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Separated by a common language: The case of the white Hispanic

By Alfredo Tryferis

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 decade.


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 speak English.

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 mask.

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 from Mexico.

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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