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Sotomayor, Cardozo and the question of 'Hispanic' vs. 'Latino'

June 10, 2009 |  6:00 am

First Hispanic justice: An article in Sunday's Section A about Sonia Sotomayor and former Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo incorrectly used, in the headline and the first three paragraphs, the
term Latino. The article referred to a semantic debate over whether Sotomayor was the first Hispanic to be nominated to the Supreme Court and not Cardozo. The article should have said that advocacy groups
praised Sotomayor, a New-York born Puerto Rican, as the first Hispanic, which prompted political opponents to argue that Cardozo's Portuguese heritage qualified him as the first Hispanic.

So read a Los Angeles Times For the Record that ran June 2.

When it appeared in the newspaper, some on The Times staff wondered: Why was a correction needed? One response might be: Read the May 31 story, which refers to the Pew Hispanic Report's attempt to answer the question, "Just who is a Hispanic?"

The Times picked up the May 31 story from the Chicago Tribune, one of several Tribune-owned news organizations that share news reports. The National desk editor in Los Angeles who handled the story changed the Chicago Tribune reporter’s first several uses of “Hispanic” to “Latino,” observing Times style rules: “Latino is the umbrella term for people of Latin American descent. Use Hispanic only in quotes, in proper names or reports based on census data.”

(A more comprehensive entry in The Times' stylebook under racial and ethnic identification says of “Latino”: “This is the umbrella term for Spanish-surnamed groups in the United States, including Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Central Americans and South Americans.”)

The Tribune reporter, Antonio Olivo, noticed the change once the story ran in The Times. He contacted editors at The Times to suggest the story as reprinted here should have kept his original usage of “Hispanic,” because his piece concerned the nuances of that specific word and how some observers, using it to describe Cardozo, had suggested that Sotomayor’s ethnicity would not be a first among Supreme Court nominees.

In this case, Henry Fuhrmann, the assistant managing editor for Times copy desks, agrees with the reporter and says yes, the for-the-record was needed. Said Fuhrmann in an e-mail: “The stylebook guidelines work in the vast majority of cases in which we describe people of Latin American descent. Here, with the word ‘Hispanic’ being applied to Cardozo by some of Sotomayor’s political opponents, I would have advocated a deviation from our usual style and used it throughout the piece as the reporter wrote it. From my reading, no one quoted in the story was suggesting that Cardozo, whose roots may or may not have traced to Portugal, was of Latin American descent (that is, was Latino)."

Fuhrmann's note concludes: “It is certain that Sotomayor is the first Latina nominee and the first Latino (speaking more broadly). We’ll leave whether she is also the first Hispanic nominee to those engaged in the political debate.”

And debated it is, as evidenced not only in the The Times story (and correction), but also in numerous recent published stories (to name just a few: the Wall Street Journal online;; U.S. News & World Report. An essay at the Harvard Law School points to other online conversations about the topic).