- The Washington Times - Monday, January 8, 2001

Is the conservative intellectual Linda Chavez, George W. Bush's controversial nominee for secretary of labor, not Hispanic enough?

The New York Times wrote, "Despite her surname, her critics have asserted, she is neither bilingual nor bicultural. (Her father's ancestors came from Spain; her mother is of English and Irish descent.)"

Of course, answering the question of whether Mrs. Chavez is a "real" Hispanic requires knowing what "Hispanic" means. Unfortunately, nobody seems to be able to agree on a precise definition. That's one reason, among many, why Mrs. Chavez opposes affirmative action.

Mrs. Chavez's personal history illustrates the endless confusions attending the "Hispanic" category. Unlike many Hispanics demanding ethnic preferences for themselves, the Chavez family did not choose to come to the United States. Instead, the United States came to the Chavez family. Her father's ancestors, who settled in Northern New Mexico in the early 1600s, considered themselves less Mexican-American than "New Mexican-American." Mrs. Chavez told Brian Lamb of C-SPAN, "Most of the residents there don't identify very much with what we think of as Mexican culture because they were so far separated and so isolated from the central government in Mexico City that they developed their own indigenous culture." Even in theory the Mexican government ruled the Chavezes of Albuquerque for only 27 years. Mexico finally won its independence from Spain in 1821.

It then lost New Mexico in 1848. Since Mrs. Chavez's mother is part Irish and part English, her overall family background is similar to that of the new Mexican president, Vincente Fox. Mr. Fox's mother was born in Spain and his Irish-American paternal grandfather was born in the United States. Mr. Fox, who is reported to be 6-feet-5 inches tall, presumably inherited from his Irish-American grandfather the height that allows him to tower close to one foot above the average Mexican.

Several other famous Latin-American leaders in addition to Mr. Fox have sported Irish names. The best-known is the George Washington of Chile, Bernardo O'Higgins. Conversely, some people with Spanish surnames were raised to be Irish. For instance, the longest-serving Irish president was a fierce Irish nationalist with the paradoxical name of Eamonn De Valera. An Irish-looking Southern California computer consultant named Steve Valles has frequently turned down on principle the chance to benefit from quotas reserved for the Spanish-surnamed. The Valles family legend is that their Spanish surname comes from an admiral of the Spanish Armada who was shipwrecked in 1588 on the coast of Ireland. His fellow Catholics sheltered him and married one of their daughters to him.

On the other hand, somebody of Irish-American upbringing who couldn't resist cashing in on her Spanish surname is the blue-eyed and blonde teen diva Christina Aguilera. Although her Ecuadorian father divorced her Irish mother when she was young, Miss Aguilera recently released a Spanish language album titled "Mi Reflejo." According to Billboard Magazine, Miss Aguilera, who admits to being "not fluent" in Spanish, benefited from her producer Rudy Perez knowing "every trick in the book. Perez translated the lyrics, wrote them out phonetically, and devised a system to help Aguilera roll her r's. Because Miss Aguilera needed to sound fluent in order to convince in Spanish, the work was crucial." Although the teen idol speaks about as much Spanish as Linda Chavez, this hasn't stopped her Spanish album from being a hit.

Selena and Ritchie "La Bamba" Valens (originally "Ricardo Valenzuela") are two Mexican-American singing legends who also had to learn their Spanish lyrics phonetically. Of course, you can still qualify as Hispanic for many affirmative-action privileges even if you don't have a Spanish surname. For example, as noted by columnist Dan Seligman, the Federal Communications Commission awarded a sizable tax break after conceding that a radio station buyer, a Polish-born man named Liberman, was Hispanic. How come? Some of Senor Liberman's ancestors were Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain in 1492.

In the notorious Reagan-era, Wedtech minority set-aside scandal, the central crook, John Mariotta, was of Italian descent and surname and was born in New York. Since his parents were born in Puerto Rico, however, his firm qualified for massive noncompetitive government contracts.

Mrs. Chavez is married to a Jewish American named Chris Gersten. Although her son Pablo's last name is Jewish, his Spanish first name alone was enough to get him thrown involuntarily into a bilingual education program when he entered a Washington school at age seven.

Amusingly, Mrs. Chavez is a fierce opponent of bilingual education. This incident reinforced her belief that bilingual education exists more as a make-work program for bilingual teachers than as a well-thought-out system for helping immigrant children.

Steve Sailor is a writer for United Press International, with whose permission this was reprinted.

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