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A “Lesser” Latino? The Question of Who Counts

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?…

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