The killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida last year quickly sparked racial controversy because it was, as most people saw it, a white man who killed an unarmed Black teen.
But what people apparently did not know or realize is that the man who fired the fatal gunshot, George Zimmerman, is part Latino.
Yet that portrayal seemed by design, at least as far as Zimmerman's relatives were concerned, since they wanted to avoid injecting race into the case.
The defendant’s brother, Robert Zimmerman Jr., told Fox News Latino the family chose not to publicly identify with their Hispanic roots since the fatal shooting in order to emphasize self-defense – not race – as the central issue in the case.
“Our family very deliberately left the injection of another racial element off the table,” said Robert Zimmerman Jr., explaining the family decision was made by a concerted push by the brothers' Peruvian mother. “Any color or race is capable of racism so claiming to be 'not white' and therefore 'not culpable' is a moot point.”
With the jury poised to deliberate on whether Zimmerman is guilty or not guilty of second-degree murder or manslaughter in the killing of Martin, Robert Zimmerman Jr. said pushing George as a Hispanic was not a valid defense to racist accusations, and in fact, affirmed racism.
“If his last name was Gonzalez or Lopez would this have turned into what it is? Hard to tell but I doubt it.”
- Robert Zimmerman Jr., on his brother George Zimmerman
Rather, Robert Zimmerman said, the focus was to “redirect the public’s understanding that there was “no crime” in self-defense, no matter the participants’ color.” Of course, being Hispanic is not a race – it’s an ethnicity – and thus presents a quagmire that confuses even the U.S. Census Bureau.
But Zimmerman’s brother suggested that if the family's Hispanic roots would have been more apparent in this case, it might not have blown up the way that it has.
“If his last name was Gonzalez or Lopez, would this have turned into what it is?" he asked. "Hard to tell but I doubt it."
Zimmerman’s fate now rests in the hands of a jury made up of six women – five white and one Hispanic. He is accused of murdering Martin, an unarmed black 17-year-old kid who was walking toward his father’s house after buying iced tea and a bag of Skittles at a local convenience store.
Family efforts aside to downplay race, the Zimmerman case took on a racial tone well before it went to trial last month, with the loudest protests coming from the Black community.
Throngs of protesters, from Sanford, Fla., to New York City, chanted ‘Justice for Trayvon Martin’ in solidarity against the murder of another black kid by another white man.
And then the controversial term "white Hispanic" arose, first used by The New York Times to describe Zimmerman, apparently in some kind of push for a white vs. Black narrative.
Whatever the reason the case took a racial tone, it highlights the complexity of identity within the U.S. Hispanic community, which encompasses people of different races and has history of racism against those with darker skin.
But the Zimmerman family remained steadfast about pushing race and ethnicity aside as a concern in the case.
"Trayvon is not dead because of his skin," said Robert Zimmerman Jr., who even accused protestors of lightening George’s skin mugshot in the days and months after Martin’s killing to push the narrative.
But George's older brother does suggest that George's race, skin color, could have played a part in influencing the public opinion on George – especially the Hispanic media.
“I venture to suggest that George being substantially darker than he is now would making the case that white America” didn’t value the lives of blacks much harder,” Zimmerman Jr. said. “But it’s hard to tell.”
Robert Zimmerman also told Fox News Latino he believed nine out of 10 Hispanic people today may still believe George is a “white man,” mostly because of the family’s last name, which many would associate with being European.
George Loves His ‘Abuelita,” Salsa Music
Robert Zimmerman. Jr., said that while not widely talked about, the family strongly identifies itself with its Hispanic roots.
Zimmerman, who is three years older than his 29-year-old brother George, described growing up in a bicultural home. Both grew up as altar boys, spoke English and Spanish, read the liturgy in both languages, and Spanish was the primary language at home – except in the presence of their father, Robert.
George loves his 88-year-old grandmother and refers to her as"abuelita," Spanish for grandma.
In fact, if George had a birthday party today, Zimmerman Jr. said, "a third of the music played would have been salsa."
The Zimmermans celebrated Los Reyes Magos, or Three Kings Day, and they recall eating traditional Peruvian dishes like Manjar Blanco. The rule rather than exception at the home was Peruvian meals cooked by their mother Gladys, a Peruvian immigrant.
George especially loved a particular dish called Papa a la Huancaina – boiled potatoes served chilled with a sauce and feta cheese.
"We were very aware that we were two cultures," Zimmerman Jr. said. "It was a badge of honor for us."
Gladys would come home and watch popular Spanish language programming on Univision, like the news show “Primer Impacto,” or “Cristina” and “Sabado Gigante,” a favorite in the house. Television was banned during dinner time in the home except when Walter Mercado, a psychic Spanish- language television personality, would visit.
"We enjoyed it just as much as watching cartoons," he recalled.
Gladys is a devout Catholic who was employed in Peru as a physical education instructor. But Gladys' trip to the United States in 1974 to visit her brother introduced her to Robert Zimmerman, a Baptist and young soldier living in Virginia. They married in 1975. Robert Zimmerman Jr. refers to them as a "bicultural love story."
The Zimmermans grew up in Manassas, Va., where Gladys was hired by the Clerk of the Circuit Court in Prince William County. She began stacking cardboard boxes, because of her limited English skills. But she eventually gained a reputation for helping Hispanic immigrants who didn't speak English and needed help navigating the court system. She retired 28 years later, with a local newspaper calling her departure "the end of an era."
No Injustice, No Rally
The Zimmerman family blames the media for not doing its job, for jumping to conclusions and for giving voice to racist allegations before the facts were laid out in the court of law. While Zimmerman Jr. does not regret the decision to leave Hispanic roots out of the discussion, he does wonder whether the Hispanic community would have rallied around his brother George if the family's heritage would have been made more public.
But experts say it would not have mattered – this is not the type of case that would have prompted widespread attention and support from Hispanic leaders.
“It just doesn’t feel like Black or Hispanic discrimination,” said Antonio Gonzalez, president of William C. Velasquez Institute, a non-partisan Latino advocacy nonprofit. “It just doesn’t evoke that in you. It’s confusing. It’s like a he said she said.”
Gonzalez told Fox News Latino the Zimmerman case does not have a “Hispanic angle” because Hispanics usually rally on the perception of injustice.
“When there is a clear ethnically based perception that somebody is being wronged, Hispanics will rally,” Gonzalez explained. “This is like a square peg in a round hole…it just doesn’t fit.”
Bryan Llenas currently serves as a New York-based correspondent for Fox News Channel (FNC) and a reporter for Fox News Latino (FNL).
Follow him on Twitter @BryanLlenas.