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June 11, 2009


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From what I've gathered, Hispanics weren't really thought of as a distinct race prior to the civil rights movement of the middle and late 1960's. If a male version of Sotomayor had attended Princeton and YLS in the 1950's or early 1960's, he would've been thought of as a bit more exotic and more "ethnic" than the other students, but not as a racial minority. Sort of like Ricky Ricardo on I Love Lucy.

The idea that Hispanics weren't thought of as a distinct race before the civil rights movement is not correct.

Here is summary of the extent of legal segregation in California before 1950. Here is the wikipedia entry on the 1946 court case which ended it. Here you can read about the 1948 and 1954 court cases in Texas that exempted Mexican-Americans from the Jim Crow laws. At the bottom of this page you can see a photograph of a sign that brings the point home. Here is a story about a Texas town that finally got around to revoking its Jim Crow law aimed at "Spanish or Mexican" residents in 2008.

It was worst in the West, of course. But racism (as distinct from the sort of prejudice an Italian-American might experience) also occurred in the East. I'd be happy to find cites, but you live on Long Island, correct? It won't be hard to find a white Italian-American in their seventies and ask them about the reaction to and treatment of their new Puerto Rican neighbors.

In other words, while the statement that a male version of Sotomayor would have been thought of as an ethnic student like any others cannot be conclusively disproved, it is not true that Mexican-Americans and (to a lesser extent) Puerto Ricans before 1960 received the same treatment as earlier or contemporary immigrants from Southern Europe.

Greg Rodriguez's book has a lot more detail about the development of the American Latino identity as apart from the white majority, for anyone who's interested.

I'm not a Long Island native, having grown up in Connecticut. My hometown had a substantial Puerto Rican population, however. Looking back as far as I can, to about the early 1970's, my impression is that the Puerto Ricans were thought of as a bit exotic and "different" primarily for reasons of language and a distinctive culture. Race was only a very minor part of the equation.

The city also had a large number of Albanians, most of whom had arrived in the 1950's and afterwards. They were thought of as just as exotic and "different" as the Puerto Ricans, despite being of completely European origin and physically indistinguishable from the general white population. It wasn't Islam that made them different, as very few of them were observant Muslims (some actually were Christian) and in any event there wasn't the Islam vs. everyone else division that so often exists today. As with the Puerto Ricans, the Albanians were set apart by language and culture, as well as a very strong group identity.

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