Zimmerman’s family background doesn’t invite a racial motive, but it doesn’t discount one either, said Luis Martinez-Fernandez, a professor of Latin American and Caribbean history at the University of Central Florida. Hispanics are an ethnic group, but within that group there are different races. There are black Dominicans and Cubans, for instance.
“Who is Hispanic and who’s not is not as clear as other ethnic groups,” said Martinez-Fernandez. “There’s no such thing as a Hispanic race. It has to do with origin, culture and race. Some people argue that language should be a part. All this complicates identity.”
The Sanford, Florida police chief at the center of neighborhood watch shooting is temporarily stepping down while the case is investigated. Trayvon Martin was shot and killed last month.
After declaring victories in getting federal and state officials to investigate the case of an unarmed black teenager shot to death by a neighborhood watch captain, civil rights leaders continued to pressure authorities to make an arrest.
Hispanics make up the nation’s largest ethnic group at more than 13 percent of the population, while African Americans are the largest racial group, with more than 12 percent of the population. In the 2010 Census, more than half of people who identified as Hispanic said they were white, and only 3 percent said they were black.
“There’s a sense that one group has been harmed historically more than the other,” Martinez-Fernandez said. “There’s been a history of the dominant group in power pitting one group against the other. I think we have not fought together. There have been few instances of that.”
But there have been some signs in Florida that Hispanics and African Americans are forging a bond, said Soto, the state legislator. During ongoing redistricting debates in Florida, the two groups have “stuck together very solidly,” he said.
If not for a quirk of fate, Martin and Zimmerman might never have encountered each other, sparing the nation a painful episode. Several years ago, Zimmerman returned to his old neighborhood and showed up unannounced at the house across the street. He came back two more times to see George Hall, a retired Presbyterian minister. Zimmerman told him that he had plans. He wanted to move back to Virginia. He wanted to be a police officer, but he needed a letter of recommendation that Zimmerman could give to prospective employers.
“I told them he was a great guy,” Hall recalled. “We never did hear what happened with that.”
Staff writers Brady Dennis, Sari Horwitz, Josh White and Jeremy Borden contributed to this report.