I was among those happily surprised to see the nomination of Archbishop José H. Gómez as next Archbishop of Los Angeles. The choice signifies a respect for the important role of Latinos in Catholic America. It’s about time we had one of our own lead a Diocese that was taken away from our native clergy at the time of the U.S. invasion! But without denigrating Archbishop Gómez’ likely ascension to the dignity of a Cardinal, it bears clarifying that he would not be the first Latino Cardinal of the United States. Cardinal Luis Aponte Martínez, a Puerto Rican, was the first Latino to become a “Prince of the Church.”
Cardinal Aponte Martínez was born in 1922 in Lajas, Puerto Rico to a poor but firmly Catholic family that produced many vocations to the Church. Spain, which governed Puerto Rico for more than 400 years, had used its prerogatives to prevent all but one native Puerto Rican from being bishop in his homeland. The US continued this practice for another half-century. But in 1963, having been an auxiliary for three years, Aponte Martínez was quickly named Bishop of Ponce and then in 1964, Archbishop of San Juan. He replaced Archbishop James P. Davis, who was transferred to Santa Fe, New Mexico. (Archbishop Davis would then be replaced in New Mexico by another Latino native, Roberto Sánchez). Cardinal Aponte Martínez was made a Cardinal by Paul VI in the consistory of March 5, 1973. Although retired from pastoral duties because of his age, he is presently the only US citizen of Latino heritage to be a Prince of the Church.
Why has the media – including virtually all of the U.S. Catholic press – not noticed Cardinal Aponte Martínez and Puerto Rico? We Puerto Ricans are used to such slights, but they hurt nonetheless. My interpretation is that the U.S. is embarrassed to hold onto one of the world’s last colonies, and any reminder of on-going American imperialism troubles the collective conscience. It is common to find in the press an opinion that Puerto Rico’s colonial status (not a state, not a republic) is the fault of Puerto Ricans or that all independentistas are terrorists. Moreover, those who want to make Puerto Rico a state have an uphill climb, if the anti-Latino legislation in Arizona is an indication of how most of America feels about increasing the number of Spanish-speaking Latinos by 3.5 million. Puerto Rico as state would take 6 representatives away from other states and create two Latino senators as well. But these are political considerations.
With the Arizona anti-Latino immigrant laws, there is likely to be increased attention from the U.S. bishops to their long-standing support of comprehensive immigration reform. I also expect, as President Obama stated, that there will be a challenge to this Arizona state measure as unconstitutional. We Puerto Ricans, all U.S. citizens, will be expected to get behind the immigration reform that does not directly affect us. I do not doubt that Puerto Ricans will support such reforms. Whether from within the Church in ecclesiastical terms or from outside in the political world as with Congressional Representatives Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) and Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.), we will be in solidarity with the Latino cause.
I am less confident, however, that our support will be reciprocated when it comes to the constitutional issues of Puerto Rico’s colonial status. Perhaps only our “wise Latina” has already voiced an opinion on this subject. But I think the issues are linked, if only because it has to be asked, “Whose America is this?” We Latinos, whether in Puerto Rico or Texas, New Mexico, Arizona or California, created Catholic America before the United States was the United States. San Juan became a diocese in 1511, and the first bishop to set foot in an American diocese was Alonso Manso who landed in Puerto Rico in 1515. We Puerto Ricans have a right to be noticed as Catholic America along with other Latinos. As José de Diego wrote, we may not be the richest, or the best known – but we were the first. And that should count for something.