Here is an op-ed piece I had hoped to publish a couple of months back when the “Benjamin Cardozo is Hispanic” craze really started.
Before I’d even heard Sonia Sotomayor was picked as the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice nominee, I received an email from Jewish friends saying she was not. According to them, Benjamin Cardozo, a Jew, was the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice. Half-asleep and wide-eyed I clicked on the attached link about Cardozo and found he was Portuguese by way of New York, the Netherlands and England. I reread the information twice to see if I was missing something.
The term “Hispanic” includes Spaniards, Spanish-speakers across Latin America and those descended from either. Latino connotes being from Spanish-speaking Latin America and excludes Spaniards. As a Latina, these definitions are as simple and clear-cut to me as the notion the sky is blue and grass is green. But I had to look them up to prove this to my Jewish husband and friends who were angered these definitions did not include Portuguese from Brazil or Portugal. I couldn’t make sense as to why I, a born and bred Latina, was trying to explain to a bunch of white Jews why someone wasn’t part of my people before I’d even had my morning coffee. Not that coffee would have helped.
I didn’t expect the attacks that ensued when I told them Cardozo was not Hispanic. They said my definitions were faulty. That Portuguese and Spanish folks are all “pretty much the same.” Pretty much the same? Really? Had the French and Italian also been made honorary Latinos the night before? Weren’t they “pretty much the same,” too?
One Jewish friend wrote that since all identities are social constructions, they are malleable and anyone could call themselves whatever they wanted, “so there’s no reason Cardozo can’t be Latino.” After having spent the entire day explaining why Cardozo wasn’t Hispanic to every Jewish friend who’d forwarded me articles about him, I huffed and puffed, writing back that I would whoop this friend’s ass if he repeated this nonsense to my face.
No matter how I explained things, I offended my Jewish friends. “Don’t you like Jews?” they asked. But no one thought twice about offending me. “Don’t you know what Hispanics are?” I might have asked. While it’s true the term Hispanic didn’t exist when Cardozo was alive, Cardozo identified primarily as a Jew and calling him Hispanic would be a stretch even under today’s definition. Would he have “self-identified” if the term had been available? We’ll never know. Even if he had, Portuguese-speakers are not considered Hispanic so the Hispanic community wouldn’t have taken him seriously as one of our own.
Even today, it’s hard for people to grasp hyphenated identities. I often hear, “Hispanic and Jewish, say what? Black and Jewish, no way!” People are only recently coming to terms with people who have multiple identities thanks to the explosion of mixed-race, multicultural families and our current president, a product of this brave new world. It’s “cool” now to have multiple identities. I gather that’s why people are wondering what Cardozo would’ve called himself today. How cool would it have been if he’d represented two peoples in one shot? But the fact is, he didn’t and does not.
There is nothing “cool” about this media circus. It has left me dumbfounded and hurt. I feel betrayed by my Jewish brethren. Are they trying to steal something from my Latina side? On the whole, this has made me very uncomfortable. Every article about Cardozo is another attack—everyone from NPR to the NY Times weighed in! Every time people tell me the definition of a Hispanic could be/should be enlarged to include Cardozo, I feel myself grow smaller. When some Jewish friends finally conceded Cardozo did not fit the standard definition of Hispanic, they acted like they were doing me a favor because they did not want to hurt my feelings since I was obviously “really sensitive” about the subject.
So, nu, what if tomorrow morning non-Jews decided who is and who isn’t a Jew? Maybe the definition would now include people who “self-identify.” No conversion necessary, anyone who thinks they might be Jewish, anyone who feels they might be Jewish, can be Jewish. Why not? Would it trouble my Jewish friends that outsiders had gotten together behind their backs to decide who is or isn’t part of the Jewish people?
When I heard Sotomayor was nominated, I was excited because she wasn’t just the best nominee, she was a Latina. She had grown up in the projects and made it to the Ivy League, giving me hope that more young people in the Hispanic community could also “make it.” As a former NYC public high teacher, the first-generation child of Hispanic immigrants, seeing Sotomayor nominated made me feel like this country I have lived in all my life finally sees me.
But the moment my Jewish friends decided Cardozo was the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice and Sotomayor wasn’t, I realized many people in this country still don’t. They don’t even trouble themselves to learn about my culture before deciding who my people are and are not. They’re too busy feeling insanely clever at having put one over on the Hispanic community and they never bothered to think twice whether they were hurting anyone in the process.