Separated by a common language: The case of the white
RAW STORY COLUMNIST
According to the 2000 census, there are now 35 million
Hispanics in the U.S., overtaking African-Americans
as the largest and fastest growing minority, with that
number expected to increase dramatically over the next
Hispanics are now a powerful force in American culture,
with politicians courting their votes and corporations
clamoring for their dollars. Se habla Español
is the new American mantra.
As an Argentine immigrant, I am technically a member
of this minority. I am also white. So, do I check both
the “white” and “Hispanic” boxes
on job applications? Will it give me an edge I know
deep down I don’t deserve, or will it open me
up to discrimination?
Recently I’ve noticed a puzzling trend: “White”
has been amended to “white, non-Hispanic,”
making it an either/or proposition; either I’m
white or Hispanic, I can no longer be both, thus widening
the loophole and eliminating all trace of the white
Hispanic, the HR department’s dirty little secret.
Which begs some serious questions: If Hispanic isn’t
a race, like African-American or Asian, what is it?
An ethnicity? A culture? A niche market? Should I, as
a white Hispanic, be entitled to the benefits of affirmative
action? Could a company hire me and claim diversity?
Am I really a member of a minority? The term Hispanic,
and its cousin Latino, are used blithely all the time,
often in the same breath with the other strictly racial
categories, but what do they really mean? And, more
importantly, what do we mean when we use them?
Webster’s Third New International Dictionary,
the go-to lexicon of American letters, defines Hispanic
as “relating to or derived from the people, speech
or culture of…Spain and Portugal.” This
would include Spanish heartthrob Antonio Banderas, Brazilian
soccer legend Pele (who is also, by the way, black)
and even the actress Janeane Garofalo, who is Portuguese-American,
but not ousted Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide,
who is a Francophone. And, absurdly, under this definition
ex-Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori, who is of Japanese
ancestry, is also Hispanic.
The definition of Latino, on the other hand, seems
to chase its own tail. A Latino is defined simply as
“a Latin American,” who is, of course, a
“native or inhabitant of Latin America,”
which is “the countries of North, Central and
South America, excluding French Canada, whose chief
or official languages are Romance languages.”
(Considering the French-Canadian penchant for secession,
Webster’s no doubt found it impolitic to call
them Latino.) Under this definition, Señor Banderas,
who nevertheless speaks a Romance language and is, by
all accounts, romantic, is not Latino, but President
Aristide is. Are we clear now?
And that’s just one dictionary. Check others
and the definitions start to fold into each other like
an Escher painting, resulting in a composite so broad
as to render the terms virtually meaningless, especially
as racial, ethnic or even cultural distinctions. What,
exactly, does Antonio Banderas—a rich, white Spanish
movie star—have in common with the poor, dark-skinned
Mexican immigrant cutting the grass at his Hollywood
home, except that they both speak Spanish?
The only concrete meaning Hispanic has is geographical.
It essentially means anyone who hails from south of
the U.S. border. In that sense it’s more akin
to “North American,” and what race are North
Americans? The ultimate irony is that Hispanic includes
both the descendants of the Spanish Conquistadors and
the indigenous peoples they virtually exterminated.
But surely the Census Bureau, the ultimate authority
on U.S. demographics, must have a more specific definition?
Nope. Theirs is so vague it actually includes the abbreviation
“etc.” Their everybody-and-their-grandmother
label, “Spanish/Hispanic/Latino,” is what
the bureau calls a “self-designated classification,”
meaning they put the checkbox on their forms and let
respondents decide, although its demographic reports
are careful to point out Hispanics come in all colors.
And I suspect this is true of most organizations.
In other words, a Hispanic is someone who chooses to
identify as Hispanic. And who are these self-classified
Hispanic-Americans? According to the 2000 census, two-thirds
are of Mexican heritage, 90 percent of which are mestizo,
the descendants of Spanish and Indian miscegenation.
So, for practical purposes, when we speak of Hispanics
and Latinos in the U.S., we’re really taking about
mixed-race Native Americans from Mexico. But Native-American
already exists as a racial category. Referring to these
people as Hispanic because they speak Spanish would
be like calling Native Americans Anglo because they
Therefore, if we need to distinguish Spanish-speaking
Native-Americans from our own, why not replace Hispanic
with the term “Amerindian,” which anthropologists
use when referring to the indigenous population of the
Caribbean and Central and South America? Granted, it’s
esoteric, and I doubt many Mexican-Americans would self-classify
as Amerindian, but it would solve the pesky white-Hispanic
conundrum and more accurately reflect the important
racial dimension that terms like Hispanic and Latino
Because if being Hispanic carries any societal consequences
that justify inclusion in the pantheon of great American
racial minorities, they’re the result of having
Native American blood. And it’s this kinship that
would explain why so many Mexican-Americans self-classify
as Hispanic, and why many Argentines and other white
Hispanics don’t. (The leading Spanish-language
newspaper isn’t called La Raza for nothing. And
as a white liberal, a publication whose title translates
to “The Race” makes me queasy.) Not to mention
the impact this would have on the illegal-immigration
debate. It’s one thing to blame the fall of western
civilization on illegal Mexican immigration, but quite
thornier to blame it on illegal Amerindian immigration
Or, we could simply stop lumping people together by
their mother tongue and recognize the unique people
and cultures of all the nations of the Americas. Mexicans
are Mexican, Puerto Ricans are Puerto Rican, and Argentines
are Argentine, Webster’s be damned. As the gringos
like to say, “Dream on!”
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