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Posted by on May 27, 2009 in At TMV | 22 comments

Judge Sonia Sotomayor: Hispanic? Other Thoughts re Diversity

Well, I could write a whole article about the labels/ monikers Latinos carry… we are Latinos, Latinas (speaking/living in a common Latinate language and bloodline)… we are Chicanos, Chicanas (a self-named title for people of Latino descent who raise political voices)… we are spics and anclas (derisive), indios (derisive), meztisos, meztisas (Native American and Spanish blood in those of us who are Latinos/ Latinas.) As if all that isn’t confusing enough, many of us also come from Mexican, Central American, SouthAmerican and Island tribal groups… and from clans within those groups too. Ay!

I’ve had this conversation with Joe Gandelman, our good Ed. in Chief, about our TMV category of ‘Hispanic.’ He graciously allowed me to add Latino to the categories list here.

Hispanic is not very often what we call ourselves… though sometimes we use the term in conversation with people who themselves use the term and who do not know that Hispanic is a name encoded for us by the US government… and eternalized in the US Census…. in an effort, I guess, to categorize us as not Caucasian, not Negro, not Asian, not Polynesian, etc…..to presumably categorize us by natal roots, heritage or natal language. Originally, for instance, the first conquered parts of Mexico were called Hispañola, so Hispanic can seem not too far off even if you’re not a monarchal descendent of Ferdinand and Isabella’s Spanish galleons to ‘the new world.’

Our government seems still to want to categorize us all, meaning you and me, by race and heritage, seemingly thinking this gives peerless insight for those wanting to scry voting constituencies, and other measures of our nation’s lean and tilts.

But, the census and those who use those numbers …may be in great error from the get-go. There are many Latinos who are as poor as some Appalachians, as poorly educated as many ‘Anglos’ and ‘blacks’ in Mississippi and Arkansas. There are many Latinos who hold more wealth than our socks full of pennies in the drawer, more wealth and influence equal to, or exceeding the power of many Caucasians and Asians and those in the US from Island nations.

Trying to parse us all by race/ heritage is like putting on badly scratched eye-glasses.

Regarding my own heritage only, I’m not sure people ought be touted first and foremost for being from a Latino heritage or Latino racial group (although I have been honored as a Latina, the recognition is for the work, and the challenges to begin/complete/continue the work, not for race/ heritage alone)…

Yet, I do know the value of the stories I carry as a result of my Latina heritage, the crucial teaching lessons in those stories, the history I carry which is harsh and also beautiful. I also know the value of my strange and scarred life to the young in general, no matter what race/heritage they are from.

I also know the value of our ancestral stories in whatever historical chapters my Latina blood has been shed, and also given for good purpose. I know the value of these tragic-meaningful stories too, for young Latinos who are impoverished of both books and finances and who have parents who cannot help them other than to love them so…

For the children and teens, to hear life stories of those, who are similar to them in background, who started out with just a bindle bag on their shoulders, hearing how someone made it through famines of many kinds, can become enough food, enough soul sustenance for miles and miles of their travails and travels forward in this world.

I do know the value of my speaking no-nonsense to tough “Latino girls with their hair sprayed up like hood ornaments”… about what it takes to not turn into a thug with a huge chip on one’s shoulder and to instead lean into becoming a warrior, even though sometimes warriors have to sustain wounds. I know what it takes to grapple with belongimg to two or more cultures in the same town, and how to bridge the bi-cultural, to not diminish one culture or the other, but to weave them together in the best and strongest tapestry possible.

I do also know the shortcomings, the destructions of efforts toward rising up the class-oriented ladder, the inestimable talent of warmth and longing to learn… that glows through all cultures, not just my own.

I think knowing specifically about the invaders and conquests by various armamental kings of the world, including popes, and that no group, no tribe, no nation and no people of any heritage has EVER been able to say, ‘We alone were never slaughtered unjustly by others’ … that this brings me to… rather than some fluffy form of pat patriotism… it brings me, and I think it brings many of us, to many categories we well fit into… meaning to me, many stories for us to tell to one another, and most especially, in la lucha, in struggle, that we are more alike than separate… across all races and heritages, we have many many fellow travelers from every part of the world.

Judge Sotomayor, carries a last name that can be translated as ‘guardian trees,‘ literally, ‘major grove’… an ancient name from the time when people planted or lived near huge trees that they used for protection against weather, as places from which to scan the horizon lines so as to see far, and some of my old people say, from long ago before cathedrals were built, often the spiring groves of trees created ‘rooms’ with their trunks and canopies… so that people came to pray in those enclosing spaces.

It’s 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.

Maybe I am in error, but I think what most of us hope for in some part, regardless of background, is how can we progress today so that by day’s end, we accomplished something… some days, just for food, roof overhead and some jot of meaning; other days a seeming miniscule thing, other days; perhaps, if we are lucky to keep adding to a decent ideal, something grand that will lift and help goodness maintain an irrevocable parity.

Those central points of living life seem to have little or nothing to do with being Latina. Or Hispanic. Rather, they seem more to derive from mind, heart and soul development, and in whatever approximation of agreement between all three parts we can manage on any given day.

I think it’s alright for people to use the word Hispanic for us if they wish, or Latina, or American, or United Statesian. Having been called some pretty derisive and mocking names in my time, those other ones seem much more peaceful.

Yet, I know it can be confusing. In my ‘diversity’ seminars (another word that I am not at ease with when it doesnt include all racial groups, all heritages) sometimes participants say, “What do you people want to be called?! One week it’s this and the next week, it changes.” It’s a more than fair question, because every group appears, including English and Dutch people who arrived as ‘colonists,’ to go through a progression of names they prefer to be called, sometimes as they discover the derisiveness of the name they’ve been given by others. For instance, currently, people with Asian heritages often would like to be called something other than “Oriental.’ Blacks most often like not to be called ‘colored.’ Native Americans or First People would most often not like to be called by the odd names their conquerers pressed upon them.

So, is Judge Sotomayor a Hispanic? I am not sure what she would say, but I’d say this, sometimes the most simple way, is just ask people what they would like to be called, if and when one needs to refer to heritage/ race. Then do so. It’s a small sign of respect, and just one less broken board on the bridge between people of different backgrounds… so we can reach each other, talk to each other, plan to do good and worthy things together.