"Not Really Latino": Thoughts on the New Pope

I was a couple days late on the selection of a new pope. Thankfully, enough people started posting on Facebook and Twitter, so I finally caught on.

Of course, consuming my news through the commentary of friends and strangers leaves the door open for a wide variety of opinions. What struck me most was not religious or social analysis, but the comments surrounding Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s ethnic identity.

Some were applauding the choice of a South American, or Latino, leader. Others were quick to point out that “he’s not really Latino”… his parents were Italian immigrants to Argentina and his skin tone leans “white.” This topic was of particular interest to me because while this was happening (but before I was aware of it), I had written a blog post entitled “My Latino Husband is White.”

These casual, dismissive comments surrounding the new pope’s “Latino-ness” hurt me… and they frustrated me.
It hurts me because there will be a day when someone will say to my daughter, to her face or behind her back, that she’s “not really Latina.” That her white mama and her US Passport trump the other full half of her identity. It will not matter that she’s spoken Spanish “from birth” (I mean… to be fair, she wasn’t talking at birth), that she’s spent time in the other country of her heritage, or that she’s culturally fluid.

I appreciated the opinion of Raul Hinojosa-Ojeda, associate professor at UCLA's Cesar E. Chavez Department of Chicana/o Studies, featured in LA Weekly. To the question “Is the New Pope Latino?” he responded with an unequivocal “yes.”

He says using a test of indigenous blood -- the pope's parents are from Italy – “would eliminate a large part of Latin America and a lot of Latinos”… “More important,” Hinojosa-Ojeda says, "is the experience, not the genetic background.

Comments have also frustrated me because even as the world becomes more globalized and individuals’ identities become more multicultural, society holds tight to rigid, outdated categories into which we demand people fit.

I will admit that I forgot President Obama’s mother is white. I had to Google it to be certain before I wrote this post. Now, I do not take issue with him being identified as the first African-American president or the role model he has become in communities of color.

However, as a mother of a child of two cultures, I wish President Obama’s multicultural heritage could be celebrated more. But society finds it confusing… unfamiliar… so we simplify race as much as we can…. despite its real complexities.  

One of the only pop culture examples of biracial children I’ve seen lately are the horrific commercials for Kraft MilkBites. You can read a more in-depth analysis here, although I’m pleased to say it’s pretty much impossible to find the videos of the ads anymore. I guess all the outraged mamas signing petitions and tweeting like mad sent a message!

Bergoglio is not biracial, but he is connected to two cultures, born and raised in Buenos Aires as the son of Italian immigrants. Having lived in Buenos Aires myself, I know the Italian influence there is still very strong. They are famous for their pizza and pasta (which is easy to find homemade), and their Spanish is best described as Spanish with an Italian accent.

I think I can make a loose comparison with the child of Mexican immigrant parents being born and raised in East Los Angeles. The equivalent question is “Is that kid American enough?” And maybe that’s up for debate in some circles, but for me, it’s an unequivocal “yes.”

American does not mean white. And one can be fully American while also being fully versed in another culture. Latino does not mean indigenous. And one can be fully Latino while being fully versed in another culture. In Pope Begerlio’s case, that’s Italian (and he speaks German fluently).

Let’s not cram multicultural persons into dusty, too-small boxes of racial and ethnic heritage. Let’s support the children of immigrants and the children of cross-cultural relationships by affirming their unique and beautiful identities. Let’s acknowledge and celebrate their special connection to multiple cultures.

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  1. I like your last paragraph... in response to that I always think "well, because they are all people just like me too!" It's very interesting trying to explain race and all the stereotypes that go with it to my son... where we live the population is about 35% Hispanic although we don't interact with them a whole lot - although now that I think of it we did have the neighbor kids over today and they are from Guatemala only about 5 years ago.
    More along the lines of trying to explain MLKJ day and what he stood for and why he even had to stand (we heard it on the radio and the 5 year old asks about everything!). Beyond the Hispanics we also have a family we are good friends with where the mother is from Korea and the father is from here. I'm thankful they are all still young enough to just see them as kids right now!

  2. Thanks so much, Carrie & Krista. I look forward to when Ella is old enough to start asking about race and culture. I expect many amusing conversations in our future.... :)

  3. Came across your blog today for the first time and, as a missionary in Buenos Aires, this post obviously struck me.
    Anyone who diminishes the Pope's Argentine-ness (and therefore his Latinness)because of his Italian heritage or pale skin clearly knows very little about the people of Argentina. Most Argentines of his generation are either Italian or Spanish heritage.
    And if Americans doubt his latin-ness, Latinos certainly don't. The day after his election, billboards of the Pope with his yerba mate cup were posted all over the city... They're still up!

    1. Hey, Kelsey! Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. Buenos Aires is so amazing, and I'm excited for anyone who gets to spend some time there. I LOVE this image of "the Pope with his yerba mate cup." That is priceless!

  4. Just came across this. Thanks for writing it. I think part of our problem dealing with race in the US (the only context I'm in) is that we try to make everything strict and simple. I feel refreshed whenever I find more perspectives like yours.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Mitch. I do agree that we sometimes attempt to make things more simple and concrete than is really possible.

  5. I am married to an Argentine (from the interior, so he's not very keen on bonaerenses), so it's pretty interesting to see all the commotion about the pope from the Southern half of the world. However, it's also interesting to me that my husband does not think of himself as "Latino." His family is a mixture of Spanish, Italian, and indigenous Toba peoples, and have been in the country for several generations. However, when he came here and was considered to be "Latino," or "Hispanic," he was kind of taken aback. He considers himself to be Argentine above all. I tend to agree with him. People from the "Latino" countries are all so different, even within their own countries! Ethnically, culturally, religiously...I feel there's got to be a better way of speaking about them. However, I suppose census and scholarship forms can only offer so many options... Thanks for your voice.

    1. Thank you for stopping by and sharing your family's experience. I completely agree that there are vast differences between the unique countries in South America, Central America and other cultures that make up the broad "Latino" label in the US. It would be helpful to have more nuanced conversations that affirm the beauty of all these different perspectives! So glad you offered your thoughts.


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