In many ways, being a modern American Latino is incredibly confusing. According the U.S. government, we aren’t a race — officially, “Hispanic” is considered an ethnic identification, and Latinos tend to be lumped in racially with Caucasians. The problem is that most Hispanics come from an incredibly mixed background, and many of us appear to be anything but white. Take Jakiyah McKoy, an adorable 7-year-old girl who was crowned Little Miss Hispanic Delaware on August 31.
Soon after winning the competition, pageant-goers began to complain to the judges. They claimed she “wasn’t the best representative of Latin beauty” — presumably, because she didn’t fit the mixed white and Native American flavor of Hispanic that most of us are familiar with in the US. Instead, Jakiyah is black. While Jakiyah was born in Brooklyn, her grandmother was originally from the Dominican Republic.
After the uproar from the community, the organization that sponsors the pageant demanded to see documentation proving that Jakiyah was at least 25% Latina. Since her grandmother had already passed away, the family had trouble providing the requested proof, and the mother says she eventually gave up because she didn’t want to deal with the interrogation. Because the family couldn’t prove Jakiyah’s Dominican roots, her title and crown were stripped.
How Can You Tell if Someone is a “Real Latino?”
The verdict raises some disturbing questions about who is considered “Latino enough” in the Hispanic community. What does “25% Latino” even mean? Does that mean at least one grandparent had to have immigrated to the United States, as in Jakiyah’s case? Does it mean 25% indigenous heritage? 25% Spanish blood? Does it mean a 25% of your family has to have grown up within a predominantly Latino community, or that 25% of your relatives must speak Spanish?
Trying to define a percentage of Latin heritage is a complicated question. In many parts of the Southwest U.S., Hispanic families have lived in this country for generations — it’s possible that no living members of their families immigrated from South or Central America. After a few generations in the United States, it’s common for the children or grandchildren of immigrants to lose touch with the old culture and language. But I’ve certainly never heard of a non-black Latino being questioned about their percentage of Latin heritage, no matter how long their family has been in the country.
At the heart of this controversy is a deceptively simple question: what does it mean to be Latino? This is a topic I’ve struggled with all my life — one of my grandparents immigrated to the United States from Guatemala and had a mix of Spanish and Mayan heritage. The matriarch of the other side was definitely “white” but had grown up in Mexico, immersed in Mexican culture. (It’s complicated — it was, quite literally, a Mitt Romney situation.) They both married Anglo American citizens after coming to the United States.
My parents grew up divorced from this side of their heritage, so as a child I was mostly exposed to the cultures of the German and English sides of my family. I’m light-skinned. I don’t speak Spanish. If I had to provide documentation proving my Latin heritage, I would have no idea where to look — I simply wouldn’t be able to do it. So, am I “Latina enough?”
People who blur the lines of what’s traditionally perceived to be Latino, like my family, like Jakiyah, are far from unusual. A year ago, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro was criticized for identifying as Latino when he admitted that he doesn’t speak Spanish. Plenty of other high-profile Hispanic celebrities don’t speak Spanish either — including Christina Aguilera, despite the fact that she’s released an entire Spanish-language album. And plenty of them don’t look like the stereotypical Latino either.
We’re such a diverse group with such a complex history — is it reasonable or even fair to try to define what a “real Latino” should look or act like?
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.
Photo credit: Youtube