PROUD DAY Nancy de los Santos, left, and Azucena Maldonado.
THE SOTOMAYOR MAMBO Choco G. Meza, right, leads a celebration
Sharitza Lopez, a volunteer for Latino Justice Youth Civic Engagement Network, with her son Joel J. Santana.
August 9, 2009
Sotomayor Fans Claim the Phrase ‘Wise Latina’
By MIREYA NAVARRO
THE phrase by itself was a compliment.
Then it became a term of derision for some political commentators, bloggers and senators.
And now, “Wise Latina” is a catchphrase emblazoned on T-shirts, mugs and baby bibs, and a moniker for any number of new Facebook groups.
The author, Sonia Sotomayor, who on Thursday was confirmed as the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice, may have distanced herself from the term at her confirmation hearings, but other Latinas are running with it, adopting it as a rallying cry and wearing it as a badge of pride.
Leticia Van de Putte, a Democratic state senator from San Antonio, said she had T-shirts made, reading “Another wise Latina woman,” as soon as she heard the controversial term. She sent them to nearly 200 relatives, friends and fellow politicians with a card that said: “The Hon. Sonia Sotomayor has broken ‘the glass ceiling’ for all Latinas.”
As a Mexican-American, Senator Van de Putte said, “wise Latina” conjured images of the grandmothers and elder women who were sought for advice and comfort “in our matriarchal culture.”
One of Senator Van de Putte’s T-shirt recipients was Ellen Riojas Clark, a professor of bicultural and bilingual studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio who helped create a “Wise Latina Educators” group on Facebook. Professor Riojas Clark said the members wanted to exchange information about how to inspire young Latinos to pursue degrees and careers.
John H. McWhorter, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research who is a linguist and a frequent commentator about race, said words or phrases often become part of a group’s vernacular when they enable people to assert themselves, reclaim a slur or redress an offense, as in the ownership of the word “bitch” among educated women or “thug” among young African-Americans.
“One thing that helps something catch on is the perception of an enemy outside,” he said. “It’s pride, but pride born in opposition.”
“ ‘Wise Latina’ is not just sticking your chin up,” he added. “It’s a fist in the air.”
But it remains to be seen whether the phrase galvanizes a movement or just becomes a memorable quotation.
Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at the University of California, Berkeley, said words that catch on usually give voice to a sentiment that’s already brewing in the culture — such as the “Black is beautiful” slogan that celebrates black people’s natural features.
“ ‘Wise Latina’ crystallizes that sense of how Latinas see themselves or want to be seen,” he said.
But such phrases have limited power to spur change, he noted, although Republicans may want “wise Latina” quickly forgotten if it reminds voters of criticism by some senators that was deemed unfair.
“It’s connected to the question of whether this is going to cost Latino votes,” he said.
The phrase was the sound bite from a longer quote — “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life” — that drew ridicule from opponents of her nomination.
But if the term was portrayed by some Republican senators as biased, if not outright racist, and mocked by conservative radio talk show hosts, many Latinas said the phrase felt like a reaffirmation of their own lives.
“I related greatly to it because you have to be really wise to wake up in the morning and go to school and work and come home and not get involved in the negative things in your neighborhood,” said Sharitza Lopez, 24, a junior at City College who works as a legal assistant in a law firm and is raising a 2-year-old son in the Bronx, where Justice Sotomayor grew up.
T-shirts are among the first spontaneous manifestations of the appeal of “Wise Latina” and were ubiquitous at watch-the-vote gatherings on Thursday, organized by Latinas at bars and homes around the country. In New York City, Latino groups like LatinoJustice PRLDEF, the civil rights organization on whose board Justice Sotomayor once served, are selling them as a fund-raising tool.
On the Internet, “wise Latina” blogs and Facebook groups are abuzz. “Viva Sotomayor and all of the other Wise Latinas out there!! (I’m patting myself on the back right now)” read a wall post from one of 480 members on the “I Am a Wise Latina” Facebook group, created by Elisa Palacios, a 26-year-old student at Brandeis University.
Senator Van de Putte of Texas said the only bad reaction she’s gotten over her “wise Latina” T-shirt came from a man at her sports club in San Antonio, who angrily yelled that he was also wise. “I said, ‘Great! Get a T-shirt!’ ”
In Los Angeles, Azucena Maldonado, founder of the Latina Golf Association, which promotes the sport among Latinas, and Nancy de los Santos, a Hollywood writer and producer, are busy concocting variations on the phrase — “All this ... and a wise Latina too” is the latest — after starting an online business that has sold about 150 wise-Latina themed T-shirts since mid-July.
But the two friends said making money was secondary to the main objective of reaching out to other Latinas. They said they are in the planning stages of a salon-type Latina group, to be named “The Wise Latina Society,” to engage in intellectual discussion on politics, health and other issues and promote community involvement.
Ms. de los Santos, whose producing credits include the film “Selena” and a documentary on Latino images in Hollywood that aired on HBO, said that Latinas have historically been portrayed in films and television as “hot tamales,” always “the sexy Latina ready to drop her clothes.”
“It was never anyone who was realistic,” she said.
But “wise Latina,” she said, further erodes any negative images in one powerful swoop.
“I applaud her for giving us these two words,” Ms. de los Santos said of the newest member of the United States Supreme Court. “Here’s one stereotype we can embrace.”