and official definitions tend to part ways.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary restricts “Latino” to Latin America, which excludes Portugal, Brazil, and Spain.
Do the Spaniards agree with this definition? “Latino is a term which refers to people from Spanish-speaking South America, or to cultural traits from that area, such as ‘musica latina’,” confirmed Dr. Francisco Linares, associate professor of sociology at the Universidad de La Laguna in Tenrife, in the Spanish Canary Islands. “If I went abroad I would never refer myself as ‘Latino’, I’d always say ‘I am Spanish’ or ‘I am from Spain’. Nevertheless, Spaniards may speak about themselves as ‘Latinos’, especially when talking about some cultural aspect influenced by Latino Americans.”
The term Latino has evolved over the years and is still used interchangeably with the term Hispanic in this country and generally, the use of the two terms is a matter of regional and personal preference in terms of self-identification. As the Latinos in the U.S. have increased in numbers, many have adopted the term as a kind of solidarity with anyone of Spanish-speaking origin and an “otherness” in relation to an Anglo cultural mainstream in the United States. “I think that the Latino community is happy to include anyone who feels that they’ve grown up in an environment where they’ve cherished Latino values,” said Senator Linares. “For me, that’s the case.”
Still, individuals often do a gut check about whether they feel “Latino enough” to self-identify. “In the last Census, I chose to identify myself as a Latino,” said Rep. Lesser, who still doesn’t know if he’s in the Black & Latino caucus, “but my experience seems different from many Latinos. As a man with fair skin and blue eyes who was born in this country, I have never had to fight the baggage of racial discrimination on the basis of Indian or African ancestry. For that reason, when asked on job and college applications, I have never identified myself as Latino.”
Marie (Virella) Basche, director of the Academic Success Center at Capital Community College, cited other complicating factors, asking, “Once you are second or third generation Latino, who defines how Latino you are? Does it have to be that you speak Spanish?”
When asked, most Latinos subscribe to a very expansive definition, caring less for the academic origins of the term, or even census definitions, focusing instead on the root, “Latin.” Taking this interpretation to a liberal extreme, Cuban-American artist Humberto Castro-Cruz said, “The real definition wasn’t created by the American [government}. Latinos are the people that come from the Roman Empire. So Latinos, by the language, are the people who speak the five Roman languages: Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian and Romanian. All of us are Latinos. So the concept of Latinos that we have in the United States are mostly the people who come from Latin America, but Italians, and Italian-Americans are Latinos.”
The question of who is really a Latino brings never ending viewpoints from Latinos and non-Latinos alike. CTLatinoNews.com asked Lillian Martinez, professor of psychology at Hartford’s Capital Community College. Martinez tried her best not to commit to an answer, but did say, “I’m not crazy about that ‘o’ at the end.” Yet another twist.
So what is the definition? The Census thinks it will have the answer to that question in the next five years. Stay tuned.


14 thoughts on “A “Lesser” Latino? The Question of Who Counts

  1. Great article! Enjoyed reading it. Which also brings to mind, why people here say “I am Spanish” . I would never say that because I am not from Spain. However I do speak Spanish and I was born in Latin America which makes me a Latino by the CT General Statute. People from Spain are Spanish/Spaniards and are Europeans.
    Its like if Americans would call themselves “English” ; it is not correct. The English are from Great Britain. By ignorance we keep perpetuating that we are Spanish when in fact we are not dancing Flamenco but Salsa.
    We are Latinos/Hispanics term used for the people that developed from the mix of the European invasion into the New World. So when you come from the “New World” which is Latin America, Central America and those countries in the Caribbean that speak the Spanish language then you are a Latino/Hispanic.
    If Rep. Lesser wants to be a “Latino” now (remember he has never identified himself as such until now) he should start leaving his check-mark on the census box marked Latino/Hispanic; start learning about his history and make an awesome Argentinian Parrillada for the members of the Black & Latino Caucus to show them that not all Latinos eat tacos and arroz con gandules.

  2. Diana.. Great articule! …Something to think about!…but does it really matter for us!?
    Are we falling into the pharasaic trap?…are we Splitting hairs?…the more the public percieives us as divided.. the safer the establishment will feel!
    Where I come from..race or color never really mattered…the character of the person was more important..but like everything else…we are also a proud people.. we have strong values..but we can predudice as well…but for the wrong reasons.
    I remember, years ago when the argument was…”I’m more Puerto Rican then you!”
    What makes us think this way? there is no such thing about being more Latino or less Latino!

  3. My great grandfather Luis Rivera Llera was born, lived and died in Puerto Rico long before the non Hispanic population and the uneducated Hispanic population of the U.S. decided that fair skin and blue eyes was not looking Hispanic. Luis had fair skin and blue eyes. And I have them too. It seems to me that our country needs to wake up and smell the Coffee. Latino is NOT a specific look!

  4. Interestingly, Capital Community College is holding a forum today called “Black in Latin America”, which deals with the flipside of the previous writer’s point.

  5. Has anyone noticed that this caucus routinely changes its name depending on the make-up of its members? They started out as the Black & Puerto Rican Caucus, then when Rep. Reinoso (who is Peruvian) was elected they changed “Puerto Rican” to “Latino.” Then when he decided not to run for re-election they changed their name back to “Puerto Rican.” Now that Sen. Linares (who is Cuban) has been elected, it appears that they’ve gone back to “Latino.”

  6. My grandmother was born in Germany, but her ancestors many generations back came from Spain. They Germanicized the surname Ruiz to Rüez [pronounced somewhat like “roo-ets”]. My great-grandfather had distinctive, Spanish-looking eyes, which my father inherited. His uncle emigrated to Texas—and the locals kept calling him Ruiz, which he constantly corrected. But I look more like my Irish mother. Yet here’s an interesting take on our obsession with race and ethnicity: I once knew a woman who grew up in London, England. She didn’t even know that she was “black”—until she moved to the US and very quickly discovered that’s what she was—and that that identity was to be front and center at all times.

  7. In Connecticut, what can be considered one official definition for a Latino can be found in the CT General Statutes. Its definition is “Hispanic Americans is … all persons of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American, or other Spanish culture or origin, regardless of race.” People with origins in the Iberian Peninsula, including Portugal, are considered minorities but not Hispanic by the state’s legal definition.
    So what does the state consider Afro-Latinos to be.

  8. Afro-Latinos would fall under the census bureau definition which ends with, “regardless of race.” Another of my great grandfathers was what Puerto Ricans call “muy negro”.

  9. Muchas gracias por tomar el tiempo de escribir sobre si contamos o no, y quien es el verdadero Latino. Me pregunto, cual es el proposito de este tema? Es confuso. Todos sabemos quienes somos y de donde venimos. El representante Lesser conoce y siente sus raices, y sabe como el desea indentificarse, el cual no parece que se identifique como Hispano, pero de la manera que sea esta haciendo una diferencia para la comunidad en su area. Lillian Martinez, dice que no esta convencida sobre la “o” en Latino, pero esta publicacion se llama CT Latin”o” News. En resumen, existen muchisimas variaciones y preocupaciones sobre el tema, pero la realidad es que la verdadera comunidad Latina/Hispana no esta viviendo estas preocupaciones, si no otras mas importantes en la vida diaria, como lograr las metas de obtener mejores oportunidades para sus familias. Se necesita un enfoque diferente cuando se toca este tema. Muchas gracias.

  10. the minute we ACCEPT that our Latin@/Hispanic/Spanish communities have VERY diverse hues, highlights and histories (that ultimately unite us), we won’t have to ask the question.

  11. Long before the Spanish set sail to the the America’s many of them left for the British Isles. Would not the Black Irish, the Black Scots, the Black Welsh, the Black Cornish, the Black Bretons also be Latins? Do not forget that among the Spanish and Portugese today exist those that have lived in the Iberian Peninsula for over two thousand years that speak Spanish as a second language.

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