First Latino Pope Francis I: History in the making

Pope Francis is a remarkable Pope for our time. He’s also the first pope from The Americas, Latin America, and the southern hemisphere. “But is he Catholic?” a Roman Catholic Archbishop joked with me. A more serious question has been asked, “Is Pope Francis Latin@?” After all, his parents immigrated from Italy. Isn’t he really European?

Pope Francis is certainly Latin@, in my view, but how does one come to a conclusion? What are the deciding factors?


Pope Francis speaks Spanish, but is this a deciding factor? Brazilians don’t speak Spanish. Some indigenous people in South and Central America don’t speak Spanish, and yet fall into the category of “Latin@.” Alternatively, many U.S. citizens identify as Latin@, yet don’t speak Spanish and have never lived in Latin America. 

In his book, ¡Santo! : Varieties of Latino/a Spirituality, Edwin David Aponte points out the folly of using language as a marker: “When it is realized that certain recent Latin American immigrants are indigenous people who do not speak Spanish or speak it as a second language, the issue of using language as a common criterion for a shared identity is further complicated.”[i]

In Cuzco, I have encountered numerous older people, abuelit@s who spoke little or no Spanish, only Quechua. Last year, during a border surge, I was working at a church that received recently released detainees. I could neither understand nor make myself understood with one Guatemalan family, in Spanish, only to realize they were speaking K’iche’ (Quiché), and not fluent in Spanish at all. Speaking Spanish, even as a first language, therefore, cannot be a deciding factor.


Although born in Argentina, Pope Francis’ parents were from Italy. Some say this disqualifies him as a “Latino,” but if ancestry were the determining factor, then the 34% of Latin@s with Caribbean roots, who identify as Afro-Latino or Afro-Caribbean, would not qualify.[ii]

In 1848, when Mexico ceded Texas and other states to the U.S, Mexicans of many ancestries became U.S. citizens. In Texas it is often said, “We didn’t cross the border; the border crossed us.” Aponte suggests in a highly racialized U.S., the category was created as a way to mete out privilege. Indigenous peoples, people of European descent, Africans, mestizos and others who spoke Spanish were given fewer property rights and minimal citizenship.[iii]Latin@s were created to dispense power and basic rights. The designation emerged for economic and political reasons.[iv] People of many ancestries were lumped together in one category. No one ancestry defines “Latin@.” 

Country of Origin?

Although globalization has made things more complex than this, Aponte defines Latin@ as follows: “…simply stated the peoples called Hispanics, Latinos, and Latinas in the United States are those who have roots in Latin America.”[v] What constitutes “roots?” Certainly, if one was born and raised in Latin America, one has roots. Jorge Bergoglio was born and raised in Argentina. He has roots, as do many whose families came from elsewhere. 


As a middle-class white, male, U.S.-born citizen who grew up in a Protestant home, I have enjoyed many of the privileges that allow one to disregard the discrimination that come with race, gender, and class. The story I have been told is that we are Germanic Lutherans. This was reinforced at home through food: sour kraut, ham hocks, sausages and beer. My 4th great grandfather David immigrated from Germany with his wife Magdalena and son Valentine Reinhardt. (The name is spelled eight different ways in the various U.S censuses.) Six generations removed from my Germanic immigrant roots, I have the privilege of not thinking about it very often. 

Of late, interest my ancestry motivated me to do some digging, and a DNA test. What I discovered of my father’s ancestry challenged the family narrative. Going back further my relatives hailed from Switzerland. Could I be of Swiss Reformed, Calvinist roots? Digging deeper I discovered Peter Aaron Reinhart was an Anabaptist minister. 

Was is das? Am I still Germanic? Futhermore, bringing in my mother’s line introduced a 40% U.K. heritage in my DNA test. While inconclusive, this all points to the folly of labelling, unveiling our need to create hasty conclusions about superficial categorical identity.


Perhaps the most helpful way to answer the question of whether Pope Francis is a Latino is to ask him. How does he self-identify? As Ada Maria Asisi-Diaz famously said, “To name oneself is one of the most powerful acts any person can do…”[vi]

29% of U.S. Hispanics identify as Latin@. 61% identify as Hispanic.[vii] Most prefer a more specific descriptor, like Mexican, Cuban, or Peruvian. What would Pope Francis call himself?

So, is Pope Francis Latin@? Who am I to say? While I would vote “yes,” we would need to ask him. 


[i] Edwin David Aponte, ¡Santo! : Varieties of Latino/a Spirituality (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2012), chap. 3, loc. 1146 of 3750, Kindle.

[ii] Gustavo López and Anna Gonzalez-Barrera. “Afro-Latino: A deeply rooted identity among U.S. Hispanics” Pew Research, accessed September 14, 2020 (March 1, 2016).

[iii] Aponte, chap. 3, loc. 1146-1157, Kindle.

[iv] Ibid., loc. 1162-1157, Kindle.

[v] Ibid., loc. 1136 of 3750, Kindle.

[vi]  Ada María Isasi-Díaz, En La Lucha/In the Struggle: Elaborating a Mujerista Theology. (2nd ed. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2004), 22

[vii] Graciela Mochkofsky, “Who Are You Calling Latinx?” The New Yorker, accessed September 20, 2020 (September 5, 2020).