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A Bored and Unpromoted Robert E. Lee Takes Affirmative Action: Meet Roberto E. Leon

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Anyone saddled with a name as fraught with history as Robert E. Lee might be forgiven the impulse to change it. But when retired Navy Captain Robert Earl Lee, 56, recently cast off that load in favor of Roberto Eduardo Leon, the response was something short of sympathy.

Leon, who earns $27,857 a year monitoring noise control for the Montgomery County (Md.) Environmental Protection Department, used the name change to apply for the county’s affirmative action program—and the pledge of promotions ahead of equally qualified white males. It took Lee about a month and $140 to become Leon, and he did it without a lawyer. “Finding loopholes is my job,” he says with a shrug.

Leon is “a little eccentric,” says his boss, Eric Mendelsohn, but adds with a laugh: “It’s nice to have a Hispanic on our staff.” Montgomery County officials are decidedly un-amused, however, and Hispanic leaders are downright furious. “This is an insult to Hispanics,” fumes Carlos Anzoategui, head of the governor’s commission on Hispanic affairs. “You don’t become Hispanic by liking enchiladas and tortillas.”

Leon bridles at the charge that he is an “instant Hispanic.” He points to a Spanish grandfather and a childhood in San Diego, where, surrounded by Latino playmates, he began speaking Spanish in high school. Leon enlisted in the Navy in 1940. During World War II he attended Annapolis, where one classmate was midshipman Jimmy Carter. Leon did not know the future President, but recalls pointedly that his class standing was 23rd, Carter’s 59th.

With such academic credentials, Leon clearly needs less help in employment opportunity than most. Yet he admits to being an “opportunist” who is as interested in Hispanic identity as in the promotions he could get because of it. Twice divorced, Leon now lives alone in Gaithersburg and relaxes by roller-skating with his local chapter of Parents Without Partners. He hopes to retire to Chile.

“Leon’s loophole” has spawned a lot of criticism of Montgomery County’s affirmative action plan. Whether it will help him in the end seems questionable. Meanwhile the county’s newest, most controversial Hispanic is getting accustomed to his new heritage, if not terribly serious about it. “One of my compatriots called me a Spic,” he says, “and we had a big laugh over it.”