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Sonia Sotomayor and Identity Formation

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"Sonia Sotomayor and Identity Formation"

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As anyone who knows me can attest, I don’t have what you’d call a strong “Hispanic” identity. Three of my four grandparents are Jews from Eastern Europe. My paternal grandfather, José Yglesias, was a Cuban-American born in Florida. But that puts the family’s actual Hispanic ancestry pretty far back in the past. He grew up in a Spanish-dominant immigrant community, but spoke English fluently. My dad grew up in an English-speaking household and knows some Spanish. I took a semester of Spanish at NYU one summer. And Cuban-American political identity in the United States is heavily oriented around a highly ideological far-right approach to Latin America policy that neither I nor anyone else in my family shares. The Yglesiases emigrated from Cuba before the Revolution, José was initially a Castro supporter, and though he gave that up he and my dad and I all share what you might call anti-anti-Castro views.

But for all that, I have to say that I am really truly deeply and personally pissed off my the tenor of a lot of the commentary on Sonia Sotomayor. The idea that any time a person with a Spanish last name is tapped for a job, his or her entire lifetime of accomplishments is going to be wiped out in a riptide of bitching and moaning about “identity politics” is not a fun concept for me to contemplated. Qualifications like time at Princeton, Yale Law, and on the Circuit Court that work well for guys with Italian names suddenly don’t work if you have a Spanish name. Heaven forbid someone were to decide that there ought to be at least one Hispanic columnist at a major American newspaper.

Somehow, when George W. Bush affects a Texas accent, that’s not identity politics. When John Edwards gets a VP nomination, that’s not identity politics. But Sonia Sotomayor! Oh my heavens!

At any rate, Ann Friedman wrote a great piece on the hypocrisy of this back during the Democratic primary. And I think this item from Neil Sinhababu on constructing political identities is insightful. I think conservatives are playing with fire here, and underestimating the number of, say, Mexican-Americans in Texas who didn’t think of themselves as having a great deal in common with Puerto Ricans from New York who are waking up today to find that in the eyes of the conservative movement normal qualifications for office don’t count unless you’re a white Anglo.

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