We’ve heard a lot of updated terminology in politics and media since
the campaign of 2008 started a year and a half ago. President Obama has
been referred to as the first Black president or the first
African-American president, and these days mostly as a “post-racial”
president. Though we seem to be focusing on race more now as a society
than we have in a long time. We seem to be seeing the fabric of our
nation as a patchwork quilt now, with each contributing part clearly
delineated from others by where they came from and what they’re called.

In spite of great stories of triumph and achievement that ennoble us
as a nation where anything is possible for anyone, we seem to be
hearing about how separated we are into classes that either command
more wealth and power or demand more recognition and resources.

So in this focus on race and class and identity, the terms change, and we’re supposed to get them right.

Which is why I’m wondering what happened to the term ‘Hispanic’, and
why it all of a sudden morphed into ‘Latina’ (or Latino), and what the
actual difference is and why it must have mattered enough to get
everyone in politics and media to start talking that way when Judge
Sonia Sotomayor was emerging as the likely nominee to the Supreme Court.

Quick background…..years ago when I worked on a cover story for Crisis Magazine
on the influence of Latin (or Hispanic) American Catholics on the
Church in the U.S., this question intrigued me. I had some great
sources for that story, loved the subject so much I kept researching
and interviewing and wound up writing a story fully twice the length
the editors asked for (and got in a bit of trouble with one of them for
it). I could’ve written a book on the subject, so fascinating was the
rich history and migration and inculturation and influence of the
people. Along the way, I asked about the difference between ‘Hispanics’
and ‘Latinos’ as a group designation, because I wanted to get it right.
I got fuzzy answers, roughly referring to where people originated and
what their cultural background was. But “either is okay” was the bottom
line answer for the purposes of that story.

Not this story, apparently.

From the day the imminent announcement of Sotomayor bubbled up in
the press, it was all about a “Latina” judge. Until then, it was always
“Hispanic American” judges who made the news. This little piece by a pollster at ABC News is interesting, on a couple of different counts…

Meanwhile, I’m looking for some explanation about this change in designations all of a sudden. And though it’s not really that, here’s what The Volokh Conspiracy had to say. The concern in this piece is whether Judge Cardozo was considered Hispanic, Latino, or what.

Title 49, section 26.5 of the Code of Federal
Regulations (the definition that’s used in the contracting race
preference programs administered by the Department of Transportation)
defines “Hispanic Americans” as

“persons of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican, Central or
South American, or other Spanish or Portuguese culture or origin,
regardless of race.”

However…

At the same time, I can certainly understand both why
many Hispanics would be enthusiastic about having a Hispanic appointed
to the Court, and why they wouldn’t count Cardozo as one of them:
Ethnicity tends to be defined in practice by felt cultural bonds, and
not by Code of Federal Regulations definitions.

Volokh pursues this further. Maybe Cardozo would be considered a Latino.

But that presupposes a definition of Latino that’s
different from Hispanic, and that would exclude Cardozo; I don’t think
there really is that settled a definition. I could find no such
definition in the Code of Federal Regulations. The closest I could find
is a definition of “Hispanic or Latino” in 45 CFR 1355 app. A, which
likewise turns on whether a person “is of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban,
Central or South American origin, or a person of other Spanish cultural
origin regardless of race” — this might exclude Cardozo because I
suspect he’s of Portuguese cultural origin, but that would be a really
funny way of defining Latino. After all, the Portuguese might be seen
as not Hispanic, but surely they’re just as Latino as the Spaniards.

Confused? Me too.

So the bottom line: There’s no doubt that many Hispanics
might see Judge Sotomayor as one of them in a way that they don’t see
Justice Cardozo as one of them. There’s nothing “incorrect” about that;
it’s a matter of felt shared identity, which is defined by actual
practices and not by scientific or often even legal definitions.

So now, could we focus on her judicial merits?

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....