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Gabriel Lerner Headshot

Semana Latina: What Is A Latino, Anyway? It Depends

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Against all odds, even while continuing to fight for recognition, Latinos are finding a way to remain in the mainstream.

Maybe that's the power of numbers. Yes, the Hispanic population is the largest minority group in the country, well over 50 million. Yes, between 2000 and 2010, "the Hispanic population grew by 43 percent, or four times the nation's 9.7 percent growth rate."

But, what does that mean? What defines Latinos? Are they a race? An ethnicity? A group united by language and customs?

What unifies Latinos? Or better yet -- are they united?

For some, this is an homogeneous group, so united that if you make one of them a formal leader, the others will follow.

So if you choose a Latino candidate to run for office, the thinking goes, just the fact that they are Latino will, by itself, convince Latino voters to support them. Regardless of whether the Latino candidate is opposed to what most Latinos support--and vice versa.

Thus the idea that Marco Rubio, the junior Republican Senator from Florida, is in the running for GOP vice president seems like a recipe to win the Latino vote for many Republicans. Give Latinos a Hispanic name and they will get with the program.

Is it that easy? Maybe not.

But this week, Senator Rubio, who endorsed Mitt Romney much later than most in the GOP, also announced his own version of the Dream Act. This is a cleverly designed move to take advantage of the immense popularity the Dream Act has among Latino voters, who are estimated to support it by 90%, according to a Fox News March poll. (The general population supports it by 66%), and Rubio can do this without breaking the "no amnesty" mantra held by the Tea Party and his Republican base.

So, instead of granting legal status and a path to citizenship to undocumented students and soldiers under certain circumstances, what does the new bill propose?

Who knows?

"I don't have any specifics to announce yet," said Rubio to the New York Times. "This stuff has to be done responsibly. We're working toward that and hopefully very soon."

Translation: it doesn't matter what the idea is, as long as it achieves a couple of headlines and highlights his attempt to appear vice-presidential - whatever that means. Oh, and also as long as it doesn't alienate Rubio's own Tea Party activists.

This also serves to offset Rubio's poor record as Senator; his only piece of legislation thus far has been the July 2011 Senate Resolution 236, designating September 2011 as "National Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Month."

One thing is for sure: Rubio won't get Hispanic approval for the Republican ticket with this lame act; right now, Latinos prefer Obama over Romney by six-to-one. At most, he may embolden the Cuban American vote in Florida to vote Republican, which it has already been doing for decades anyway. But among other Latinos, Rubio is either a) unknown or b) unwelcome.

Latinos share a common destiny and some cultural traits. And they all seek a place at the American table. So, by next June, if the US Supreme Court strikes down the comprehensive legislation known as "Obamacare," or just the individual mandate, while pundits analyze which party will lose most from the decision, it will be a sad day for Latinos, the group which, more than all others, benefits most from three major tenets of "Obamacare, including the prospect of all having health insurance, the prohibition against denying coverage for those with pre-existing conditions, and the ability of young people to stay on their parents' insurance until they reach age 26."

Finally, this idea of a "race" to which allegedly Latinos belong, became this week the subject of an additional controversy, in the aftermath of the killing of Trayvon Martin, when media outlets wishing to clarify why killer George Zimmerman was considered white in the context of the tragedy, dubbed him a "white Hispanic."
"Mr. Zimmerman, 28, a white Hispanic, told the police that he shot Trayvon in self-defense after an altercation," wrote The New York Times' Lizette Alvarez on March 22nd.

"Are we now going to refer to people as white Hispanics and black Hispanics? Given that my complexion is a shade lighter than brown, should I be referred to as a beige Hispanic? Where does this end?" wrote Ruben Navarrete.

But personally, I understand the concept: if there is such a thing as a white Latino, you are now reading an article written by one. I am so white, in fact, that my neighbors in the 99% Latino East Los Angeles area where I live used to answer me in English when I would speak Spanish, seeing me as a little more than a condescending gringo. And yet, even if I don't share the pigment of the skin of my neighbors or their religion, I am Latino. I was born in Latin America and Spanish is my first language.

And right now, the race, or ethnicity, to which George Zimmerman allegedly belongs is a hot potato. A loaded term. Nobody wants to claim his identity.

Radio personality and political leader Rush Limbaugh didn't want Zimmerman considered white, and harangued Hispanic organizations and the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) specifically, for allegedly not supporting him as a Latino.

"Nobody in the Hispanic activist community is piping up here," said Limbaugh, according to a transcript of his show.

To which Lisa Navarrete, spokeswoman for La Raza answered: "The only time he [Rush Limbaugh] apparently cares about what happens to a Latino is when they may have killed a young African-American man."