Hispanic or Latino: Identity in a Race-Based Society

by Raúl Quiñones-Rosado, Ph.D.

The Diversity Factor, Summer 1998, Vol. 6, No. 4

For many years there has been considerable debate about what to call the most rapidly growing group of U.S. inhabitants.  While government agencies and most mass media seem to have settled on “Hispanic,” many people still seem confused. Perhaps it is among those of us who fall within the group that there is the most confusion–or disagreement–about what to be called.  Are we “Hispanics” or “Latinos/Latinas”? What term includes Mexicans (and Chicanos and Chicanas), Puerto Ricans (also known as boricuas and “Newyorricans”), Cubans, Dominicans, and people from many other nations?

Why does this process of sorting and naming exist, and why is it important?  One could say it is simply human nature to notice commonalities and differences among people and things, and to classify and sort them accordingly.  But the issue goes much deeper.  It seems to be in the nature of dominant group members of any society to classify, name and sort all of its people, so that those of other groups may be placed—and maintained—in subordinated positions.  In the United States, the sorting process, which was designed for the purposes of collecting and analyzing census data, has been heavily race-based and has contributed to the ability of the dominant group–Anglos, whites–to retain power. Since the civil rights movements, however, sorting has also been used to attempt to redistribute power, in ways I will return to later.

Personally, as a Puerto Rican, I do not have a problem with being included under one umbrella with my Mexican, Cuban, Dominican, Salvadoran and other Latin American brothers and sisters.  There is much we have in common, even when our beans and our slang are spiced differently.  In fact, I believe that it is necessary that we be seen as one group, given the racialized nature of U.S. society and, in that context, the need to find strength in numbers, in unity.

But in this matter of what to be called—”Hispanic,” “Latino/a”—it is very important that all of us, particularly those who work to ameliorate racism and other forms of oppression, are aware of where these terms come from and what they mean.  And it is especially important that we “Hispanics” or “Latinos/as” are clear about the impact these labels have on our sense of identity as a social group in the United States and, therefore, the implications they may have for our collective future and the future of our politics.

Thinking about naming

The term “Hispanic” was coined and institutionalized in the 1970s by bureaucrats in the U.S. Department of Education, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Bureau of the Census to refer to this multiracial, culturally-mixed group.  The term was created to replace previous–and inadequate–designations, such as “Spanish,” “Spanish American,” “Spanish-speaking,” or “Spanish-surnamed,” for the purpose of gathering and analyzing demographic data which others in government, in turn, use to determine public policy.[i]

Many of us learned to use the term “Hispanic” from our interactions with public schools, social service agencies, local government, and eventually, through references to us (albeit infrequent and often negative) in local newspapers and television.  But “Hispanic” clearly was not a term of our own creation.

The term appears to be the adaptation into English of the Spanish words hispano or hispánico.  According to Larousse: diccionario básico de la lengua española[ii], the terms hispano and hispánicoboth mean “refering to Spain”.

The American Heritage Dictionary provides definitions more relevant to present-day reality in the United States:

adj. 1. Of or relating to Spain or Spanish-speaking Latin America. 2. Of or relating to a Spanish-speaking people or culture. n. 1. A Spanish-speaking person. 2. A U.S. citizen or resident of Latin-American or Spanish descent.[iii]

The citation continues with this usage note:  “There are a number of words denoting persons who trace their origins to a Spanish-speaking country or culture.  Hispanic is the broadest of these terms, encompassing all Spanish-speaking peoples in both hemispheres and emphasizing the common denominator of language between communities that sometimes have little else in common.  It is widely used in both official and unofficial contexts and is entirely acceptable, although like the term Spanish American, it has occasionally been criticized as unduly emphasizing the role of European influences in shaping ethnic identity to the neglect of indigenous cultures.”

Thus the term “Hispanic” is primarily a cultural reference, as it presumes that the most significant traits shared among members of this otherwise very diverse group are the use of the Spanish language and a European cultural heritage.

But as the usage note appropriately points out, the term “Hispanic” fails to take into account the influences of the indigenous cultures of the Americas–and, I would add, other very important influences and factors.

In contrast with the term “Hispanic,” the primary point of reference of the term “Latino” is not Spain, but rather Spain’s former colonies in Latin America.[iv]

Therefore, “Latinos/as” are people of Latin-American origin, with ties to the region that encompasses virtually all of South America, much of the Caribbean, and Central America, and Mexico, including those parts of the national territory of the United States which were appropriated from Mexico not all that long ago: Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, California, Arizona.

Language and culture

It is true that for most Latin Americans, the language, customs and traditions of the Castille region of Spain represent the dominant cultural influences, since Spain was the primary imperial force in this hemisphere for four hundred years.  But as noted above, Spain was not the only cultural force.  Even though Ponce de León, Pizarro, Cortés and other Spanish conquistadores attempted to eradicate the Arawaks, Mayans, Aztecs, Incas and other indigenous peoples, their genocidal efforts were not entirely successful.  Even in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Cuba, where the Taíno people were almost totally wiped out within the first fifty years after Columbus’s arrival, their cultural and linguistic legacy still lives and extends itself not only into the Spanish language but even into English: hamaca (hammock);huracán (hurricane); tabaco (tobacco); barbacoa (barbeque); canoa(canoe).

Furthermore, in addition to the indigenous influences in Latin-American culture, there is a very strong African presence.  This is particularly true in those of Spain’s former Caribbean colonies where kidnapped West Africans were brought and sold as slaves in large numbers.  In the cultures that emerged in these colonies, African influences are both obvious (in the music, dance and other art forms; in the food choices and cooking styles; in the language) and subtle (in the cosmology and expression of spirituality; in the way people relate to each other and to the world.)

Over a period of four hundred years, these strong (albeit subordinate) indigenous and African influences became inherent in the cultures of Spain’s Latin-American colonies, since the Spanish colonizers remained relatively less segregated from the indigenous and African populations than did their British counterparts in North America.  In fact, interracial “marriages” between white Spaniards, brown “Indians,” and black Africans were commonplace.  Early Spanish colonizers, in particular soldiers and laborers, tended to travel to the Americas alone, usually leaving wives and families behind.  Many would sexually engage—often by force—native and African women and eventually form households with them.  As a result, there were manymestizo (white/Indian), mulatto (white/black) and otherwise mixed-race children in Spain’s Caribbean colonies, perhaps even more so, proportionately, than in Britain’s North-American colonies.

Later, in the 1800s, when Chinese workers were brought and exploited to build roads and railways in this region they, too, eventually joined with and added to the mix.  Together with Arabs, Jews, Japanese and others who have made their homes throughout Latin America in the past one hundred years, Latin Americans reflect the whole spectrum of race–white, brown, black, yellow and every combination thereof–oftentimes among the members of a single family.

Over time, the territorial divisions that marked the boundaries of the indigenous peoples evolved into the separate nations of the colonized peoples. As a result of living, working and struggling within the geographic, cultural and racial realities of colonialism, each nation developed a unique culture, tradition and history, with a strong sense of national identity and purpose.  Mexicans, Dominicans and Peruvians are not to be mistaken, one for the other. Each recognizes and takes pride in those things that make us different and unique: our national patriots, our folk heroes and heroines, our artistic and literary greats, our historic achievements, even our national sports teams.

Yet overarching all the separate geographic, cultural, racial and national identities is the shared experience of colonialism.[v] Every Latin-American country has endured five hundred years of colonization–and resistance–first at the hands of Spain or another European nation, and, for the past one hundred years, of the United States.  While all Latin-American countries, with the exception of Puerto Rico, have attained political sovereignty, all remain subordinated to a large extent to the economic, political, military and, increasingly, cultural hegemony of the United States. The shared experience of colonialism is important, since it greatly impacts upon, and ultimately shapes,the collective psyche of those nations forced to deal with the invasion of, resistance to, rebellion against and liberation from incredibly powerful foreign aggressors.

So it is the combined forces of geography, culture, race, nationality and colonialism that define the Latin-American experience.  And it is this gestalt, this dynamic interaction of elements, that provides the basic framework for a definition of U.S. “Latinos,”–not merely the Spanish language or other cultural ties to Spain.

Culture and politics

However, it is not merely our relationship to our Latin-American roots that makes us “Latino/a.”  Most likely, people recently arrived in the United States from Colombia, Argentina, the Dominican Republic or Panama would not immediately self-identify as “Latino” or “Latina.”  They would probably see themselves simply as Colombian, Argentine, Dominican or Panamanian. When placed in a new national or cultural setting, people tend to define themselves first in terms of how they are distinct–namely by nationality and culture.  It is only after time–sometimes after many years depending on their skin color (and hair, nose, lips and hips), last name, accent, or class background–that Latin Americans discover that, regardless of how they may see themselves, in the United States they are seen by others primarily from within a very specific racial context.  Further, they will find that context has been defined, historically, in terms of the subordination of “blacks” by “whites” of European ancestry.

Not that this racist construct is unfamiliar to Latin Americans.  The same basic dynamics of racism also exist in our countries of origin, in spite of all the cultural and racial mixing of the past five hundred years. The difference now is that, in the United States, we suddenly find ourselves in a subordinate relationship to U.S. whites–“minority group members”–regardless of our racial lineage or other perceivable traits, and no matter what our racial or class status was back home.

For those of us born or raised in the United States, the process of social identity development as “Latinas/Latinos” is significantly different.  We grow up in a society that from childhood fosters in us this subordinate “minority” consciousness.  We are educated in schools, houses of worship, the media, and all other institutions, in the ideas, behaviors, feelings and values of “white” Americans.  Often our parents, in pursuit of the American Dream, collude and conspire in this process of creating in us a false social identity, simply because they buy into the myth of equal opportunity for all regardless of race, color, nationality or creed.

Eventually, however, through our life experiences many of us come to learn what African Americans and Native Americans have known for over three hundred years: We are defined, in this society, as a people, unique and distinct from “whites” or “Anglos.” And it is they, as a group, who have access to social, economic, political and cultural power. Like non-U.S.-born Latin Americans, how soon we come to this realization often depends on our observable physical traits, the presence of any discernable “foreign” accent, our socio-economic class background, and perhaps our level of education.

Identity as resistance

Fluency in Spanish and knowledge of our history may help us in the process of our cultural and social identity development.  However, it seems to me that what makes a person of Latin-American origins–whether by birth or ancestry–become a “Latino/Latina” is something more. It is our awareness that we are members of a distinct social group within the construct of race in the United States.  It is our acknowledgement that we, by the nature of this social construct, are placed in a subordinate status in relation to U.S. whites.  It is our growing understanding, based on a critical analysis of our personal and collective experiences, of the dynamics of institutional racism in the United States.  What makes a person become a “Latina/Latino” is our realization that we are part of a group with a shared history of struggle against oppression.

Therefore, more than being a racial or cultural designation, “Latino/Latina” is a political term. In my experience, people who self-identify as “Latina/Latino” tend to find ourselves involved, in some way, in resisting and fighting white supremacy. Because of this awareness and understanding of the dynamics of prejudice and power, people who call themselves “Latinos/Latinas” tend to feel solidarity and seek unity, not only with “Latinos/Latinas” of other national origins, but with African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans and other people of color–all of whom are oppressed by institutional racism and eurocentrism in the United States.

This is not to say that people who identify as “Latino” or “Latina” are more progressive or politically active than those who choose to call themselves “Hispanic.” However, since choosing the terms “Latino/Latina” in defiance of the more official designation “Hispanic” requires a deliberate act, it seems to support my thesis that it is a more powerful tool in the interest of self-definition. Making this choice helps us understand the implications of “naming,” and recognize that we have not had the institutional power to name ourselves, within the history and development of the racial paradigm in the United States.

The history of “whiteness”

In order to gain a better appreciation of the historical development of the “naming” process, and the power dynamics involved, it is useful to consider briefly how the term “white” emerged.

According to historian A. Leon Higginbotham Jr., the term “white” was created in the late 1600s, when the British colonizers of the original thirteen colonies found it necessary to unify all those of European descent in order to differentiate them legally from African “negroes.”[vi] Previously, people of European descent generally referred to themselves according to their national origin. Those from England were British; from Germany, German; from Holland, Dutch; Ireland, Irish; and so forth.

Within the capitalist economy of the colonies, however, some groups of Europeans were more valued than others.  The Irish, for example, who were subordinated to the English in the homeland, arrived in North America mainly as indentured servants.  Many Irish servants rebelled against the inhumane conditions often imposed by their masters, some even conspiring with “negro” slaves to escape. In fact, it was because of the ruling class’s effort to effectively deter Irish servants from running away with “negro” slaves that colonial laws using “white” as the unifying descriptor of the different European national groups were written. These laws expressly included the oppressed Irish as “white,” thus beginning the institutionalization–the legal sanctioning by the State–of the construct of “white race,” which the political, social, economic and cultural structures of the United States would come to embody. Some three-hundred-plus years later we are still dealing with this racialization of national and cultural identities.

It is within this historical context and the broader legacy of institutionalized racism in the United States that the designation “Hispanic,” which is basically an ethnic or cultural designation, becomes racialized. Yet because the racial paradigm is defined primarily in terms of “white” and “black,” it is difficult to define where “Hispanics”—white, black, brown, yellow and mixed—fit. The difficulty is further complicated by the addition of qualifiers, such as “white Hispanic” and “white non-Hispanic.”

Currently, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget is addressing this issue by creating separate ethnic and racial categories.[vii]Beginning with the Year 2000 Census, people of Latin American descent who check off the “Spanish/Hispanic/Latino” box (revised from simply “Hispanic”) will be able to first identify ethnicity (cultural and/or national identity, such as Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, and so forth), and then check off their race or races (American Indian or Alaska Native, six Asian groups, Black or African American, Native Hawaiian, Guamanian or Chamorro, Samoan or Other Pacific Islander, White)–and to choose all that apply.

This new public policy appears to acknowledge the complexity of these issues and attempts to address them.  However, given that so much of the discussion about diversity, equity and social justice in the United States revolves around the social construct of race—not culture or national origin–this otherwise sensible response raises many serious questions.

Looking Ahead

In my view, one of the most important questions is how the data will be used, and for what purpose.  Will light-skinned or otherwise self-identified “white” “Hispanics or Latinos” be tallied and grouped separately, or will these numbers be added to the general “white” category?  As the percentage of whites of European descent decreases, in relation to the numbers of Latinos/Latinas, African Americans, and other people of color, as statistics already indicate, will “white” “Hispanics or Latinos” eventually be integrated into the white population, thus maintaining the numeric majority–and dominant status–of “whites”?

Will this policy lead to a further institutionalization of “light-skin privilege”? Will it result in an acceleration of the cultural assimilation of our people–a process that is already in motion?  Will this result in the perpetuation of the status quo and of the divide and conquer strategies that have maintained white dominance through the centuries? Will it mean that Hispanics or Latinos/Latinas, in order to have access to institutional power, will be seduced into joining whites at the expense not only of our unique cultural heritage but also of our strong ties with darker-skinned family and community members?

What will happen to movements for equity and social transformation if a significant portion of this soon-to-be-largest community of color (which is projected to surpass the African-American population within the next forty to fifty years) no longer sees itself as part of the larger community of people of color but instead helps to the maintain the current balance of power?

The question of naming is, obviously, not an empty rhetorical exercise.  It is a highly politicized process, which is currently most evident in the well-publicized battles over the shape and direction of Census 2000. It is a matter of utmost importance to Latinos and Latinas, to other people of color, and to all of us who work and struggle to ameliorate or undo oppression and otherwise transform our society.

This matter of whether we are to be called “Hispanic” by others, or to call ourselves “Latino/Latina,” is central to who we are as a community and whether we, through our culture and our struggle together, will survive as a people. It is also central to how all of us–as a society–will confront and resolve the complexities of racial and cultural oppression.

©1998, 2010 Raúl Quiñones-Rosado.  Originally appeared in The Diversity Factor, Summer 1998, Vol. 6, No. 4, published by Elsie Y. Cross Associates, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.

[i] Suzanne Oboler, Ethnic Labels, Latino Lives: Identity and the Politics of (Re)Presentation in the United States.  (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1995).

[ii]Diccionario de la lengua española. (P. 286.  Editorial Larousse, México, 1987).

[iii]The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third ed.,  (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1992).

[iv] In this article I do not consider the special issues related to Central-American, South-American and Caribbean countries not colonized by Spain—Belize, Brazil, Surinam and others. Their inclusion would require a much more extensive discussion than is possible here.

[v]Colonialism is the extension of racism of one country beyond its national boundaries by the use of political policy, economic strategy, cultural intervention and/or military force.

[vi]In the Matter of Color: Race and the American Legal Process: The Colonial Period (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978).

[vii]Revised Federal Standards for Racial and Ethnic Data. Office of Management and Budget, Directive No. 15, Federal Register (October 30, 1997).


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