Several years ago I applied for a teaching position in an American university. In response I received a lot of forms to fill out, including one that required me to identify my ‘ethnicity or race’.
I hate to tell this to those of my liberal friends who relish historical analogies from 1930s Europe, but when I noted how black Americans were classified in the form —‘You are defined as Black even if only one of your parents was an African American’—the Nuremberg Race Laws came to mind.
When I look at myself in the mirror, I see, even with a summer tan, a very white man. So I assumed it would be a waste of time to fill in the part about race on the form the university had sent me. Nevertheless, I was curious to find out how ‘Hispanics’ were defined since one of my best friends, a son of immigrants from Cuba, was classified as Hispanic.
The man was even whiter than me. And he was unable to respond when I used the few words I know in Ladino, the Judeo-Spanish still spoken by Sephardim — Jews of Spanish or Portuguese descent — whose families were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492. I am a proud member of that tribe, which includes renowned figures such as Benjamin Disraeli, not to mention Pfizer’s Albert Bourla. Why shouldn’t they, and yours truly, be classified as Hispanics?
According to the US Census Bureau, a Hispanic or Latino is a ‘person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race’. I belong to the exclusive sect of Sephardim Tehorim (literally ‘pure Sephardim’): that sounds Grade-A Hispanic. Not only that, my mother’s family settled in the Ottoman Empire after being kicked out of Spain. That makes me a Middle Eastern minority, too.
So I consulted an immigration lawyer. He explained that yes, Señor Leon Hadar was indeed a pure Hispanic, and when he applied for a job in academia, he should, as per the immutable laws of affirmative action, be favored over your average white man (of Arab or Persian descent for example, and perhaps over Hadar the son of Turkey too). This discovery could serve a basis for a revisionist historical narrative: the US has always been Hispanic! After all, the first wave of Jewish immigrants to America were of Spanish and Portuguese descent; they ended up occupying important positions in the social and economic life of the new republic. Hence the secretary of state of the Southern Confederacy was Judah P. Benjamin, a Sephardic Jew. Emma Lazarus, the American poet whose sonnet ‘The New Colossus’ appears inscribed on a bronze plaque on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, was a member of a Sephardic family.
And get this. You thought Sonia Sotomayor was the first Hispanic on the US Supreme Court? Let me bring you the news. The first Hispanic on the Court was Benjamin Cardozo, the judge of Portuguese Jewish descent nominated by Herbert Hoover in 1932.
In reality, American Jews of Sephardic descent don’t wave their Hispanic identity. Many of them are probably not even aware they belong to this historically oppressed minority that includes the nice Mexican lady who takes care of their kids. Ironically, many Mexican Americans are now taking DNA tests to prove they are of Sephardic descent, to take advantage of the Spanish government’s offer to grant citizenship to Jews whose families it expelled in the 15th century.
Before I apply for Spanish citizenship, let’s ask a very simple question. Isn’t the Hispanic thing one big scam? The term makes even less sense than ‘Slavic American’, which assumes that Croats and Serbs, who would happily wage war on one another in the ruins of the Old Country, are now the same; or even ‘Arab American’ which assumes that the Lebanese Christian singer Paul Anka and the Palestinian Muslim member of Congress Rashida Tlaib belong to the same ethnic group here, while they’d have a civil war over there.
The term ‘Hispanic’ didn’t exist until the 1970s. Mexican Americans identified as ‘Chicanos’ and Puerto Ricans as, well, Puerto Ricans. That’s why Leonard Bernstein (not Sephardi) had them singing ‘I wanna be an American’ in West Side Story, not ‘I wanna be a Hispanic.’ No one assumed that a white Argentinian of Italian descent should become the ‘bro’ of a poor black woman from Haiti when the two of them immigrated to the US. There were immigrants who came to America directly from Spain and Portugal, as the Sephardic Jews had done. There were white and black immigrants from Latin America who didn’t speak Spanish or Portuguese, and blacks who did speak Spanish or Portuguese but identified as black or African.
In America the Hispanic and Latino tags are based on the fairy tale that the Argentinian-Italian millionaire, the Cuban-American middle-class businessman, and the poor migrant from Honduras are all ‘brown’ people historically oppressed by ‘the Anglos’. It’s manna from heaven for political activists: in the name of representing millions of newly discovered Hispanic Americans, they squeeze financial aid from the government and the big corporations, and get nominated for top government positions.
Yet ‘Hispanic’ (or, for that matter, ‘Aryan’) are terms assigned to imagined communities. These identities inevitably bump into reality. During the 2020 elections, contrary to the fantasies concocted by the Democrats, many of those ‘brown’ Americans were so engrossed by macho man and all-round bad hombre Donald Trump that, like other traditional Catholics repelled by the Democrats’ secular-liberal agenda, they cast their ballots for Republican candidates.
You are probably dying to know if I ended up identifying as Hispanic when I applied for that university teaching post. I didn’t. I just couldn’t imagine the head of the admission committee welcoming me as ‘Señor Hadar’. Perhaps this was a mistake: I didn’t get the job. Next time, I’ll remember to be Latinx.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s May 2021 World edition.