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So, Is She the First Hispanic Justice?

Even as Sonia Sotomayor takes her seat as the first Hispanic on the Supreme Court, there remain those who question whether she is, indeed, the court's first Hispanic. Just this weekend, on a legal listserv I follow, someone asked, What about Justice Benjamin Cardozo? Wasn't he Hispanic?

Cardozox-large The question of Cardozo's heritage was floated even before Sotomayor was nominated. But why does it persist? Is it just another variant of the same strain of conspiracy theorist that bred the birthers, those who fervently believe -- the evidence be damned -- that President Obama is not a U.S. citizen? Having never given much thought to the question, I thought I'd try to sort it out for myself.

The question comes up, at all, only because of an uncertain lineage that traces Cardozo's ancestors to Portugal. Cardozo's maternal and paternal grandparents were Sephardic Jews. Family tradition traced their ancestry back to Portugal. But Harvard Law School Prof. Andrew L. Kaufman, author of a 1998 biography of Cardozo, said there is no documentation to show that. Even if the family was from Portugal, it probably left during the 1490s, when many Jews were expelled from Spain and the Iberian Peninsula. The family came to American in the 18th century.

Assuming Cardozo could trace his roots to Portugal, that only begs the question, Are Portuguese Hispanic? The answer depends on how Hispanic is defined.

Sonia_Sotomayor_6_sitting,_2009 In the Middle Ages, the word Hispania was used to refer to the entire Iberian Peninsula, including modern-day Spain and Portugal, according to Wikipedia. Over time, the term became associated more specifically with Spain and the culture and people of countries formerly ruled by Spain, including Mexico and most countries of Central and South America.

That seems to be how the word is commonly -- but not uniformly -- used today. The U.S. Census Bureau uses the terms Hispanic and Latino interchangeably and says they "refer to persons who trace their origin or descent to Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Spanish speaking Central and South America countries, and other Spanish cultures." The AP Stylebook says Hispanic refers to "those whose ethnic origin is in a Spanish-speaking country," but it instructs to "refer to people of Brazilian and Portuguese origin as such, not as Hispanic."

At the same time, however, the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines Hispanic as "of or relating to the people, speech, or culture of Spain or of Spain and Portugal." And The New York Times notes that Portuguese-American Tony Coelho, who represented California in Congress from 1978 to 1989, was a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and that U.S. Rep. Dennis Cardoza, whose ancestors came from the Azores, a Portuguese archipelago, is still a member.

So where does all this leave Justice Cardozo? Most certainly, he never applied the term Hispanic to himself, says Andrew Kaufman. The term was not commonly used during his lifetime and probably would have been unfamiliar to him. "I think he regarded himself as a Sephardic Jew whose ancestors came from the Iberian Peninsula," Kaufman said.

Associated Press writer Mark Sherman looks at all the evidence regarding whether Cardozo was Hispanic and decides "there is no conclusive answer." Neil A. Lewis in The New York Times considers the arguments on either side but avoids choosing between them. Josh Marshall at TPM says, "I'm not sure we should yet stop defending Cardozo's claim to the first Hispanic Justice title." And Robert Schlesinger in his blog at U.S. News comes down on the side that Sotomayor is in fact the first Hispanic.

In the end, to quote Andrew Kaufman once again, "it's all in the context." Academics can debate the origins of the term Hispanic, but in the context of today's world, the meaning of the word Hispanic clearly fits Justice Sotomayor and clearly does not fit Justice Cardozo. Just as importantly, Sotomayor identifies herself as Hispanic and grew up in a Hispanic culture. Cardozo neither saw himself as Hispanic nor had any sense of Hispanic culture. Wherever Cardozo's family tree might first have taken seed, there should be no debate that Sotomayor is the first Hispanic on the Supreme Court, in the true sense of the word.

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on August 10, 2009 at 11:59 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)

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