He is being hailed with pride and wonder as the "first Latino pope," a native Spanish speaker born and raised in the South American nation of Argentina. But for some Latinos in the United States, there's a catch: Pope Francis' parents were born in Italy.
Such recent European heritage is reviving debate in the United States about what makes someone a Latino. Those questioning whether their idea of Latino identity applies to Pope Francis acknowledge that he is Latin American, and that he is a special inspiration to Spanish-speaking Catholics around the world. Yet that, in their eyes, does not mean the pope is "Latino."
These views seem to be in the minority. But they have become a distinct part of the conversation in the United States as the Latino world contemplates this unique man and moment.
"Are Italians Latino? No," says Eric Cortes, who has been debating the issue with his friends.
"The most European alternative and the closest thing to an Italian," is how Baylor University professor Philip Jenkins described Pope Francis in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Does a Latino have to have indigenous blood?" asked the LA Weekly newspaper of Los Angeles beneath the headline, "Is The New Pope Latino?"
"Latinos come in all colors and shades and features," Ivette Baez said in an emotional debate on the "Being Latino" Facebook page.
The swirling discussion indicates just how much the man formerly known as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, whatever his ethnicity, means to Catholic Latinos around the world.
"The Latino community tends to pride itself on the accomplishments of our own," says Baez, a Puerto Rican who lives in New Jersey. "And a lot of people are hoping that a Latino pope would bring more of a focus on the problems in Latin America."
"After the president of the United States, he's probably the most influential person in the world," she says.
The conversation about Pope Francis' ethnicity is rooted in history and geography. Latin America is a complex region of deep racial and class narratives. The elites tend to be whites of European ancestry; the poor are often dark-skinned descendants of indigenous or African people.
Latinos also can be of any race; many identify themselves as both Latino and white, or Latino and black. So debates were bound to happen with the elevation of a fair-skinned son of Italians born in South America's most European city, a place that has always identified more with Rome and Madrid than Caracas or Mexico City.
Cortes, a 29-year-old son of Colombian immigrants who lives in Philadelphia, says some friends his age are confused about why the pope is being identified as Latino. "Others are assuming it's a ploy to get Latino Catholics more involved," he says.
According to Cortes' definition of Latino, which includes Spanish, African and Indian descent, it's "stretching" to include Pope Francis. "His parents are Italian ... Just because he is born in Argentina does not make him Latino at all," Cortes says.
The logic is exactly the opposite, however, for millions of others. If you are born in Latin America, and share its language, history and culture, they say, you are Latino — period. They point to the fact that Pope Francis loves tango, drinks the traditional South American beverage mate and follows the San Lorenzo de Almagro futbol team.
"Look: If the guy was raised there, lived there, did the culture there, who has the right to take that away?" says Andrew Ysiano, a Mexican-American and publisher of LatinoTimes.org in Stockton, Calif. "How do you take something away that he was raised by?"
"I consider him Latino," he says. "With a name like Jorge, he has to have the culture, right? I know there has to be some kind of roots there for him."
Benny Martinez, a Mexican-American civil rights activist who lives in Goliad, Texas, says he feels "somewhat proud" that an Argentinian is now pope. "Sure he's Latino. Why not?" says Martinez, who can trace his family's roots to Texas from the 1700s. "Anyone who speaks Spanish and is from Latin America is Latino, I guess."
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