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The pope and the 'Are-you-Latino-enough?' question

The Conclave Of Cardinals Have Elected A New Pope To Lead The World's Catholics

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Newly elected Pope Francis I appears on the central balcony of St Peter's Basilica on March 13, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican. Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected as the 266th Pontiff and will lead the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.

The Roman Catholic church's election of a new pope from Argentina, the first ever from Latin America, has by-and-large drawn cheers from Latino Catholics in the United States.

But when it was announced last week in Rome that the new pope is Jorge Mario Bergoglio, former cardinal of Buenos Aires, it also reignited a divisive conversation among U.S. Latinos over race, class and ethnic roots, which Take Two co-host A Martinez and I explored in a segment ThursdayIt's the age-old "Are you Latino enough?" question, and not even the pope, an Argentine of Italian descent, is spared. 

Not long after the news broke Wednesday, comments like this one from "malibujoe"  began appearing on our site:

This man is Italian he is not Latino, wake up people! His mother and father are ITALIAN! What a joke!

There were similar reactions on social media. One sample tweet:

An all-out Twitter war broke out between two bloggers, one Mexican-American and one Argentine-American, after the former published a post whose headline read "Is the New Pope Latino?" To which the latter responded: "Where is my WTF file?"

Welcome to the wonderful world of just what constitutes Latino identity (or Hispanic identity, if that's your chosen label), and the deep divisions that appear each time the question comes up. Why such a reaction to the pope's ethnic identity, you might ask? In bullet points, a quick explanation: 

  • The new Pope Francis is born and raised in Argentina, the son of Italian immigrants. This is not uncommon in Argentina: It's estimated that as many as 60 percent of Argentines have some degree of Italian heritage, a holdover from heavy Italian migration to Argentina between the 19th and early 20th centuries. 
  • When Argentines proudly claim European roots (migrants from other parts of Europe settled there, too) it tends to rub some other Latinos the wrong way. There are more reasons for this that can be addressed briefly, but race and class play a part. Throughout Latin America there is a racial hierarchy, with those closer to Spanish and European roots (and lighter-skinned) at the top of the class pyramid. It's a knee-jerk reaction, but not an unnatural one. As for the pope, he looks European.
  • This plays in to U.S. perceptions of what a Latino is. Especially in the Southwest, the perception is generally a person with a Spanish surname, olive skin, and a blend of indigenous and Spanish ethnic roots; farther east, that mestizaje can also be Spanish-African. In truth, Latinos throughout the Americas have family backgrounds ranging from Asian to Middle Eastern, and Latino identity rests on much more than this. But our national experience in recent decades with migration from Mexico and the Caribbean colors our perception, so this is what we work with.
  • Lastly, and again, the pope is the son of immigrants. Does the fact that his parents were Italian immigrants make him less Argentine (and thus less Latino)? American children of immigrants can answer that one for themselves.

The last point calls to mind a recent NPR story in which correspondent Michele Norris explained her Race Card Project, in which people are asked to send in six-word statements on their experience with race. The story featured a young woman from Seattle of Korean heritage who was tired of hearing, "Where are you really from?"

Where is Pope Francis really from? If you were to ask him, he'd say Argentina. And Latin America.

Want to add to the conversation? Feel free to share your thoughts below.

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