I watched the Sonia Sotomayor hearings, not so much because I am interested in politics, but because as a professional Latina I wondered if I would have anything in common with her. I am a seminary-trained Latina who has worked in primarily Anglo Baptist movements.
Sotomayor and I are both classified as Hispanic in the United States although she is Puerto Rican and I am a fifth-generation Tejana of Mexican-American descent. I am an only child while she has a brother. I have never lived in a housing project. I was raised Baptist, not Catholic. I earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree from a private Baptist university. My first language was English, not Spanish.
At first glance we don’t seem to have much in common except the term “Hispanic.” However, I immediately started identifying with her. I found myself relating to Sotomayor’s experience of facing a predominantly Anglo audience that lectured her on her experiences as a Latina on issues of race and ethnicity. In my case, though, it was Protestant clergy lecturing, not senators.
“But you are American?” the Anglo minister said. “Can’t you get over this Latina stuff?”
“Do all Americans think alike?” I said. “Isn’t my job to network with people in Latin America?”
“Why are you giving examples of Hispanic authors and culture? You are really just Anglo,” said another Anglo minister.
“Some of my favorite authors are Hispanic, Asian, Anglo and African American,” I said. “And I really like being Latina.”
“I’ve never had a minority friend,” the Anglo minister said.
“Thank you for being honest,” I said.
“Why don’t you have an accent?” the Anglo minister said.
“I have an accent in Spanish because English is my first language,” I replied.
“I grew up in the Philippines (or pick a country; I think I have heard them all),” said the Anglo minister. “Therefore, I am an expert on culture,” he implied.
“I grew up speaking Spanish and traveling to Mexico, but I’m still learning,” I said. “And although I am Hispanic, I don’t know how to cook Mexican food, nor do I like jalapeÃ±os.”
“I am color blind,” the Anglo minister said. “I don’t see color.”
“I see color,” I said, “and I think it’s beautiful that God made us all different.”
As I heard a group of predominantly English-speaking senators awkwardly say Sotomayor’s name, I couldn’t help but recall all the unique pronunciations I have heard of my own surname, Cadena.
Some of my very best friends are non-Latino Baptists who can’t pronounce my name correctly. Sure, they have tried, and I have tried to teach them, but we don’t get caught up in saying the name correctly. Perhaps some bonding happens in the laughing and the trying to pronounce the name, but most importantly we are friends. We are the kind of friends who share our joys, sorrows and happiest moments with one another.
I had breakfast at a Baptist conference with an Anglo friend and we started sharing cross-cultural stories. Most of my friends love crossing cultures on a daily basis so talking about race, ethnicity and culture is something we normally talk about.
We were discussing my recent article on EthicsDaily.com titled “The ‘Others’ We Serve Aren’t All That Different From Us,” which prompted her to tell me about an acquaintance that recently started riding a motorcycle. She described him as an Anglo-Saxon businessman in his early 40s. The man was increasingly aware that he received strange looks and odd treatment whenever he wore his motorcycle gear — jeans, helmet, leather jacket and boots. However, when he put on his business attire, he was treated respectfully and politely.
During the conversation we realized that an analogy could be made regarding my experience of living in the southeast and working with a predominantly Anglo Protestant movement as a U.S.-born Latina.
I noted that I cannot take off my motorcycle gear. To be honest, although I have attended and graduated from predominantly Anglo Baptist institutions, I haven’t always noticed my motorcycle gear. Just as Moses in the book of Exodus saw the plight of his people, I have become increasingly aware of the stories of my fellow Hispanics. Our motorcycle gear is our skin color, perhaps an accent in English (or Spanish), cultural traits and perceived immigration status.
Sotomayor is reported to have had few if any Latino professors while at Princeton. She graduated summa cum laude in 1976 and earned a juris doctor from Yale in 1979. At my alma mater, Baylor University, where I earned a bachelor of arts in 1997 and a master of divinity in 2001, I recall having two professors who were people of color; neither was Latino nor born in the United States.
I was sad to hear Sotomayor take back her “wise Latina” remark, but I understand why she did. I have much in common with Sonia Sotomayor. When you wear motorcycle gear 24-7 and are surrounded by non-motorcyclists, you try to blend in when you can.
Laura A. Cadena is a fifth-generation Tejana and a graduate of Baylor University and George W. Truett Theological Seminary. She is a member of Peachtree Baptist Church in Atlanta.