Wednesday's naming of Argentina’s Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the new pope had special meaning for Latino Catholics throughout Los Angeles, who said the selection of the first pontiff from Latin America is a point of ethnic pride — particularly for Argentines.
The news didn't take long to hit the lunch crowd at Mercado Buenos Aires, a popular and packed Argentine deli and restaurant in Van Nuys. The casual eatery typically draws members of L.A.'s small Argentine community to watch soccer matches; on Wednesday, the TV screens were set to news of the election of the first-ever Latin American pope.
The announcement at the Vatican earlier in the day that a conclave of cardinals elected the 76-year-old Bergoglio, cardinal of Buenos Aires, took many by surprise. Although Bergoglio was a runner-up in 2005, when Pope Benedict was named, the names of other cardinals from Italy, Brazil, Canada, the United States and elsewhere had been floated as front-runners.
"It's very, very [surprising] for everybody," said Dario "Happy" Kasparian, 70, of Reseda, an immigrant born in Buenos Aires. Like many Argentines, he's of mixed heritage — in his case with Armenian roots. Kasparian said speculation centered on candidates from various countries, "but never Argentina."
Paul Rodriguez, who with his family co-owns Mercado Buenos Aires, said it makes sense for the church to have a Latin American pope.
"Hopefully he'll be more responsive to Latin American needs," said Rodriguez, 36, who grew up Catholic in the U.S. and maintains strong ties with family in Argentina. "There is huge faith in Latin America, Catholic faith, so having a Latin American pope, he is more in touch with what is going on, poverty issues. In Argentina, he would open up his church to feed children who were hungry."
Gabriela Cordero, 40, a cashier at the restaurant, arrived from Argentina with her parents when she was 11. Much of her family is involved in the church: Her father works as a deacon at a Catholic church in Pacoima, and her 12-year-old daughter attends a parochial school.
"I never believed a Latino pope would be chosen," Cordero said. "It's unbelievable." But she hopes that Bergoglio, who has taken the name Pope Francis, will take a leading role in humanitarian efforts elsewhere.
"I think one thing he should be focusing on, too, is problems in other countries, like in Syria and the Middle East," she said. "He should focus on this, so we have more peace."
Elsewhere, among Latinos from other regions, the excitement was just as fervent.
Lilia Escamilla, a Mexican immigrant who works as a clerk at the Million Dollar Botanica in downtown L.A., said God named a Latino "for a reason." Customer Gerardo Garcia, also from Mexico, called the selection of an Argentine a “dicha” — a joyous occasion for Latinos.
Third-generation Mexican Americans Ray and Laura Gonzalez strolled through Olvera Street unaware of the new Argentine Pope.
"I’m glad he’s a Latin American," she said. "It’s about time."
The Gonzalezes are members of St. Linus Catholic Church in Norwalk. If, as a Latino, he could have the Pope’s ear, Ray said he like to add a few things to the pontiff's to-do list.
"I hope he makes some changes, one change being that they allow priests to get married," he said. "And hopefully he’ll be open-minded and allow women to serve in the church in some function."
There’s a lot of work to be done in the Catholic Church, Gonzalez said, but he added it’ll help that the new Pope already has a connection to the Church’s vast following in Latin America.