Last summer, when California Democratic Party chair Art Torres quipped from the podium, “I’ve been a Latino for most of my life,” he received the laughter his remark was intended to garner. But afterward, I got to thinking—he’s on to something here. Who are the Latinos?
The concept of Latin America was born of 19th century French imperialism. When Napoleon III decided to extend his empire, his government invented the term Amerique Latine as a propaganda tool. Sure, we’ve invaded your country and have installed Maximilian as our puppet, but it’s OK because we are all Latins. So, it’s quite an historical irony that Mexican-Americans refer to themselves as Latinos, and at the same time celebrate the overthrow of Maximilian on el Cinco de Mayo!
In any case, today the term Latin America commonly refers to the Americas south of the Rio Grande, including Portuguese-speaking Brazil, and French-speaking Haiti and Guiana. Louisiana and Quebec are generally not included, because they have never been independent countries and are geographically separated from other Romance-language regions of the western hemisphere, but linguistically, there is no reason not to include them. So, all dem Cajuns are Latinos, too, ah yeah! And the Quebecois, eh?
Who else are Latinos? Well, let’s consider who spoke Latin before anyone else did: the Italians. Sure, no Italian state ever established a colony in the New World, but an Italian did “discover” America to begin with, and the Americas are named after another Italian. Certainly millions of Italians emigrated to the Americas, particularly to the United States and Argentina. I am an Italian-American, and I have many Argentine cousins. There is also a strong Spanish-Italian historical connection; because a Spanish royal family ruled southern Italy for several hundred years, I have Italian cousins named Lopez. And unlike Dan Quayle, I can even speak a little Latin. Italus sum, ergo Latinus sum.
Can one take the question of who is a Latino too far? I don’t think so. Rather, I believe the mistake is in defining “Latino” too narrowly. The Romans—history’s most successful Latin tribe—were an exclusive society for several centuries, but they achieved their greatest height by embracing many societies. From Britannia to Mauritania to Arabia to Armenia, people proudly called themselves Romans, and many of them spoke Latin, so in a sense, they were Latinos.
Art Torres is fortunate to have been a Latino for most of his life. I have developed my latinitas much later in life. I celebrate el Cinco de Mayo, or Quintus Maius, and I do so not only because it is a celebration of latinitas, but because—more importantly—it is a celebration of libertas.
San Rafael resident Thomas Gangale is the executive director at OPS-Alaska, a think tank based in Petaluma and an international relations scholar at San Francisco State University.