Judge Sonia Sotomayor: Racialization, Ideology and the “Imagined Latino Community”

Next July 13, congressional hearings will by held by the Judiciary Committee headed by Sen. Patrick Leahy D-VT to examine the credentials of Judge Sonia Sotomayor as a candidate to sit in the bench of the nation’s highest court. The extreme right wing of the Republican Party began with such strong negative rhetoric about the first Latina woman to be nominated for this position that many wondered if the hearings could become a very conflictive process. While the tone of the rhetoric has been softened, it remains to be seen if the Republican Party will continue laying out the foundation that could lead it to become an irrelevant participant in the nation’s political process. Its extreme, rigid positions on immigration and affirmative action have distanced Lincoln’s party from the rising political actors in the United States’ political landscape. But the nomination of Judge Sotomayor has also revealed the complexity of the “Latino community” and the need to understand this cluster of national origin groups on its own terms and not in terms of the racialization processes that have created a homogenized understanding of a very differentiated group.

The Imagined Latino Community

The media that focuses on the Latino communities in the United States has contributed to a pervasive misperception that exists about who Mexicans, Puerto Rican, Cubans, Salvadorians and other groups of Latin American descent are in the larger context of United States society. While the Anglo media has always perpetuated stereotypes about “latinos,” the “latino” media, in order to expand its markets beyond the ethnic niches of the various Latin-American origin groups, has also contributed to the idea that all Latin-American origin groups are alike. While there are many similarities among these groups there are also significant differences that are revealed in the discourse about the selection of a second generation Puerto Rican to be the first “latina” in the Supreme Court.

It is ironic that this process of racialization (erasure of the cultural and historical differences between ethnic groups) that has created a “Latino” pseudo-racial group is occurring at a time when a color-blind ideology is dominant in political, legal and pedagogical discourse in the United States. Although race is still the essential pivot around which American society is constructed and its hierarchies developed, the courts, politicians and the educational system are negating the role of race and racism in the inequalities that persist in our society. This ideology is so prevalent that it has become common sense and unexamined and is dominating our most important institutions. In the educational system, for example, Janet Schoefield, in study done in a school in 2001, revealed that white students did not know Martin Luther King was an African American. The courts have narrowed the use of race in redressing racial inequalities and politicians do not dare utter the word racism in the public sphere. Most recently, section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, while not overturned, was interpreted in a narrower, individualistic way opening the door to another possible examination by the Supreme Court in the future. Judge Sotomayor, will likely have, if approved, a crucial role in that future decision.

The recent election of President Barack Obama has led many to talk about a “post-racial” United States. Yet, the same inequalities exist, the same hate crimes exist and children of the various Latin American heritages continue attending substandard and underfinanced schools. Recently, evidence suggests we may be at the dawn of a new “post-racial” “Latino” politics emerging across the nation. Los Angeles Mayor Villaraigosa has increasingly distanced himself from appearing too ethnic, the California 32nd congressional district, until recently represented by progressive Hilda Solis — a majority “Latino” district — will no longer be represented by a politician of Latin American origin and in San Antonio Julian Castro became mayor following a similar strategy to broaden his appeal. In some sense, could it be that Peter Skerry, who wrote Mexican Americans: The Ambivalent Minority might be right? Are “Latinos” just another temporarily racialized group on its way to becoming mainstreamed (which in the U.S. means white)?

However, the cacophony of strongly negative comments about Judge Sotomayor made by the Republican Party’s right wing, especially Tom Tancredo, Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich reveals the power of race and racism in contemporary America. Judge Sotomayor’s mistake, in their view, is that she affirmed her social experience as a “Latina” woman and how it provides her a rich perspective to add to the various other world views that abound in mainstream legal discourse. In a culture where the “color-blind” ideology is dominant any enunciation of ethnicity or race is taboo. However, the reality is that Judge Sotomayor is not too far from mainstream legal thought.

Their stance also might place the party in a more difficult place as it tries to recruit among the emerging actors in the political arena. The Republican Party is increasingly becoming whiter and ideologically extreme. In terms of Latin-American voters, it only received 31 percent of the “latino” vote in 2008, down from 40 percent in 2004. Since, today, 22 percent of all American less than 18 years of age are “latinos” the future of the party seems tenuous at best.

Legal Background

President Obama, in announcing Judge Sotomayor’s nomination for a seat in the Supreme Court, mentioned a case that involved the baseball major leagues in 1995. Dave Zirin’s article in The Nation (“Sotomayor is a Sporting Judge,” May 29, 2009) argued that Judge Sotomayor “saved” the capitalist owners of the baseball franchises from themselves. She basically saved them from their own short sightedness and greed. In fact, her decision to squash the bosses’ lockout helped baseball grow from a business that produced $1.3 billion to one that produces $7.5 billion.

A recent analysis of her judicial decisions by the McClatchy news agency revealed that Judge Sotomayor has been in the Court of Appeals since January 2002. Since that time, in criminal cases she has decided 65 of 90 instances in favor of the government. In 450 cases she presided over, she was only revised in six cases; none of them were criminal cases.

What is not clear is her position on abortion. None of the cases she has been involved in have had anything to do with an interpretation of Roe v. Wade (1973) and in other cases tangentially related her decisions were diverse. Right wing conservatives like Rush Limbaugh are hoping that her Catholic background will determine her position on abortion. Five of the judges are Catholic and only Anthony Kennedy strayed away from an anti-abortion stance in 1992 when he supported the right of a woman to an abortion. It is ironic that those who critique Judge Sotomayor for being honest about her background and experience as a Puerto Rican woman now place their hope on that background for a particular interpretation of the law.

However, it is revealing that this dialogue, which pivots around this “latina” woman, is contradictorily being used to both reproduce the fiction of a “Latino community” and on the other hand to extol the culture of meritocracy that permeates American culture. “Latino” is a category that is still empty of content although it might truly become a social reality in the future as diverse Latin-American origin communities intermarry and begin to develop a hybrid “latino” culture and identity. But in the meantime, the real ethnic groupings are the Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican and other communities with their unique historical experiences and cultures. A recent survey (June 4) by Quinnipiac University indicated that 49 percent of whites and 66 percent of Jewish Americans support Judge Sotomayor for the court. Close to 85 percent of African Americans contrasted with 58 percent of “latino” showed support for Judge Sotomayor’s selection. Some have argued that a large number of conservative Cubans may have biased the survey.

In another survey by McClatchy news (May 28-June 8), which had a larger sample than the Quinnipiac University survey, “latino” support for Judge Sotomayor is 72 percent. If the media continues to emphasize her “immigrant” working class background it may continue to elicit the support of Latin-American communities. But ironically, the way this message has been communicated presents her story as a “rags to riches” epic without any social context that helps make sense of her achievement. It is important to acknowledge her efforts and at the same time nuance the individualistic message that is being used to explain her success. Her mother, Celina Sotomayor, an important figure in her life, led her to appreciate Puerto Rican culture, which nurtured a sense of place and significance in a society that was not always hospitable to differences. Also, it is important to acknowledge that she grew up in a New York where the struggles of the Puerto Rican and the Black community opened doors to Latin Americans to new opportunities. Organizations like the Young Lords, ASPIRA and others forced the powers that be to provide access to education, health care and housing. This fertile context of social struggles is the stage that catapulted the intelligence and determination of this Puerto Rican woman into the public sphere.

Her achievements, rightly so, belong to her and to those on whose shoulder many of us have been carried into the present.

Victor M. Rodriguez is Professor and former Chair of the Department of Chicano and Latino Studies at California State University of Long Beach. Among his published works is Latino Politics in the United States: Race, Ethnicity, Class and Gender in the Mexican American and Puerto Rican Experience in the United States (Kendall-Hunt, 2012). He can be reached at: vodrig5@csulb.edu. Read other articles by Victor, or visit Victor's website.

11 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Synic3 said on June 28th, 2009 at 12:43pm #

    Sonia Sotomayor is a “coporate judge”, for that she will be confirmed.
    In almost all the case that came to her bench, she ruled in favour of
    the corporations against the plaintfs.
    All that Republican opposition to her, because of her “radical views”, and her gender and racial bias

  2. Synic3 said on June 28th, 2009 at 12:48pm #


    is nothing but theatrics to give the impression of a conflict between
    the Democrats and Republicans, but the fix is in, and we have only one
    single party which is the corporate party.

  3. beverly said on June 28th, 2009 at 3:54pm #

    As always, the media fixates on the usual subjects, abortion and affirmative action, when reporting on court nominees. In addition, a rags to riches story or ethnic plot line is welcome fodder for the pundit class and advocates for various causes/groups who should know better.

    More attention must be paid to the nominee’s record while an attorney and judge on questions of corporate power, criminal matters, and individual/civil/labor rights. The court handles far more cases pertaining to these issues than abortion and affirmative action.

    Further, advocates for issues such as education, poverty, labor, and civil rights should be more vehement and vocal in demanding more nominees from the non-corporate law sector. Thurgood Marshall was the last jurist with a non-corporate background. Where are the nominees who toiled in and presided over matters from the public defender’s office, personal injury, immigrant rights, labor rights, civil rights, criminal justice arenas? A court stacked with former corporate attorneys who have little or no experience or concern with individual rights stacks the deck against the interests of the people.

    People are too easily placated with racial and gender diversity with a good Horatio Alger story thrown in for good measure. A nominee’s humble beginnings don’t mean squat; there are zillions of politicians with such backgrounds who legislate against interests of those he/she left behind. Don’t forget that the wolf in sheep’s clothing often looks just like you. The diversity most needed is in career background. We don’t need another corporatist stooge on the court (but that’s what we will get).

    Side note: I am sick of the patronizing canard of “how (fill in blank with minority) now have hope and can dream of doing great things now that one of “their own” is nominated or elected”, “how little (fill in blank with minority) girls or boys can now believe they can achieve, yada fucking yada.”

    Most minorities were trying do their best to make a good life for selves and families before an Obama or Sotomayor, etc. came on the scene. It’s 2009, not 1909 and most are well aware of their brethren working in all areas of society these days. Those of us who give a damn about getting by and making something of ourselves didn’t have to see a biracial black face in the White House or Puerto-Rican nominated to the big court in order to have “hope and dreams” or whatever condescending shit some pundit or idiot minority “spokesman” comes up with.

  4. Victor M. Rodriguez said on June 29th, 2009 at 7:58am #


    As you know, every category above our individual name leads to some higher level of abstraction, so I prefer to refer to folks, if possible, to their national origin. To talk in broader terms I think that the cumbersome term of “Latin-American descent” is more appropriate than “latino” or “hispanic.” It has been used less in the commodfying process than the other two and at least recognizes some geographic, historical, cultural link.

    I absolutely agree with your point that the court would have benefited more from a candidate coming from the non-corporate world (Thurgood Marshall) and I agree that I would have been happier with a more progressive candidate than her. However, I don’t think a candidate like that would receive any support from the establishment. At least, Sonia has some connection to her working class background, it remains to be seen for how long.

    Thanks for your comments.

  5. Lupita said on June 30th, 2009 at 5:42pm #

    “Los Angeles Mayor Villaraigosa has increasingly distanced himself from appearing too ethnic”

    Too ethnic? What does that mean? He looks like a regular politician, like the mayors of, say, Guadalajara or Monterrey. Are you using “ethnic” as a euphemism for “pre-industrial” or “poor”?

    “Are “Latinos” just another temporarily racialized group on its way to becoming mainstreamed (which in the U.S. means white)?”

    Yes. There is no is no inter-generational transmission of culture as the statistic that only 5% of the children of immigrants speak their parents’ language and, by the 3rd generation, the language is lost. That does not mean non-white people become white; it means that children are enculturated into the society they are raised in. Are you confusing race with culture?

    “In a culture where the “color-blind” ideology is dominant any enunciation of ethnicity or race is taboo.”

    In the US talking about race and ethnicity is taboo?! It is all you talk about! Americans have to be the most race obsessed people in the world. As to your “ethnic groups”, they are no more than a euphemism for race.

    ““Latino” is a category that is still empty of content although it might truly become a social reality in the future as diverse Latin-American origin communities intermarry and begin to develop a hybrid “latino” culture and identity.”

    Given that there is no inter-generational transmission of culture or language, all you would get is another brownish generation. Call it “Latinou” if you will.

    “the real ethnic groupings are the Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican and other communities with their unique historical experiences and cultures.”

    A Mexican, a Cuban, and a Puerto Rican have much more in common, starting with language, than they do with Americans with Latin American ancestors. Furthermore, why do Mexicans cease to be members of a nation and become members of an ethnic group once we cross the border? Do Americans also become “ethnics” when you cross to Tijuana?

  6. Bill Matthewman said on July 4th, 2009 at 8:16pm #

    Judge Sotomayor will make a great Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Puerto Ricans have been treated as second class citizens for years. Judge Sotomayor’s appointment to the United States Supreme Court will go a long way towards recognizing the accomplishments of Puerto Ricans in the United States.

  7. Victor M. Rodriguez said on July 5th, 2009 at 11:31am #


    Thanks for your comments. Since Villaraigosa was elected, and at least before he announced he would not run for the governorship of Calfironia, his public relations atff has tried to downplay the Latinismo he strongly used at the beginning of his career. He recently did not participate in an event where the audience was mostly Latinos, in an effort to not to appear he was only reaching out to Latinos.

    While race is a social construction, a fiction perpetuated by our most important social institutions (education, economy, political etc.) it has the power to provide access to some and exlusion for others. Race is not about culture, it’s about power. Ethnicity is about culture. However, the reality is that many Latinos who define themselves as “white” (close to half) also tend to be more likely to vote Republican, more likely to be middle class etc. So assimilation does not occur in a generic way, it occur in a racialized way. As Fannon said the most powerful weapon of the opressor is the mind of the oppresssed, if people think like “whites” they will act as whites (whites are also racialized and more diverse than what race can explain). The reference in my piece refers to conservatives like Peter Skerry that argue that Mexicans (and by extension other Latinos) will be mainstreamed like Italians, Irish, Germans etc. However, we all know that the majority of Latinos will be racialized as “non-white.”

    Our public conversations about race are very devoid of racial terms, we speak in codes, just like Tom Tancredo, Rush Limbaugh and other right wind ideologues speak about race without mentioning race.

    As to a “hybrid” Latino culture, this is happening already and it varied by region. In Califas, you have Salvadoreans who are Chicano in Culture and in New York you have Peruvians who are Boricua in culture. Puerto Ricans celebrate bithdays with pinatas and Hondurans use Mariachi bands in LA to celebrate weddings. Go figure!

    Thanks for your comments.

  8. Lupita said on July 7th, 2009 at 4:30pm #

    Thank you for your response; however, you did not address my point which was that without inter-generational transmission of culture (of which language is a main component) there is no society. This is the main blind spot of American sociologists, your Thatcherite failure to grasp what societies are and their function, perhaps even that they exist. You cling to the false notion that families are able to transmit language and culture in the exact same way, generation after generation, without the benefit of surrounding society, its institutions, educational system, and media. That is, that individuals are not socialized into the society the are born, but into the society of their ancestors.

    “However, the reality is that many Latinos who define themselves as “white” (close to half) also tend to be more likely to vote Republican, more likely to be middle class etc. So assimilation does not occur in a generic way, it occur in a racialized way ”

    How can voting for a Gringo party (Democrats) be an indicator of non-assimilation into Gringo society? The distinction between the ideology and policies of your two political parties is lost upon Latin Americans, since we have viable socialist – as in anti-imperial, anti-neoliberal – parties. Your are granting too much importance to minute differences within your political culture that only natives can perceive and missing the great big characteristic of American political culture which is that you have no left.

    And how can you say that being a member of the low class is a mark of not being assimilated into a society when all societies have classes? You are confusing a part of society with society itself.

    “As Fannon said the most powerful weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed, if people think like “whites” they will act as whites”

    And if you studied sociology in an American university you will express yourself like one. My point is, Mexican sociologists do not use your definition of community and what makes an individual a member of one, of class, and of the significance of voting preferences and the consumption of piñatas and mariachi music. In Mexico, a Mixtec remains a Mixtec despite having a middle class income and education or voting for the right-wing PAN. What makes him or her a Mixtec is living and participating in Mixtec society, sharing and maintaining bonds of solidarity with the community, being able to communicate with other members by virtue of speaking the language, and by transmitting Mixtec language and culture to the next generation. A Mexican sociologist, and Mixtecs themselves, would never refer to an individual who was born and raised in Mexico City, whose parents and children do not speak Mixtec, and who has no bonds with the Mixtec ethnic group as a Mixtec just because he or she has a Mixtec grandparent.

    Being an American who is poor, brown, and a Democrat are not markers of Latin American culture despite not being considered “white” by Americans. A Mexican who is rich, white, and admires Obama does have a Latin American culture because he/she was socialized in Mexico.

  9. Melissa said on July 7th, 2009 at 6:30pm #

    This is good reading for me, posters. Thank you.


  10. Victor M. Rodriguez said on July 8th, 2009 at 10:48am #


    You raise important issues, but I don’t recall making any statement about the process of acculturation, what I was trying to say is that “American” culture is not color-blind, the values of “American” culture are Anglo-Saxon values, including, like sociologist (not the comedian) Robin Williams showed, racism and group superiority. But you are absolutely right that language is an important indicator of assimilation but the statistics for linguistic assimilation of Latinos are different than from previous European immigrants. You are also right that the assimilation process today is quite different from half a century ago. While it is true that Latinos are probably the first immigrant group to learn English by the second or third generation the process is more complex. For example, Germans who arrived in the U.S. before universal education, took a while longer to learn English. Latino children, now inserted in a public educational system (the most powerful assimilationist machine in the nation) learn English quite quickly. But, they soon learn there are “superior” and “inferior” groups and they also learn that some languages (English) are superior to other languages (Spanish). So young Latinos try to shed the stigmatized “Latino” encasement by not speaking English in public. To complicate things further, since there is a large foreign-born immigrant population, power Spanish-media, even in the third generation many continue being bilingual. (I believe that this language retention tends to be higher among Puerto Ricans for reasons too complex to describe here.) The PEW 2002 survey on assimilation and language found that 22 per cent of third generation Latinos are bilingual.

    I am not in agreement that “individuals are not socialized into the society the are born, but into the society of their ancestors.” The data does not support this and my anecdotal experience raising three kids tells me that my kids were shaped by forces more influential than the ones we could generate within the family. I think that with the developments in technology this will be come even more true.

    As to the parties, as a socialist I would prefer to vote for a socialist party that is able to muster a political platform. But in this country, must of us socialists vote holding our noses and choosing for the “menos malo.” While I am not a cheerleader for Obama the “minute” differences between the Democrats and the Republicans are important. Bush would have probably sent military aid (like in Haiti, etc.) to support the gorilas. Yes, Obama’s response is soft, but it is significantly different.

    I also don’t think that the definition of community that I prefer is different from yours, if I am not participating within an ethnic community, living the culture, then I don’t feel I am a part of it. but in the U.S. racialization has created these “imagined communities” that pivot around some imagined connection. Therefore, “Latinos” are presumed to be “Latinos” because society treats them as “Latinos” even when they are English dominant, middle class, highly educated. Sometimes, they delude themselves and say they are un-hyphenated “Americans” until they walk down the street and someone hurls a racist epithet.

  11. Lupita said on July 9th, 2009 at 11:45am #

    Again, Professor Rodríguez, thank you for your response.

    “racialization has created these “imagined communities” that pivot around some imagined connection.”

    This is the crux of the matter: American ethnic groups are fake, conceived in the bowels of the US Census Bureau, legitimized by universities, and exploited by politicians. American ethnic groups are as imaginary as the efficiency of unregulated markets and the progressiveness of Democrats, not to mention the US’ noble intentions when invading and occupying nations that pose no threat.

    However, I do not think that the meek acceptance by many Americans – not only to “self-identify” as a member of a foreign cultural group on forms, but to actually believe that they have a foreign culture – arose not from racialism but individualism. Americans could not be celebrating their presumed diversity without the underlying individualist belief that you can independently re-invent yourselves without reference to others, indeed, without any interaction whatsoever.

    Extreme individualism is also the reason why Americans do not have a national health care system, strong labor unions, and a socialist party. It is the reason why the US is so far to the right of the rest of the world that you have become scary and alien.

    So much for your “multiculturalism”…