Figuring out which ethnic label was best had never been an issue for the writer of this unit even though I considered myself a member Spanish-speaking community in the United States. But when I began to report for a newspaper in suburban New York, I had to make a decision about how to identify a group of Spanish-speaking people there. The stories were about quality of life matters such as police protection, housing and other community news. I opted for the term Hispanic, which seemed to be accepted by most people, I thought. At the time, I was totally oblivious of all the attributes attached to it, and frankly I didn’t think it mattered. Soon after my articles were published, I received several angry calls from readers. They preferred the term Latino, because, as they claimed, it was more faithful to their roots.
This incident illustrates the sensitive nature of this matter and how important it is for everybody to become educated about the Spanish-speaking community. It is also important to make the overall society aware of these labels in an effort to promote cultural understanding.
The debate over how to refer to Spanish-speaking people in the U.S. is one that has contributed to the confusion of identifying members of this group. In the 1970s, U.S. government came up with “Hispanic” to resolve the problem. The term is still used today as an umbrella name that includes all Spanish-speaking people living in the United States. But some members of the Spanish-speaking community have continued to opt for an identity which is connected with other aspects of their lives such as their countries of origin, their culture and the race with which they affiliate.
This is highlighted in an article published by Martha E. Gimenez of the Department of Sociology at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She is an Argentine-born woman who was classified as a minority and Hispanic by administrators at her institution. In the article, she expresses her discontent with this label and reviews its negative connotations along with other labels currently used in society. She writes the following about her being labeled a minority:
“This was indeed a surreal and upsetting experience first because of the racism entailed in the denial of my identity and the imposition of a spurious “hispanicity” loaded with negative connotations, and also because of the administrative uses to which I was subject by becoming part of the statistics used to show compliance with the law.”
Her work and that of others used for the lessons in this unit, make it clear that national origin, social class, ethnicity, race, and length of stay in the U.S, make it exceedingly difficult to find a common term to define an already diverse Spanish-speaking community.
The existing terms only serve to perpetuate stereotypes further and oversimplify people’s experiences in this country. Consider the fact that both labels, Hispanic and Latino were created in this country to refer to minority groups that are considered historically oppressed, socially rejected, economically excluded and lacking of political power, according to Gimenez. If Latino is a label that as some claim, embraces the historical and political commonalties of Latin American countries, how come it is often employed to refer to the social/economic status of a group of people as they are compared to the larger society?
What happens to second-generation Latinos in the United States? Do they share the historical and political experiences attributed to their counterparts in Latin America? If so, should they be considered a minority because of it? These thoughts raise questions about the validity of the following terms currently used to refer to members of the Spanish-speaking community.
The information that follows was collected from Oboler’s Ethnic Labels, Latino Lives, and the articles “Latinos/Hispanics…What next?” and “Taxonomy: More on the Label Trap.” The articles can be found on the Internet by searching under the keyword Latin American Studies and Labels:
Spanish-speaking: Used to refer indiscriminately to any person who speaks Spanish. Some believe it is imprecise and inappropriate because it clusters together people from two dozen countries, spanning the entire American continent, the Caribbean and Spain.
Hispanics: This term is used to refer collectively to all Spanish-speakers in the U.S. Officially, it identifies people of Latin American and Spanish descent living in the U.S. It specifically connotes a lineage or cultural heritage related to Spain. It was created by state agencies after 1970.
Problems: As stated in Oboler’s book, some feel that this term ignores the diverse experiences of descendants of U.S. conquest, such as the Chicanos and those of the Puerto Rican populations. It homogenizes the varied social and political experiences of more than 23 million people of different races, classes languages, national origins, gender and religions. The term may be cause for offense as to the millions of people who Speak Spanish but are not of true Spanish descent (Native Americans).
Advantages: Some feel it ensures the community access to resources from the ethnically based political structure of the government.
Latinos: This term describes a geographically derived national origin group. It refers to people originating from or having a heritage related to Latin America. “Latin” refers to the romance languages (Spanish, Portuguese and French) spoken by the majority of Latin Americans.
Origins: The term began to emerge among grassroots sectors of the population, created as an alternative to what was perceived to be an imposed label: Hispanic. It is preferred by health practitioners and policymakers for describing populations of Latin American descent.
Problems: Very much as the other terms, it undermines generalizations about the entire group. The term is not considered appropriate for the millions of native Americans who inhabit the Latin American region. The adoption of the new term would merely add to the confusion and ultimately hinder Hispanics’ competition with blacks and other groups for government resources.
Hispano: Preferred by a group of people located in the U.S. Southwest, who identify with the Spanish settlers of the area and not with the Mexican settlers. They seem to be descendants of persecuted Jews who fled Spain during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. When the term was coined, it was used to make the distinction between mestizo (half-breed) Mexicans from racially pure Europeans.
Chicano: Its first use usage seems to have been discriminatory. The source of the word is traced to the 1930s and 40s period, when poor, rural Mexicans, often Native Americans, were imported to the U.S. to provide cheap field labor under an agreement of the government of both countries. The term originated from the inability of Native American speakers to pronounce the word Mexicanos and instead said “Mesheecanos.” . Mexican-American activists who took part in the Brown power movement of the 60s and 70s later appropriated the term. Among more assimilated Mexican-Americans, the term still retains an unsavory connotation, particularly because it is preferred by political activists and by those who seek to create a new fresh identity for their culture rather than to subsume it blandly under the guise of any mainstream culture.