In an op-ed for the Los Angeles Weekly, writer Dennis Romero wonders aloud if the new pope, both of whose parents are Italian, is really the first Latino Pope? This is an interesting question and complicates the categories of race, ethnicity and nation which often get conflated, particularly in this type of discourse. Racially, the new Pope Jorge Mario Bergoglio is white, but ethnically and culturally, he is Latino because of his upbringing in Argentina.
Romero spoke with Raul Hinojosa-Ojeda, associate professor at UCLA’s Cesar E. Chavez Department of Chicana/o Studies, who said the Pope is undoubtedly Latino because of a number of factors including his cultural experience, not his “genetic background.” Pope Bergoglio speaks Italian, Spanish and German and was raised in Argentina, like many Italians who migrated there for a better life in the 1920s.
It is easy to see that Pope Bergoglio is multicultural and has many identities that are fluid and dynamic. Perhaps the greater question is with all of the candidates who are racially indigenous or even black and South American, why go with one who is racially white?
Some speculate that it is Pope Bergoglio’s Italian ancestry that gave him the cultural capital needed to gain the revered post, helping to keep the racial hierarchy employed by the Catholic Church in place.
Pope Francis I (Bergoglio’s chosen moniker) was celebrated in his Italian ancestral village even though he was not raised there, which is not unusual (Kenyans celebrating President Obama’s historic win even though he was born in the United States and raised primarily by his American mother).
What is interesting is that at a time when there are more Latino Catholics than any other cultural group, the Catholic Church would go with the status quo – an Argentinian with Italian roots who racially reaffirms the racial and ethnic hierarchy of the papacy of old, under the guise of connecting to the shifting racial and ethnic demographics of the church of today.
The Catholic Church’s new Latino Pope isn’t really that new, at least racially — in fact his appointment could be read as old hat. We’re all grown here — Pope Bergoglio is a safe choice for reasons that are obvious to some and willingly overlooked by others but his appointment is not new or radically different from any other Pope that has come before him.
This post was written by Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., editor-in-chief of The Burton Wire. Follow her on Twitter @Ntellectual.