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Posted by on May 27, 2009 in Media | 2 comments

Sonia Sotomayor: First This, First That. Does It Really Matter?

President Obama has just nominated a brilliant, experienced and well-qualified person to the Supreme Court: Judge Sonia Sotomayor.

Judge Sotomayor’s qualifications, experience, character, etc., will be exhaustively examined and debated by the members of the U.S. Senate.

Surprisingly, Judge Sotomayor’s gender and heritage have received almost as much attention as her qualifications.

For example:

The New York Times: “President Obama announced Tuesday that he would nominate Sonia Sotomayor…to the Supreme Court, choosing a daughter of Puerto Rican parents…to become the nation’s first Hispanic justice.” (Emphasis mine)

The Washington Post: “First Latina Picked for Supreme Court; GOP Faces Delicate Task in Opposition.” (Emphasis mine) “Obama Picks First Hispanic Woman for Supreme Court” (Emphasis mine)

“First Hispanic justice,” “First Latina justice,” “First Hispanic woman justice.” Which one is it? Does it really matter?

What is even more surprising is that in examining Sotomayor’s heritage-gender “combination,” the media and others have managed to make this issue itself contentious and controversial.

The most quoted example intended to refute the claim that Sotomayor would be—if confirmed—the “first Hispanic” on the U.S. Supreme Court, is the case of Benjamin Nathan Cardozo.

Benjamin Cardozo served on the U.S. Supreme Court from 1932 until his death in 1938.

According to Wikipedia:

Cardozo was born in New York City, the son of Rebecca Washington (née Nathan) and Albert Jacob Cardozo. Both Cardozo’s maternal grandparents, Sara Seixas and Isaac Mendes Seixas Nathan, and his paternal grandparents, Ellen Hart and Michael H. Cardozo, were Sephardi Jews…Cardozo family tradition held that their ancestors were Marranos from Portugal, although Cardozo’s ancestry has not been firmly traced to Portugal. “Cardoso”, “Seixas” and “Mendes” are common Portuguese surnames.

But, was Cardozo Hispanic?

The New York Times asks the same question, referring to Cardozo, “Was a Hispanic Justice on the Court in the ’30s?”

Professor Andrew Kaufman of the Harvard Law School, who has authored a biography of Cardozo, says, “Well, I think he regarded himself as a Sephardic Jew whose ancestors came from the Iberian Peninsula.”

Of course, the Iberian Peninsula includes Portugal, ergo Cardozo is Hispanic.

But, not so fast. Again, the Times:

Professor Kaufman said that although there is no documentation, Cardozo’s family, which came to America in the 18th century, always believed that its forebears had come from Portugal, not Spain. And that raises an even more recondite question: are Portuguese people Hispanic?


Most Hispanic organizations and the United States Census Bureau do not regard Portuguese as Hispanic.

But Tony Coelho, a Portuguese-American congressman from California, was a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus when he was in the House, and Representative Dennis Cardoza, Democrat of California, whose ancestors came from the Azores, a Portuguese archipelago, is still a member.

The executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, Arturo Vargas, said the contemporary political definition of Hispanic in the United States would definitely not include Cardozo. The practical definition he uses, Mr. Vargas said, includes people who are “descended from countries in the Americas” with a Spanish-language heritage. It does not even include those from Spain itself, he said.

Well, perhaps we have settled the issue of Benjamin Cardozo—perhaps not.

So, Judge Sonia Sotomayor could be the first Hispanic to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court.

She would definitely be the first Hispanic woman appointed to the Court.

And, finally, she would also definitely be the first Latina justice on our highest Court.

Though, wait! If Sotomayor was a man, would “he” be the first Latino on the Supreme Court?

That question takes us right back to the Cardozo issue. Can Portuguese descendants living in the Americas be considered Latinos?

In his “Justice Cardozo as ‘Hispanic’ or ‘Latino’,” Eugene Volokh broaches the issue.

However, the ”Hispanic-Latino” issue is complex, and can be emotionally charged.

There are almost as many definitions of “Hispanic” and “Latino” as there are dictionaries, encyclopedias, grassroots organizations, special interest groups, societies, countries and governments—even the U.S. government takes a stab at it in an obscure appendix to the Code of Federal Regulations.

Those definitions can be based on ancestry or descent, language, heritage, culture, country or region of “origin,” country of “inhabitance and, yes, ethnicity.

An Oxford dictionary defines Hispanic thusly: “1. of being a person of Latin-American or Spanish or Portuguese descent in the US. 2 of or relating to Spain or to Spain and Portugal. 3 of Spain and other Spanish-speaking countries.

The same dictionary defines Latino as follows: 1. a native or inhabitant of Latin America. 2 a person of Spanish-speaking or Latin American descent.

Does one begin to see some circular reasoning here already? And, does it really matter?

I consider myself both Hispanic and Latino, but I know persons who vehemently claim to be only one or the other. I even have “differences of opinion” with my own siblings as to whether we are Hispanic, Latinos, or both.

Thus, I suggest we leave that issue for another day—after I recover from my migraine.

But, if you can’t wait, here is a good place to get started: “One of the most popular debates and one of the least likely to be solved – ¿Hispanic or Latino?

But back to Sonia Sotomayor.

Professor Andrew Kaufman said the Sotomayor-Cardozo debate was “esoteric, complicated and, perhaps above all, amusing.”

Fellow blogger, Shaun Mullen, in his “Sonia Sotomayor & Ethnic Identification,” concludes:

It matters not, because in the end ethnicity is substantially what you consider yourself to be. What Sotomayor is doesn’t matter; what she brings to the court and the legacy she fashions will.

And, as ususal, our very own Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés, in her “Judge Sonia Sotomayor: Hispanic? Other Thoughts re Diversity,” captures the essence of this entire issue with these words:

[Sotomayor is] a strong name, and I imagine her name and her life are not well-parsed by referring to her in the main as a Hispanic, anything. We “Hispanics-by-governmental-decree, are like any other racial/ heritage group: We are not monolithic. Saying someone is ‘Hispanic” does not tell us anything about them, other than ghost lines, until filled in with stories by that person.

Judge Sotomayor may be the first of many things Latina– I myself am the first Latina to hit the #1 place on the New York Times bestseller list and to stay in that spot for many weeks. But, when I think of myself and my work in our world everyday, that’s not ever what I think of. When Judge Sotomayor thinks about her work and life, I doubt she thinks she’s the first Latina anything, either. I think most of us regardless of race and heritage, just hope people will find what we do useful.

That’s what really matters.

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