Is the New Pope Latino?

By Carlos E. Cortés / Univision Insights

“Is the New Pope Latino?” — This is not a trick question, but an actual news headline that caught me by surprise.

The new pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was born in Argentina and has spent nearly all of his life there until becoming Pope Francis. That’s Argentina – as in the country located in Latin America. Case closed… or at least so I thought until I started reading about some Hispanics who do not consider him to be Latino.

It appears that some view Pope Francis as ‘too European.’ True, his parents did emigrate from Italy. Therefore, according to Hispanic purists, he can’t be ‘a real Latino.’ Following that line of thinking, would that mean that U.S.-born children of Latin American immigrants can’t be real Americans, that is, Americans of the U.S. variety? My proudly Mexican- American father would shudder at that idea, if he was still around.

This new debate reminds me of the early days of the Chicano movement. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, when I was a new faculty member at the University of California, Riverside, Chicanos would have fun talking about ethnic identity by asking each other the sardonic question, “How brown are you?” We’d pull back our sleeves, place our forearms alongside each other to determine who was the darkest (thereby proving definitively who was the most Chicano), and then joke about the results.

With my light skin, courtesy of my mother’s Ukrainian and Austrian immigrant parents, I usually didn’t fare very well in this forearm competition. But that was OK. I had a Mexican father, I helped organize the United Mexican American Students (later MEChA) on campus, and I also helped found UCR’s Mexican American Studies program (later Chicano Studies), serving as chair for more than seven years.

Now, I’m beginning to wonder how I might fare today with these twenty-first-century guardians of Latino ethnic purity. Might they not consider me to be sufficiently Latino? Or my daughter? Or the other millions of offspring of mixed Latino-non-Latino marriages, especially those who end up with Anglo surnames courtesy of their fathers?

My informal, very unscientific survey of Latino friends suggests to me that those who question the Pope’s Latino bona fides are a small, albeit outspoken, minority of Hispanics. Even so, this hint of verbal “ethnic cleansing” is troublesome. One of the features of the growth of contemporary U.S. Latino identity is respect for diversity among ourselves. The moment we start ripping down the Latino big tent and begin demanding conformity to some imagined ethnic ideal, we jeopardize our gains, including our growing political influence and economic presence.

So, as far as I’m concerned, the Pope is definitely Latino. And I haven’t even checked out his forearm.

Dr. Carlos E. Cortés is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of California, Riverside. He can be reached at carlos.cortes@ucr.edu.

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