By now, the courting of the Latino vote this election year is pretty well documented. It’s also raised the specter of a long-standing issue within our community: what constitutes a “real” Latino? Romney’s gaffes about his ties to Mexico (his pops was born there) have been fodder for late night comedians. However, issues regarding authentic Latino identity have come to plague future Latino political stars such as Julian Castro and Ted Cruz. Issues about language fluency and native descent have become measuring sticks of their ethnicity. I’d argue that neither are sole qualifiers and the real measuring sticks should be an actual connection to, understanding of, and acknowledgement of one’s background whether or not it’s popular, convenient or beneficial.
It raises the big question, what makes one person of Latino ethnicity more Latino or “real” when compared with another. Is it place of birth? The ease with which he rolls his r’s? Blasting salsa or indulging in tamales? Maybe it’s pidiendo “la bendicion” every time he greets and departs from an elder.
While it may be just getting mainstream press, the issue isn’t new to the Latino community. The concept of what a “real” Latino was first came into my consciousness as a pre-teen. During a family reunion in Puerto Rico I overheard my uncle – an island native–comparing his children to those of my father. While talking with a family friend he was trying to make the point that his children were “real Puerto Ricans” because they were born there, whereas my dad’s spawn — i.e., my brother, sister and I — not so much. Up until that point I never had an issue with ethnicity or culture. If anything, although I’d been born in New York, my parents had always instilled a sense of pride about my Puerto Rican heritage and Latino culture. That moment was an awakening. Not only did I learn that I was considered a Nuyorican, but more importantly, not everyone who shares my Latino ethnicity felt the same pride as I, nor did they particularly care for the fact that I had it in spades. What do I mean exactly?