New Pope Revives Question: What Is a ‘Latino?’

Jesse Washington, KOB, March 24, 2013

He is being hailed with pride and wonder as the “first Latino pope,” a native Spanish speaker born and raised in the South American nation of Argentina. But for some Latinos in the United States, there’s a catch: Pope Francis’ parents were born in Italy.

Such recent European heritage is reviving debate in the United States about what makes someone a Latino. Those questioning whether their idea of Latino identity applies to Pope Francis acknowledge that he is Latin American, and that he is a special inspiration to Spanish-speaking Catholics around the world. Yet that, in their eyes, does not mean the pope is “Latino.”

These views seem to be in the minority. But they have become a distinct part of the conversation in the United States as the Latino world contemplates this unique man and moment.


The conversation about Pope Francis’ ethnicity is rooted in history and geography. Latin America is a complex region of deep racial and class narratives. The elites tend to be whites of European ancestry; the poor are often dark-skinned descendants of indigenous or African people.

Latinos also can be of any race; many identify themselves as both Latino and white, or Latino and black. So debates were bound to happen with the elevation of a fair-skinned son of Italians born in South America’s most European city, a place that has always identified more with Rome and Madrid than Caracas or Mexico City.


Another factor in the debate is the term “Hispanic.” It descends from Spain and was popularized decades ago by government agencies, Pitti said. But many dislike it because they connect it to the conquest of the Americas, or to recent U.S. arrivals who speak only Spanish. Many prefer Latino because they feel it describes a more accurate mix of indigenous, African and European ancestry, instead of strictly European.

That connection to Europe is why Sharon Toomer of New York City does not think the pope is Latino.

“I don’t identify with the Spanish. I don’t identify with Hispanic. It’s all rooted in a European culture that I don’t identify with in any way,” says Toomer, who considers herself Afro-Latina because her father is African-American and her mother Dominican.

“All the context, the colonization and conquest, is important,” says Toomer, the publisher and editor of


As malleable as it may be, Pope Francis’ identity was clearly a factor in his selection by the Catholic church, which now has more believers in Latin America and Africa compared with its ancestral home of Europe. {snip}


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