March 14, 2003

¿Quien es mas Latino?

By: Raul Damas

Imagine my surprise upon learning that I might not be Hispanic.

What if, all this time, I’d been eating a steady diet of fried-pork-based dishes for no good reason? Worse still, what if I didn’t really have to talk about Castro at every single meal since the age of two?

This self-doubt was triggered by various Latino “leaders'” comments at a recent press conference where a few Democrat senators, Hispanic “civil rights” organizations and the all-Democrat Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) gathered to voice their opposition to Miguel Estrada’s. (I really hope you know who he is, because I refuse to type the sentence, “Estrada is President Bush’s nominee to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, widely considered to be the second highest court in the land after the Supreme Court,” one more time.)

Their not-so-subtle message was that Estrada is not a true Hispanic. They also said that being Hispanic was irrelevant to the confirmation, but they thought it important to make the previous point anyway.

So, the Honduran-born immigrant Miguel Estrada, who learned English after coming to the United States at 17, doesn’t pass muster. If that’s the case, I am in serious trouble.

New York native and Democratic Conference Chairman Bob Menendez awoke my full-blown paranoia by saying, “Being Hispanic for us means much more than having a surname.”

That “us” started my mind reeling. Who is “us”? The CHC? The Latino “civil rights community”? And what did they know that I didn’t, if they felt confident enough to lay down the line on what constitutes being Latino?

Regardless, I assumed my surname, Damas, gave me a pass on this one. After all, it’s written on every ladies room door in every Spanish-speaking country–as well as parts of Miami (although that may be redundant)–so it must count for something. Even my first name, Raul, was sure to get me by. If not, what had been the point of enduring all those schoolyard taunts?

But then Menendez cranked it up a notch: “[Being Hispanic] means having some relationship with the reality of what it is to live in this country as a Hispanic American.”

Oooh, boy.

You see, I’m not a particularly good dancer. I mean, I’m OK. Pretty good by most objective standards, but I can’t do all those sexy moves my father does at weddings.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

I am, by some curse of the gods, also unable to grow a mustache. Of course, I’ve never tried, but I know I could go weeks without shaving my upper lip. And facial hair would certainly top any list of qualifications for being a true Hispanic. Just about every stereotypical image of Hispanics has them wearing mustaches, and surely that was the standard these Latino groups were adopting.

For males, anyway.

But what, then, about Frida Kahlo?

Even she had a better ‘stache! And that’s another problem: I think few things in this world are more overrated than liberal America’s current communist darling. I know I’m supposed to well-up with pride, thinking about the U.S. Postal Service choosing an anti-American radical socialist (redundancies, again) as the first Hispanic woman to grace a stamp.

But, I don’t.

I’d say I’m more than a little out of step with what the powers that would-be deem “Hispanic.” Of course, I could be wrong. After all, they didn’t bother to positively define, in any meaningful way, what constitutes Hispanic.

And, seriously, who could blame them? The U.S. Census Bureau spent decades figuring out how to capture us in their surveys. (I humbly use that “us,” knowing full well my membership is pending.) Finally, it decided that Hispanic is a “self-defined” category.

Basically, since the Bureau invented the word “Hispanic” in the late 50s, they figured if you think you’re Hispanic, who are they to argue?

Would things were that simple.

It will take more than just my opinion to convince guys like the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund’s Angelo Falcon, who said, “It’s not good enough to simply say that because of someone’s genetics or surname that they should be considered Hispanic.” Technically, he’s right–although I’m sure he has no idea why.

And here we run into difficulties again. According to the Bob Menendez school of thought, everyone who thinks they’re Hispanic can’t just run around saying they are. If that were the case, guys like Miguel Estrada, would get off scot-free. On the other hand, Falcon says that being Hispanic is something that you can’t inherit.

What starts to emerge when you combine many Latino “leaders'” words, scientific fact, and plain common sense is that, in politics at least, Hispanicity is judged on a sliding scale.

It appears these Latino “leaders” had a terrific opportunity to do something they’re always complaining they never have the opportunity to do: lead. Instead they decided to stage a production of “Quien Es Mas Macho?”

Most Americans have good questions about Latinos, especially now that we’re the largest minority in the country. Are we a race? An ethnicity? Are we white? Are we brown? Are we “Latino” or “Hispanic?”

By playing political games with 38 million Americans’ identity, these Latino “leaders” chose to further muddy the waters and shirk their self-imposed task.

Thanks to the CHC and various other Latino organizations’ inability to lead, millions in this country will continue to misunderstand the single most import demographic change in their lifetime.

And I’ll be starting salsa lessons tomorrow, just in case.