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Meriden City clerk Irene Masse swears in Mayor Manny Santos  Monday at Washington Middle School in Meriden December,2 2013 | Justin Weekes / For the Record-Journal
Manny Santos stands for a picture outside his Meriden home, Sept. 5, 2013. Santos is the Republican nominee for mayor. | (Christopher Zajac / Record-Journal)

Meriden Mayor’s ethnic background sparks debate he hopes will end soon

MERIDEN — A native of Portugal, Republican Mayor Manny Santos was open throughout the campaign last year that he considered himself a Latino and identified with the culture.

Some local Latino Democratic officials told a statewide news website last week they believed Santos’ ethnic background was a source of confusion for voters and likely contributed to the political newcomer’s victory in November.

Santos, introduced as a Latino Republican mayor, appeared on WFSB’s Face the State television program earlier this month, discussing the state of the city and his term as mayor with anchor Dennis House. The conversation then focused on Santos being a Latino Republican and an elected official. Although Santos clarified that Portugal is not typically considered a Latino country, he said he does identify himself as Latino on surveys because the cultures are very similar.

The interview spurred a story by last week questioning whether Santos was a “faux Latino.” Democratic state Rep. Hilda Santiago, whose 84th Assembly District covers much of the inner city of Meriden, said she thought the Latino population of Meriden likely made assumptions about his background and he may have “used this confusion to win the election.” Santiago did not return messages Wednesday.

Similarly, City Councilor Miguel Castro was quoted in the report saying it was “concerning” and he believes the public initially perceived that Santos was Latino.

In response, Santos said he was always open about being Portuguese and that he knows there’s a debate about who qualifies as a Latino.

“I acknowledge the controversy or the fact that not everyone agrees with Portuguese falling into a Latino category,” Santos told the Record-Journal Wednesday. “Even in the Portuguese community there is not a firm agreement on which way to go.”

In past interviews, Santos has said he can relate to the large Hispanic community in Meriden and that his personal background as an immigrant and upbringing in Hartford served as another connection to the population. According to U.S. Census data, 28.9 percent of Meriden’s population was Latino in 2010. Many of those residents are of Puerto Rican descent. Santos also addressed the topic recently on Facebook in response to a comment.

“In surveys and questionnaires I do identify myself ethnically closer to Latino than to white/Caucasian,” he wrote. “This very topic is one of much debate, and many will not agree, but respectful we must remain. I did not run for office as a Latino, but as a proud Portuguese, acknowledging the similarities: faith in our Lord, music, language, cuisine, family values, work ethic.”

Rafael Hernandez, a professor of both Spanish and Portueguese at Southern Connecticut State University, says that often identity is “a matter of personal preference.” He noted that while most Portuguese people identify themselves by the country, the same could be said for Mexicans, Argentinians and people of other backgrounds.

“Latino, seems to me, is an administrative, bureaucratic term used mostly in this country to refer to people from Latin America,” he said, adding that in other countries and different regions the terms are used differently. “The term Latin is different and it refers to neo-Latin cultures and therefore it does include not only Spanish and Portuguese people, but also Italian and even French.”

The Spanish and Portuguese cultures, he said, “share so many characteristics.

“The matter, seems to me, is not so much, if these groups or individuals from these groups are similar, but if they choose to see themselves as similar or as different in any given circumstance,” he said.

Based on U.S. Census information and a study done by the Pew Research Center in 2009, citizens can self-identify themselves, claiming their origin as Hispanic, Latino or Spanish, but be of any race. A separate act of Congress from 1976, similar to a Connecticut general statute, states that people identifying themselves as Hispanic or Latino could be from one of any 20 Spanish-speaking counties in Latin America or Spain, but not Portugal or Portuguese-speaking Brazil.”

“For the most part,” the study states, “people who trace their ancestry to these countries do not self-identify as Hispanic when they fill out their Census forms. Only about 4 percent of immigrants from Brazil do so, as do just 1 percent of immigrants from Portugal or the Philippines.”

While there may be debate, Werner Oyanadel said he is pleased to hear Santos identifies with the Latino community. Oyanadel is the executive director of the state’s Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission.

“I commend individuals who want to be associated with the Latino community and it’s a very positive sign of where we are headed in the community,” he said. “Because he identifies within the Latino community, I would hope to see policies that empower our community to have equal access.”

Oyanadel added that it is “all about being inclusive” when it comes to Latino and Hispanic culture. As for the commission, he said for the first time a Brazilian commissioner was recently named to the board, adding to its diversity.

Also a member of the commission and a fellow Meriden Republican, Pablo Soto said he was disappointed by the implication that Santos misled voters.

“It was a little bit insulting they would come out and imply he deceived the city to obtained votes,” Soto said. “I would hope, through the voting process, people become well-informed on a particular candidate and are not voting strictly based on last name...the person is more important than the color of the skin.”

Also commenting in the CTLatinoNews story was Mildred Torres-Ferguson, Meriden’s Democratic town chairwoman. Torres-Ferguson admitted in the story she was surprised initially when hearing prior to the last election that Santos was not Puerto Rican, and she’s not convinced he is Latino.

“I never thought Portuguese were considered Latinos. They’re European,” she said. “I’m not pretending to be an expert...I think some people use it loosely.”

Whether or not Santos’ heritage or last name had an impact on his upset victory over Democratic incumbent Mayor Mike Rohde this past November is another question, she said.

“Did some people get to the polls and see his name and vote for him? Maybe, yeah,” she said. “But shame on them for not researching in advance.”

That said, Santos said he hopes the issue is soon over, criticizing Democrats for being the only ones outspoken on the matter.

“I didn’t make it an issue during my campaign and I’d rather not during my term in office,” he said. “There are more substantive issues we can discuss.” 203-317-2266 Twitter: @DanBrechlinRJ

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