Posted by: turtlebella | 15 November 2007

I am NOT a Hispanic!

Okay, I thought someone might ask about the Hispanic thing. I just didn’t want to write a long thing just in case no one actually did want to know.  Here is my take on it.

There are two main reasons I (and many other people) don’t like it, one serious and one kind of goofy.

1. Hispanic is generally a term coined from outside the community. That is, by Anglo/Euro-Americans/white people in an attempt to categorize, codify a large, diverse block of people from Latin America, South America, Caribbean countries. The US government in all its (not) wisdom uses “Hispanic.” (See below the break for some stuff from the US Census Bureau that indicates how much the goverment flails around issues of race and ethnicity when it comes to Latin@s)  And “Hispanic” associates us with Spain rather than with indigenous people or other European, African, Asian, Middle Eastern countries.   “Hispanic” ignores those who speak something other than Spanish (be it Nahuatl or any number of indigenous dialects and languages or French  or Portuguese or whatever).  So “Hispanic” willfully ignores a lot of complexity within a people who are more often than not mestizo (literally, mixed)– all kinds of blood flows through our veins and to limit it to European and primarily the Spanish is offensive and ethnocentric.  The problem is that by identifying as Hispanic we allow our sometime and often current oppressors to identify us.

2. I am not ‘his’ panic (or anyone else’s panic). This play on words acknowledges the extent to which the dominant (white) culture is afraid of brown people themselves and particularly a politicized brown people.

What’s the alternative? Well, this kind of depends on each individual. I usually identify as Chicana. Or Latina.  Which is separate and different from saying I’m Mexican-American, which I used to say and which indicates nationality while they other terms are more political in nature.  Some people identify as Xican@. Lots of folks say they are Latin@. (using the @ is snazzy no? replaces what we used to do– o/a or the sexist but probably linguistically appropriate practice of just saying Latino).  Some say La Raza. Some break it down to nationality- Dominican, Puertoriqueño, etc. There’s no easy answer. But then, identity is not something that is easy nor should it be easily categorized.
Finally, I will note that there are PLENTY of Latino people who do not agree with this viewpoint.  And then there is the case of New Mexico, which is totally unique as far as I can tell.  In New Mexico there are still lots of people who consider themselves descended from Spanish settlers in Mexico. (As strictly an aside, but a very interesting one, relatively recently there has been lots of news about how DNA techniques have revealed that some Hispanic families have a Jewish heritage.  For many families this was a revelation- they knew that they had family traditions which didn’t match their Catholic religion but they had, over generations, lost track of the fact that these traditions were Jewish rituals.  Some people still maintained a Jewish identity.  Basically, the idea is that Sephardic Jews moved to New Mexico, which was on the fringe of the Spanish empire, to escape prosecution  see this article for more debate about this).  These people often self-identify as Hispanic, as literally being descended from the Spanish and consider themselves separate from more recent waves of immigrants from Latin American countries. I don’t *think* that they would argue that they are “pure” blood Spanish- but then again there’s plenty of bias within any Latino community towards “white” features and so I’m sure it’s there too. And that’s about the limit of my knowledge about New Mexico and “Hispanic.”

From the US Census on historical race/ethnicity categories, [hat tip to liza at Culture Kitchen]

In the 1930 census only, there was a separate race category for Mexican. This population corresponded closely to the population of Mexican ancestry who were born in Mexico or to parents born in Mexico. The 1930 census reports included estimates of the Mexican population for 1910 and 1920 based largely on data on place of birth. The race category of Mexican was eliminated in 1940, and 1930 race data were revised to include the Mexican population with the White population.

The 1940 census was the first to include tabulations on the White population of Spanish mother tongue. In previous censuses, published data on mother tongue had been limited to the White population of foreign stock (i.e., individuals who were foreign born or who were native of foreign or mixed parentage). There were relatively few individuals of Spanish mother tongue who were races other than White,3 and thus to the extent that Spanish mother tongue was a good indicator of the Hispanic population, 1940 census data provide a rough indicator of the size of the Hispanic origin population in 1940.4 Based on the relative sizes of the population of Spanish mother tongue and of Hispanic origin in 1970, 1940 census data on Spanish mother tongue appear to represent a somewhat low estimate of the population of Hispanic origin,5 but are included in this report in the absence of any other census data on the size of the total Hispanic origin population until 1970.


The history of census data on Hispanic origin (which is identified as an ethnic origin rather than as a race in federal statistics) is quite different from the history of census data on race. While there were various indicators of portions of the Hispanic origin population, including data on mother tongue, data on the population with Spanish surname, and the designation of Mexican as a race in the 1930 census, the first attempt to identify the entire Hispanic origin population was in 1970.

The Hispanic origin population of the United States was defined three different ways in 1970 census reports, the first and second based on 15-percent sample data and the third based on 5-percent sample data: (1) as the Spanish language population (the population of Spanish mother tongue plus all other individuals in families in which the head or wife reported Spanish mother tongue); (2) as the Spanish heritage population (the population of Spanish language and/or Spanish surname in the five Southwestern states of Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas, the population of Puerto Rican birth or parentage in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, and the population of Spanish language elsewhere; and (3) as the population of Spanish origin or descent based on self-identification. The Spanish origin population in 1970 was overstated in some states, especially in the Midwest and South, because some respondents interpreted the questionnaire category of “Central or South American” to mean central or southern United States.

Data on Hispanic origin were collected on a 100-percent basis in 1980 and 1990, reflecting the release of Race and Ethnic Standards for Federal Statistics and Administrative Reporting (U.S. Office of Management and Budget, 1977).


In the case of Other race, there was a dramatic population increase from 1970 to 1980. This reflected the addition of a question on Hispanic origin to the 100-percent questionnaire, an increased propensity for Hispanics not to identify themselves as White, and a change in editing procedures to accept reports of “Other race” for respondents who wrote in Hispanic entries such as Mexican, Cuban, or Puerto Rican. In 1970, such responses in the Other race category were reclassified and tabulated as White.



  1. This PDF article (which I found through Wikipedia) adds some more complexity to the issue:

    And of course “Latino” is not entirely unproblematic. I just discovered that it was probably coined by the Napoleonic rulers of Mexico, who wanted to emphasize the common cultural roots of their (briefly) subjects and themselves in the Latin language family.

    But as you say, the key thing is self-identification vs. imposed identification. And of course, White Americans (North Americans, that is; and U.S. ones) will turn all such things into racial shorthand– in the same way that I have heard people say that Nelson Mandela is “African-American,” i.e., he has dark skin and that’s the term I’ve learned to use to avoid talking about skin color in such a way as to offend anyone. As the article I linked to points out, most US white people think of “Hispanic” as referring to racial characteristics which are, in fact, associated primarily with mestizos of largely Native blood– when in fact a blond-haired, blue-eyed Argentinian, say, is just as much “Hispanic” as anyone else.

  2. Thanks turtlebella. I don’t think I meant any harm by labeling people/books/culture “hispanic” but it’s good to know the feelings of the reciprocating end. I can identify to a certain extent; I’m white, but I tend to identify myself mostly by my religion (I’m LDS, aka Mormon) and I do bristle at the biases and labels that I get stuck with because of it.

    I can imagine it has to be difficult and irritating with broad labels when it comes to something like race. Sometimes it’s good to have a reminder that we’re all different and that different is good.

  3. Melissa, It’s almost overwhelmingly true that when most people use the term Hispanic that they are not trying to be offensive or hurtful (there are plenty of other words for that! sadly). So I know that you never meant any harm! I get used to seeing/reading/hearing the word such that it doesn’t really bother me. Except for when it does! :) I can only imagine the kinds of comments you get or overhear about being LDS, especially lately perhaps? with Mitt Romney and whether the US would ever elect a Mormon and all the attendant crapola.

    I’m not sure why- not being an anthropologist or sociologist or psychologist or whoever- we as humans need to label people, put them in little boxes that exclude other boxes. It’s just so wrong…and not at all in line with how each individual person identifies/describes themselves- that’s always a many layered, multidimensional thing. Perhaps it has to do with people wanting to belong to a group and to identify who is outside that group- who is ‘other’ – and who might be an enemy. Sometimes I complain to the sqvirrel that I am always ‘other,’ on so many levels, and I’m sick and tired of it! Most of the rest of the time I’m proud.

  4. “Perhaps it has to do with people wanting to belong to a group and to identify who is outside that group- who is ‘other’ – and who might be an enemy.”

    I think this has a lot to do with it. It goes back to JR high, really. We all want to be a part of the “in crowd” and feel left out somehow when we’re not. It’s just magnified with things like race and religion. And then when you add centuries of hate being passed down… (that’s what I don’t get. Sure, not understanding the other is one thing, but hating them for their differences? That’s just unreasonable and illogical.)

    Yeah, I get a lot of interesting comments, and not being a confrontational person, I tend to shy away from telling people about my church. It has been magnified with Mitt Romney’s bid for the presidency (and no I’m not going to vote for him just because he’s a Mormon, too… I get that), but I’ve been getting odd comments for as long as I can remember. You live with it. :)

  5. well explained – danke. i especially understand the idea that latinos would not use the term hispanic to describe themselves – that it is an ‘outside the community’ term. though, i admit, the “HIS”panic explanation doesn’t work for me – but that’s just because it’s me and i find all of that womyn stuff a wee bit silly.

  6. Yeah, it’s mostly just an inside joke. Not at all linguistically accurate (just like wo-man and his-story aren’t linguistically accurate either).

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