Latino Vs Hispanic: The Problem Is The Choice

So what is it? Latino, Hispanic, Mexican, Chicano, what?

I avoid this topic like I avoid heavy traffic – sometimes it’s impossible. Sometimes, like when the Pew Hispanic Center does a study on it and releases the results, you have to deal with it.  My reluctance has to do with the fact that I resolved this issue for myself a long time ago, so  I’ve lost an edgy interest in it. And if you look closely and deeply at the Pew results many American residents of Latin American descent are at the same place I am. We’ve long since figured out, for ourselves, who we are and how we identify. The Pew study categorizes it, underlines it and puts a period at the end, for the sake of expediency.

Here’s a quick recap of the Pew findings:

  • 51% of those surveyed say they identify with their family’s country of origin
  • 24% identify as Latino or Hispanic
  • 21% identify as American
  • the remainder identify as other

Exactly. That makes perfect sense to any Latino, Hispanic, etc.  But it irritates the bejeezus out of everyone else.

Forty years ago the U.S. Government decided it would build a box to stow all persons who, according to the the Pew study summary, ” trace their roots to Spanish-speaking countries.” The mandate was to use the terms Hispanic or Latino. The problem was that the government decided what the terms would be, decided that the terms would fit, then imposed the terms.

Another problem is that the government doesn’t do this with non-Latinos. I consider this important. Many non-Latinos accuse Latinos of hyphenating their identity and of being un-American. But Census forms don’t ask whether respondents are Slavic, Mediterranean or Nordic.  They all get bundled in a big “white” box.

So after 40 years of what many Latinos feel is a false choice, they identify as they feel more fit, and not by the choices they’re given. We can do this survey again in 10 years, and if the choices don’t change the results won’t change either.

I understand the need, for scientific purposes, to classify ethnic and cultural groups, I understand why people should be allowed to self identify within those groups and I understand the need to establish controls and differences between groups.  So I’m sure social scientists are giddy with the data.

But the boxes and controls and differences set up for the experiment have caused frictions and sparked differences – and posts that raise questions with no answers. There’s an important part of this conversation that’s missing, an implication that cuts two ways: if I’m Latino why do I have to hyphenate the fact that I’m American? Why is it that only African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans need to iterate the fact? And why is that used against me, like some sort of loyalty litmus test.

See, if you ask me to chose a culture, race  or ethnicity, I will. But if the choices don’t fit, I’ll make my own. And in the end, if you ask me whether I’m American, I’d say yes. But then, why would you have to ask?

[Photo by joewcampbell]

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