Hispanic and Latino Aren’t Always Synonyms
Depending on how you define Latino and Hispanic, we come in all races — Black, Asian, Native American, and yes, even the white descendants of European settlers. Most of us are a mix of more than one of these groups, which makes defining us as a group a little difficult.
Some of us come from countries that have never spoken Spanish as a national language, like Brazil (Portuguese), Guyana (English), Suriname (Dutch), or French Guiana — so while those people are clearly Latin American, the term “Hispanic” doesn’t apply. Some Filipinos, residents of a former Spanish colony, define themselves as Hispanic, but because they’re not from Latin America, the term “Latino” doesn’t fit. And let’s not even get into the contentious label “Chicano,” which involves one part Mexican heritage and another part political identity.
Complicating the issue is the fact that some Latinos can be incredibly racist. Within Latin American countries, a racial hierarchy often exists with Blacks on the bottom and Native Americans slightly higher up, followed by people of mixed heritage, with Caucasians at the top of the ladder. Many Hispanic immigrants and their descendants retain the same attitudes toward race, despite the fact that American society tends to lump all Latinos together regardless of origin, language, or race. This puts many Latinos in the awkward position of being both perpetrators and victims of racism, sometimes within their own ethnic community.
So what does it mean to be Hispanic? To be Latino? Can a beauty pageant be open to one group and not the other? Should the overarching ethnic group include people who may fit one definition and not the other? Personally, I err on being as inclusive as possible, but not everyone feels that way, as evidenced by the uproar over Jakiyah’s win.
Wasting Time on Definitions Distracts From the Real Issues
The question of who qualifies as Hispanic is so difficult that the Census Bureau uses one simple measure to determine who falls into the category: if you define yourself as Hispanic, then the U.S. government considers you Hispanic. End of story.
By this definition, it’s physically impossible to be 25%, 50%, or 75% Hispanic. You simply are, or you’re not. Obviously, leaving this category up to self-identification isn’t causing massive numbers of people without Latin American or Spanish heritage to define themselves as something they’re not — in 2012 only 17% of the US population defined themselves as Hispanic.
If this is the official government measure, is it reasonable to demand the type of proof that the McKoy family is being asked to provide? Obviously, there are issues of more pressing concern in the world than the title in a children’s beauty contest — but that’s exactly why the Hispanic community needs push back against this ridiculous policing of who’s “real” and who doesn’t make the cut.
Latinos continue to face significant disparities in health care, education, employment, and even home ownership compared to the U.S. population as a whole. We continue to be underrepresented in the political sphere, and millions of us have undocumented friends or family members who face difficult and unique legal challenges. In states like Arizona and Alabama, we are blatantly discriminated against.
There isn’t time to waste trying to decide who is and isn’t “Latino enough.” We need to all be in this fight together.
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