There are labels, and then there are labels
One of my history professors at the University of Dayton, back in the late 60’s, repeatedly stated that “race is a pigment of our imagination.”
This professor, whose course was entitled “Cultural History of the United States,” obviously meant this as a double entendre, both to debunk baseless biological pretensions and to focus attention on the social, legal, and political construction of categories meant to put people “in their place” in hierarchies of power and privilege.
“Race” is a social status, not a biological one; a product of history, not of nature; a contextual variable, not a given. It is a historically contingent, relational phenomenon – yet it is typically misinterpreted as a natural, fixed marker of visible differences inherent in human bodies, independent of human will or intention.
What is called “race” is largely the socio-political sum of past intergroup contacts and struggles, which establish the boundaries, the identities of victors and vanquished, of dominant and subordinate groups, of “us” and “them,” with their views of superiority and inferiority and of social worth or stigma. It’s the victors who define history.
The dominant “racial frame” that evolved in what became the United States, during the long colonial and national era of slavery and after it, was that of “white supremacy.”
How do “Latinos” or “Hispanics” fit in the country’s “white racial frame?” Are they a “race” – or more precisely, a racialized category? If so, how and when did that happen?
Hasn’t the U.S. Census Bureau insisted on putting an asterisk next to the label, uniquely among official categories, indicating that “Hispanics may be of any race?”
Is it a post-1960s, post-Civil Rights-era term, not fraught with the racial baggage of a past in which for more than a century, in Texas since 1836 and the rest of the Southwest after 1848, “Mexican” was disparaged as a subordinate caste by most Anglos?
The use of the label “Latino” or “Hispanic” is itself an act of homogenization, lumping diverse peoples together into a convenient fruit salad. But are they even a “they?” Is there a “Latino” or “Hispanic” ethnic group, cohesive and self-conscious, sharing a sense of “peoplehood” in the same way that there is an “African American” people in the United States?
Or is it mainly an administrative term devised for statistical purposes, a one-size-fits-all label that lumps diverse peoples and identities?
The focus on “Hispanics” or “Latinos” as a catchall category (let alone “the browning of America”) is, in my view, highly misleading, since it conceals the enormous diversity of contemporary immigrants from Spanish-speaking Latin America, obliterating the substantial generational and class differences among these groups, and their distinct histories and ancestries.
How do the labeled label themselves? What racial meaning does the label have for the labeled, and how has this label been internalized, and with what consequences? I’ve spent much time thinking about these questions, focusing primarily on official or state definitions, and on the way such categories are incorporated by those so classified.
The classification itself is new, an instance of an all-embracing category that was created by law back in 1976. The groups included under the label “Hispanic” or “Latino” – the Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Dominicans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Colombians, Peruvians, Ecuadorians, and the other dozen nationalities from Latin America, and even Spain itself, were not “Hispanics” or “Latinos” in their countries of origin; rather, they only became so in the United States.
Strictly on a personal note: As a child growing up in Cuba, and as an adolescent Cuban refugee in Miami in the early 60s, I was a Cuban. For decades I’ve rejected the “Hispanic” or “Latino” label. ¡Yo soy cubano! The convenient gringo label of “Hispanic” has not worked for me. One could say my attitude reflects my age and/or political leanings, more than anything else, since I was a Cuban before 1976, when the official “Hispanic” classification came into being.
(By the way, my passport and naturalization papers label me as an American. That will continue to work very nicely for me, thank you…)
That catchall “Hispanic” label has a particular meaning only in the U.S. context in which it was constructed and is applied, and continues to evolve. The peoples it includes are rapidly transforming the country’s demographic composition. The “Hispanic” or “Latino” population of the United States, as it has come to be regarded, reached 45 million in 2007, comprising 15 percent of the U.S. population. That total excludes another four million on the island of Puerto Rico, although they have been U.S. citizens for over 90 years.
The rapid growth of this population, estimated at only four million in 1950, has been stunning. The Census Bureau announced that in 2003 Hispanics surpassed African Americans to become the largest minority in the country, and for the first time in decades their growth is now due more to natural increase than to immigration.
Given current trends, Latinos will account for 60 percent of total U.S. population growth between 2005 and 2050 (they already accounted for half of the growth of the U.S. population between 2000 and 2005). By 2050 they are projected to grow to an estimated 128 million people or 29 percent of the national total, significantly exceeding the proportions of all other minorities combined.
By comparison, the non-Hispanic black population in 2050 is projected to comprise 13 percent of the national total, and the Asian population 9 percent.
“Hispanics” or “Latinos” are an extraordinarily diverse lot – an arroz con mango – made up both of recently arrived newcomers on one hand, and of old-timers on the other – with deeper roots in American soil than any other ethnic groups except for the indigenous peoples of the continent.
They comprise a population that can claim both a history and a territory in what is now the United States that precede the establishment of the nation. But it is also a population that has emerged seemingly suddenly, its growth driven both by accelerating immigration from the Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America, (above all from Mexico, which shares a 2,000 mile border with the United States), and by high rates of natural increase.
Indeed, 45 percent of the total Hispanic population of the United States today is foreign-born, and another 31 percent consists of a rapidly growing second generation of U.S.-born children of immigrant parents.
Although a single label implies otherwise, “Hispanics” or “Latinos” are not a homogeneous entity, and should not be presumed to be so – a huge error committed by many Anglo Americans. Even the newcomers among “Hispanics” differ significantly in national and social class origins, cultural backgrounds and phenotypes (many mixing indigenous pre-Columbian ancestries with European, African, and Asian roots), migration histories, legal statuses, and contexts of reception in the U.S.
Nonetheless, despite sometimes profound group and generational differences among the nationalities so included, the tens of millions of persons so classified do share a common label which symbolizes a minority group status in the United States. Such a label has been developed and legitimized by the state, diffused in daily institutional practice, and finally internalized and racialized, as a prominent part of the American character. That this outcome is, at least in part, a self-fulfilling prophecy, does not make it any less real.
Funny how restaurant service at a Mexican (or Salvadoran, or Venezuelan, etc.) restaurant goes from polite to obsequious, at the mere sound of a few Spanish words out of my mouth.