If you follow the news you have already heard that Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor was approved by the Senate 68-31 on Thursday. Sotomayor will succeed retiring Justice David Souter.
As the link from Yahoo! News informs us, Sotomayor will be the first hispanic to be seated on the Supreme Court. Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether such a “first” is noteworthy at all, we should think about what the word “hispanic” really means.
“A person of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin, regardless of race”.
This seems simple enough but leaves a few questions unanswered:
1) Is a person automatically counted as hispanic if they were born in a predominantly Spanish speaking country?
The answer is not obvious from the definition. If the answer is yes, it would mean that the Mayas of México, the Quechuas of Perú, and the Basques of Spain would all be counted as hispanic, even though they may not speak any Spanish or have anything to do with Castilian culture. Are these people meant to be included as well?
2) Can it include people who have learnt Spanish on their own but who have no blood line to Spain?
This is the case for more than a million people who immigrated to Argentina in the late 1800s and early 1900s from countries other than Spain such as Italy, Germany, Poland and Russia.
Are such people counted as hispanics if and when they learn Spanish? If not, can their children be counted as hispanics if they learn Spanish? What if they subsequently move to New York City and raise a family there, as was the case with Sotomayor who is of Puerto Rican descent but was born in the Bronx?
If you think the definition is of no consequence, think again. For a business owner, being a “hispanic” can increase the chances of receiving a government contract because the government gives special breaks to minority-owned businesses. See this article from the New York Times, “What is a Minority-Owned Business?”