Discover more from Persuasion
What “Latino” Misses
Nothing about our beliefs or experiences is homogenous.
Several years ago, as talk of microaggressions, white privilege, systemic racism, and (of course) “Latinx” was taking off, I asked my mother what racial box she checks when filling out official forms. Originally (and proudly) from Mexico, she replied, “Honestamente, a veces ni sé que poner.” Honestly, sometimes I don’t even know what to put down.
She’s not alone. A 2015 Pew Research Center report noted that while 94% of the general U.S. public selected one of the five official racial categories in the 2010 census, responses among Latinos were far less consistent. Only 63% of Latinos picked white, black, Asian, American Indian, or Pacific Islander as their race. The remaining 37% selected the “some other race” option, under which many wrote in “Hispanic” (technically an ethnicity). Another Pew report found that a plurality of Hispanics (47%) prefer to use their country of heritage (e.g. “Mexican”) to identify themselves, rather than a panethnic term like “Latino.” And in 2021, a plurality of Latinos (27.6 million responses) identified as two or more races. Among those who identified as a single race, the most common was (again) “some other race” (22.1 million). The third most common identification, “White,” received 10.2 million responses.
Although these trends are relatively well known to close observers of public opinion, conversations about Latinos in the United States dramatically downplay the ambiguous relationship many of us feel toward American identity labels. For many Latinos, these labels are not simply opaque—they’re less central than the discourse typically assumes.
The ethnic labels “Hispanic” or “Latino” are inherently open to debate, as the history of these terms shows. In her 2014 book Making Hispanics, UC Berkeley sociologist G. Cristina Mora explores how they emerged when the interests of bureaucrats, activists, and media executives coalesced in the 1970s and 1980s. Census officials needed a way to track population data; Hispanic advocacy groups like the National Council of La Raza sought to expand their influence and mission; and emerging TV networks like Univision wanted to tap into a fast-growing market. They all had an interest in settling on some panethnic label to describe the LATAM-spanning public. Precision was less important. “Whatever the label, Hispanic or Latino,” Mora writes, “the category is by design ambiguous.”
This is obvious if you try to nail down any single characteristic as the basis of the “Hispanic/Latino” label. Is it that we share a common language? Spanish is most common, but plenty of other languages abound. Is it that we share a religion? Again, Catholicism is prevalent, but one in five Latinos are Protestant. How about a link to colonial Spain? True, but as Mora points out, Latin Americans with the last name Fox and Fujimori (to take the examples from two recent presidents of Mexico and Peru, respectively) suggest other global influences.
One often-acknowledged point about Latinos is that we’re a diverse group. It’s true: Mexican or Puerto Rican or Cuban ancestries are not interchangeable. Less noticed, however, is that Latinos also hold diverse views about the role of race in America, views that track non-ethnic factors. 46% of Latinos between 18-29 years old said “too little” attention is paid to race and racial issues, compared with only 28% of those over 65. 57% of Latinos who lean Republican said “too much” attention is paid to race, compared with only 27% of those who lean Democratic.
These findings point toward the ambiguous place that race and ethnicity hold in the minds of many Latinos, at least as these things are understood in the United States—which should raise doubts about whether these aspects of identity are as central as American discourse often claims. How can race or ethnicity be central to Latinos’ self-conception if we diverge not just on how much it matters, but over its basic meaning?
Yet many explanations for Latinos’ fuzzy attitudes toward American racial and ethnic labels tend to double down on their centrality. Recent academic works in Latino studies understand Latino history through the legacy of empires and a process of racialization much like that experienced by African Americans. Leading commentators and outlets have grappled with a rightward turn among Latinos mainly by invoking a proximity to “whiteness.”
These attempts to understand Latinos, to their credit, do trace historical events that frequently go unnoticed. And it’s important to note that Latinos certainly face discrimination just like other minority groups. A little over half (54%) mentioned experiencing at least one discriminatory instance in a twelve-month period, according to a 2021 report.
Nevertheless, understanding Latinos’ approach to identity mainly by emphasizing empire and racialization misses the ambiguous relationship Latinos have with America’s ethnoracial vocabulary. These commentators rely on a far more inflexible view of identity than most Latinos themselves hold. They hold race and ethnicity up as a central and ignored factor in Latinos’ lives, rather than notice that its importance varies by non-ethnic, non-racial factors.
If this common approach ignores the views of many Latinos toward race and ethnicity—and risks falling into the identity trap—what does an alternative look like?
Part of the answer in the coming years will center on changes to the census. In January, the Biden administration unveiled a proposal to combine the race and ethnicity question for the 2030 iteration. If approved, the separate Hispanic/Latino ethnicity question would be replaced by a merged “What is your race or ethnicity?” one that includes Latinos alongside the traditional census-designated racial categories. It would also include six subfields under the Hispanic/Latino category to specify national origin, and a write-in field for even more specific answers.
The proposed changes have oddly enough attracted critics from both ends of the political spectrum. Some progressive advocacy groups worry the change could undercount—and therefore undermine—Afro-Latinos and homogenize their experiences. Meanwhile, some on the right argue that specifying sub-national identities “contributes to the decline of one national American identity.”
But what both critiques downplay (or outright ignore) is that the census would allow people to select multiple racial categories. The revised question, paired with the option to choose two or more labels, does a better job of recognizing that race and ethnicity are often mere approximations of people’s identity. And the move might even bridge America’s strict technical divide between “race” and “ethnicity.” This is especially notable for Latinos who come from countries where the word “race” merges characteristics more readily associated with “ethnicity” in the United States.
But any improvements to our ethnoracial vocabulary will matter little if we don’t also question both their rigidity and centrality. That’s not only important to strengthen bonds across demographic groups, but also to better capture how many minorities see themselves.
Latinos are proud of their ancestry, especially when it’s related to national origin. But most don’t accept the significance or the weight of ethnoracial identity that our discourse projects onto them. It’s an attitude that’s not exactly color-blind or post-racial; it simply recognizes how race, ethnicity, national origin (or whatever label we use to categorize people) often blend together. There is much to learn from what the writer Richard Rodriguez described as Latinos’ more “playful” notion of race—one that’s more mutable, less rigid, and, importantly, not always top of mind.
Luis Parrales is assistant editor of The Dispatch. He is also a contributing editor of American Purpose, and a student in the Graduate Institute at St. John’s College in Annapolis.
And, to receive pieces like this in your inbox and support our work, subscribe below: