While the U.S. Census is just one of many factors that define a person’s race, the racial categories the Census creates have a real impact on our society, how people see one another, and to a certain extent, how people self-identify. “In their classic on ‘ethnic labels,’ Suzanne Oboler (1995: 166) notes ‘the names adopted by different groups or imposed on them by others emerge as a result of particular historical and political contexts.’”1 In response to the Civil Rights Movement, in the 1960s the government began to collect racial statistics in order to determine eligibility for civil rights protections and affirmative action participation. When they began this process, however, there was no racial category for Latinx people. Beginning in 1970, the categories of “Mexican,” “Puerto Rican,” “Cuban,” “Central or South American,” and “Other Spanish” were added to the Census. Previously, no such categories existed in the Census, with the exception of “Mexican,” which was used only in the 1930s Census.2 In 1976, Congress passed Public Law 94-311, in which they stated that the 1970 Census revealed that there were over 12 million “Spanish-speaking” Americans, many of whom “suffer from racial, social, economic, and political discrimination.” In response to this, in 1977, the government adopted the label “Hispanic,” defining it as: “A person of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American or other Spanish culture or origin, regardless of race.”3 Thus, Hispanic is not technically a racial category, but rather an ethnic category, based on ancestry from Spanish-speaking countries. Given the term’s link to speaking-Spanish, for those from Latin America who are labeled “Hispanic,” this title erases their indigenous, racial, or even geographic identity in favor of their colonized identity as those whose ancestors were colonized by the Spanish empire. “For both Latino immigrants and US-born Latinos, the Census categories simply do not coincide with identities based on conceptualizations of race in Latin America or identities constructed via national origins.”4
Some Latinx people use the term latinoamericanos to self-identity, and this term has been shortened to Latino. Google’s ngram for the terms Hispanic and Latino reveal that although Hispanic is still used more, since the mid-1990s it has seen a significant drop, while the term Latino has been on the rise since then. The question of using Latino is further complicated given the gendered nature of the Spanish language. Many have protested the use of Latino, one that carries a masculine connotation, to refer to all Latin Americans. More recently, many have used Latino/a or Latina/o or Latin@ to make the term inclusive of men and women. In a 2014 Master’s thesis, the term “Latinx” was used for the first time in a scholarly text. The author, Stephanie Alvarado, explains this term by saying: “I choose to use the word ‘Latinx’ instead of ‘Latina/o’ or ‘Latina’ or ‘Latin!’ to symbolize and include gender nonconforming Latinxs, to challenge gender binaries, and to queer myths about a unified homogenous Latinidad and challenge conventional identity politics.”5 While this is not a term used by most people within or outside of the Latinx community, it is significant in demonstrating the intersectional identities of Latinx people, ones that extend beyond race or ethnicity, national origin, or language. This intersectionality and complex identity is also evident in terms like Afro-Latinx, which highlight the multi-racial identity of many Latinx people, whose history and culture is intertwined with people of African descent. Panethnic terms like Hispanic, Latino, or even Latinx fail to acknowledge the indigenous roots of many Latinx people, which include hundreds of distinct groups. Whether using the term Hispanic, Latino/a, or Latinx, these terms refer to millions of people (most recent estimates suggest approximately 55 million or 17% of the U.S. population), the largest non-white group in the U.S., and no term can capture the fullness of their identities.6 Many groups resist these panethnic terms, preferring to identify themselves as Mexican or Chicano, Puerto Rican or Boricua, Cuban, Salvadoran, Dominican, Guatemalan, or so many more – not to mention terms like MexiRican, which also speak to the countless multi-ethnic identities within Latinidad.