Wednesday, May 27, 2009
The Definition of Hispanic
I was slightly amused yesterday at Yahoo's response to the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor. The header on the Yahoo webpage was questioning whether or not Sotomayor was the first Hispanic nominated, and touted Benjamin Cardozo as being the first Hispanic. It all boils down to the definition of "Hispanic."
First, I have to say I'm not Hispanic, except by osmosis. I happen to be married to a Cuban. But I am, of course, interested in history and I'm especially interested in how words have evolved. That's just an interest, mind you, and I droll over the possibility of owning my own complete set of the Oxford English Dictionary. But, I digress.
The definition of "Hispanic" has undergone changes over the years. In years past, it refered to a relationship with the ancient Hispania, which roughly encompassed the Iberian Peninsula. However, over time, it became more restricted to things pertaining to the modern country of Spain. The current understanding is anything which is of the culture and language of those countries formerly ruled by Spain.
Benjamin N. Cardozo was supposedly Portugese, at least that's what Yahoo picked up on. Of course, given the historical definition, he is Hispanic. But Portugal isn't Spain. There are similarities in language, but I can understand Portugese more because of a relationship with French than I can of Spain. Granted, I don't speak Portugese, but usually when I'm listening to music and there is a Portuguese song, I understand it, and then I have to listen closely to realize why I understand it...is it my imersion in Spanish (and that semester of Spanish in High School ) or is it the 3 years of college level French (yes, I had enough to qualify for a minor in French, but I was mainly taking it so I had a second language and I could translate 18th century French documents).
Ok, but who was Cardozo? A pretty amazing individual, according to Wikipedia. Certainly a person I'd like to have been able to meet. He, like Sotomayor, was from New York City. But, whereas Sotomayor's family were fairly recent imigrants (I understand, she was born in NYC in 1954), Cardozo's family came to the American colonies before the Revolution. His ancestors were Sephardic Jews who fled the Iberian peninsula for Holland during the inquisition. Family tradition says that his family was from Portugal, but there hasn't been any research to prove it.
But does being a "first" really matter? In some ways yes. Breaking through is difficult. The ground breaker usually has a tougher time of it than the ones who come after. But, in most regards, no.
I'd prefer that people focus on who Sonia Sotomayor is, what she has done, what she believes and what she has stood for in her life. The fact that by some quirk she was born of Puerto Rican heritage shouldn't make any difference. The facts that she rose from a "modest" background, worked hard, and rose to the level she did AND focused on public service should mean more than a quirk of fate. She had no control over where she was born and who her parents were. She has had a great deal of control over her decisions, her path, and what she has accomplished.