America's unlikeliest Latino: Steve King?

Rep. Steve King misunderstands what it means to be Latino, says Raul A. Reyes.

Story highlights

  • Rep. Steve King tweeted that he's as Latino as HUD Secretary Julián Castro
  • Raul A. Reyes: Some people have a hard time understanding you can be Latino and American

Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today board of contributors. Follow him on Twitter @RaulAReyes. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Now everybody wants to be Hispanic. Last week, in an exchange on Twitter, one of the country's most xenophobic lawmakers made the bizarre suggestion that he is as Latino as Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro. In response to a tweet paraphrasing Castro as warning that the "GOP could kiss the Latino vote goodbye," Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, tweeted, "What does Julián Castro know? Does he know that I am as Hispanic and Latino as he is?"

Actually, it is a safe bet that Castro does not know that. While the terms "Latino" and "Hispanic" may be a bit confusing to people, they certainly do not encompass the likes of King. Not only is the congressman's social media comment inaccurate, it is offensive because it suggests that Latinos cannot be fully American. It also raises the troubling notion of a litmus test for ethnic authenticity.
For the record, Castro was born in San Antonio, Texas, and is a third-generation Mexican-American.
    King's family background is German, Irish and Welsh. He does not fit any definition of Hispanic or Latino. Hispanic refers to people who are of Spanish-speaking origin, and Latino refers to people of Latin American descent.
    By comparing himself to Castro, King drew deserved ridicule from the press and on social media. His Wikipedia entry was even briefly altered to show his name as Esteban Arnoldo "Steba" Rey.
    King's tweet was ironic given that the congressman from Iowa is well-known for his denigrating remarks about Latino immigrants. He has compared immigrants to dogs, and once claimed that for every child of undocumented immigrants "who's a valedictorian, there's another 100 out there who weigh 130 pounds and they've got calves the size of cantaloupes because they're hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert." According to King, illegal immigration kills more Americans than the 9/11 attacks.
    But King's online comment is particularly misguided because it implies that, because Castro is American-born, he cannot be Latino. King seems to believe that people can be either Latino or American, as though these were mutually exclusive terms. In fact, people can be both fully American and fully Latino. Is that concept so hard to grasp?
    Apparently so. Last week on CNN, conservative commentator Jeffrey Lord told Republican strategist Ana Navarro, "I don't think you're a Latino. I think you're an American just like me." While Navarro shot back that she was born in Nicaragua and is a naturalized American, she should not have been forced to defend herself in such a manner on national TV. Lord's comment was insulting and shows how ignorant some people remain about Latino identity.
    Unfortunately, narrow views exist among Latinos as well. In 2013, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said that Sen. Ted Cruz should not "be defined as Hispanic," because of his opposition to immigration reform. That same year, a Spanish-language newspaper columnist called Senate candidate Gabriel Gomez of Massachusetts a LINO -- Latino In Name Only -- because Gomez had not "worked with organizations and individuals from our community."
    As a candidate for mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti found his ethnicity at issue too, with other Latino politicians questioning his Hispanic background. What is astonishing here is the idea that Hispanics can, in effect, pass judgment on whether others were "truly Hispanic" or "Hispanic enough." It's not acceptable when Steve King does this, and it's not acceptable when Latinos do it, either.
    True, King is entitled to his own views, including the right to fight illegal immigration and immigration reform. That doesn't give him the right to question Julián Castro's background in any way. King might better spend his time getting more in touch with his home state, which has seen a 104% increase in its Latino population over the past decade, or with his own district, which supports immigration reform.
    King does his conservative beliefs a disservice with his jab at Castro. His "I am Latino" tweet is disrespectful to Hispanics and flies in the face of true American values of inclusion and equality.