By Wayne Jebian CTLatinoNews.com
Should voters check more carefully about the ethnicity of a candidate for office? Or should they care less?
Those are just two of the many questions that Manuel A. “Manny” Santos has inspired residents of Meriden to ask in the wake of his election to Mayor of that city. According to local Democratic leaders, some voters have expressed dismay that they voted for Santos, a Republican, thinking he was a Puerto Rican candidate because of his name. Santos was born in Portugal and is now a naturalized U.S. citizen.
“I was surprised to find out he was not Puerto Rican,” said Mildred Torres-Ferguson, chair of the Meriden Town Democratic Committee.
“The Latino population in Meriden is mostly Puerto Rican,” said state representative Hilda Santiago, who asserted that because of the town’s demographics, people simply made assumptions about Santos’ identity without checking any further. Santiago also said she believed that Santos used this confusion to win the election.
“I never said I was a Latino candidate,” Santos wrote in an email to CTLatinoNews.com. “However, Face the State contacted me to discuss the resurgence of Republican Latinos, and as I have in past surveys identified myself ethnically closer to Latino then to white/Caucasian, I decided it best to be interviewed.”
Santos was referring to a recent Face the State segment on WFSB with host Dennis House, that has led some viewers to say the presentation of Santos as a Latino, was problematic, even dishonest. During the lead-in to the interview, the voice-over said, “A Latino Republican is now in charge,” clearly referring to Santos’ election as mayor. (Interview: http://www.wfsb.com/video?clipId=9899583&autostart=true)
During that interview, Santos stuck at first to local issues, like the business climate in Meriden. However, when House turned the discussion to Latinos in the Republican Party, Santos himself pointed out that “there’s actually quite a bit of a debate on that” referring to his status as a Latino, and whether being from Portugal actually counts. “It’s not considered a Latino country.”
But House continued, and said “I want to talk about the historic nature of your election. A Latino Republican. A lot of people say Latinos are supposed to be Democrats.”
Santos’ election is not groundbreaking. Other Portuguese-Americans have been voted into office in Connecticut. For instance, the parents of Representative Rosa Rebimbas of Naugatuck came from Portugal, and Rebimbas has been sitting as a Republican in the Connecticut General Assembly since 2009. House did not respond to an email from CTLatinoNews.com about the concerns expressed by our sources over his presentation of the issue.
Santos believes that the jury is still out on his Latino credentials, writing to CTLatinoNews.com, “Interestingly, some Portuguese members of Congress identify themselves as Hispanics.” On Face the State, he argued that Portuguese have a similar culture and worldview to those considered unambiguously Latino.
Last year, CTLatinoNews.com explored the question about who “counts”as Latino in an article (http://ctlatinonews.com/2013/02/26/a-lesser-latino-the-question-of-who-counts-2/) in which at least one interviewee defined Latino as inclusive of Portuguese-Americans. The article also pointed out that, ‘In Connecticut, however, 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’.
Others, like Santos, say the label “Hispanic” is accurate, even if Latino might not be. A distinction that is certain to be debated in different circles.
Representative Santiago thinks it is important for voters to be more informed about candidates’ backgrounds, and that making one false assumption about a person’s ethnicity has deeper implications. “Not all immigrant experiences are equal,” she said, asserting that nationally, Republicans are attempting to tap into the Latino vote by backing candidates with only tenuous connections to Latino roots.
Santos said that there is no such Republican plot in Connecticut. “The CTGOP has nothing to do with this,” he wrote. “There is no grand plan or strategy, as it relates to me. I have had no discussions with them regarding this.”
Still, Meriden’s top Puerto Rican politicians, all of them Democrats, say that even the possibility of voters being misled, intentionally or unintentionally, is worth paying attention to. “I have not heard Mayor Santos say that he is Latino,” said City Counselor Miguel Castro, “But there was a perception among the Latinos of Meriden that he is Latino when he is not. For us…it was concerning.”