Connecticut Latinos Gaining Influence in Politics, Media and Economics
In 2013, Connecticut Appellate Court Judge Carmen E. Espinosa became the first Hispanic Superior Court judge in Connecticut, as well as the only state Supreme Court justice in the nation of Puerto Rican descent.
(page 1 of 4)
When Appellate Court Judge Carmen E. Espinosa was nominated to Connecticut’s Supreme Court in January by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, the state’s Latino community cheered. Espinosa, 63, the first Latina to be named to the state’s high court, had accrued a few other “firsts” before arriving at this honor, and she was happy to tick them off in a public statement to the Judiciary Committee at the state Capitol: “the first Hispanic, and the first Hispanic female, Superior Court judge in Connecticut” and “the first Hispanic judge to sit on the Connecticut Appellate Court.” When she was confirmed on March 7, Judge Espinosa also became the only state Supreme Court justice in the nation of Puerto Rican descent.
Given all these “firsts,” an unspoken question hangs in the air:
What took so long?
After all, Latinos or Hispanics—those state residents who, by General Statute definition, are “persons of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American, or other Spanish culture or origin, regardless of race”—comprise nearly 14 percent of Connecticut’s population and 16 percent of the public-school population, based on the latest U.S. Census (2010). This translates to about 482,000 people, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, which makes Connecticut’s the 17th-highest population of Latinos in the nation. They are the largest and fastest-growing ethnic minority in the state, expanding at a rate 12 times the rest of the population.
Why has it taken this long for such a large, politically and economically influential portion of the population to rise to the highest positions of power?
Making blanket statements about the Latino community is fraught with peril. First, what does “Latino” and/or “Hispanic” really mean? Or, more importantly, what do these terms mean, if anything, to the people ostensibly defined by them? Second, Latino communities in Connecticut are so culturally distinct from one another that seemingly obvious connections—such as the Spanish language and Catholicism—are no longer ironclad markers.
“The concern I have with the terms ‘Latino’ and ‘Hispanic’ is that they are too homogenizing,” says Orlando Rodriguez, a senior policy fellow at Connecticut Voices for Children in New Haven. “You are really missing a lot of the diversity by interchangeably using these terms.”
Rodriguez, former manager of the Connecticut State Data Center at UConn-Storrs, points to a Pew Hispanic Center survey conducted last year, “When Labels Don’t Fit: Hispanics and their Views of Identity.”
“The study showed that there is something of a Latino identity crisis in this country,” says Rodriguez. “When asked ‘How do you think of yourself?,’ respondents found the labels to be contrived. Those who came here identify with their country of origin, but the children born here think of themselves as Americans. Period. It’s no different from what happened with Irish, German, French and Asian immigrants before them.”
Rodriguez’s own life has followed that pattern. Born in Cuba, he was brought to Louisiana at age 3 and has no memory of his native country. “I grew up in New Orleans and think of myself as an American,” he says. “My parents came to the United States in their 30s and thought of themselves as Cubans.”