If This 7-Year-Old Isn’t “Latina Enough,” Who Is?

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


Margaret Goodman
Margaret Goodman4 years ago

From reading these comments, I conclude that Hispanic/Latino is difficult, if not impossible, to define, and that the U. S. Census approach is the best. If you say you're Hispanic/Latino, you are.

I recall similar arguments about "Who is Jewish?" Is being Jewish a matter of religion, culture, race, ...??? Either Ann Landers or Abigail VanBuren (they were Jewish twin sisters and competing advice columnists) said what I believe. If you say you're Jewish, then you're Jewish.

After all, few people claim to be members of despised minorities, if they're not. My father probably could have claimed to be African American, but he chose not to, because life is much easier when you have white privilege.

Myriam G.
Myriam G4 years ago

thank you to all the comments that mentioned there's no such thing as race.

Like the article points out, being Latino refers to many things, (ancestry, language, culture, community, country of origin, etc) that don't have anything to do with skin colour or whatever physical feature. From what I understand, being Latino is more of a cultural heritage that people identify themselves to.

Now, some people thought of bringing the ugly concept of race into the appalling phenomenon of child beauty pageants... that's how little kids hearts get broken. And who knows what scars that'll leave behind, as the child grows up.

Lynn C.
Lynn C4 years ago


Joe M.
Joe Martinez4 years ago

Ref: David J. comment to my views. David I hear your voice. Let's address La Raza(the race) should have been Ethnicity> But, like the NAACP organization it too was created to organize the people and empower their voices under the Constitution. Historically USA political system has traditionally been controlled by the powerful those with deep pockets and the voice of the little people was never heard, perhaps suppressed is more fitting. Wealth conquers all. This past presidential election finally the power of the people spoke and now specifically the Republican party are trying to undo what the little people voted for ObamaCare to even shutdown the country. Do you get my beef what forces citizens to create organizations to empower them to the same rights?? Voting for one!

Darryll Green
Darryll Green4 years ago

who gives a damn, SHE is an american, not an hispanic american, this drivel of devision as in african american or mexican american or islamic american is the greatest deviser in this country and is designed simply to continue the devision of america, if you are born here you are american only, it doesn't matter what your family background is and until people can learn that this country will stay devided

Warren Biggs
Warren Biggs4 years ago

If one were to acknowledge races, and yes, there are actual real differences (beside "skin color" which is not even a good indicator of "race", viz most Ethiopians are actually Caucasian as well as all Mid-easterners) such as dentition, health issues, bone structure, skull structure, etc...; "Latino" would not fall under this definition for numerous reasons. Most people who are labeled or even classify themselves as "Latino" are actually "mestizos"- a combination of European Caucasians and native indigenous tribes. In addition, there are certain areas in Central and South America where "pure" Caucasians or "pure" indigenous people live. I have encountered people from Mexico City who are blonde and blue-eyed. In addition, there can be vast differences between the cultures of different countries- even some major linguistic differences, e.g., Argentina still uses "vosotros/as" which is fairly unique among Central and South America and the Caribbean islands. Latino is as much a race as Celtic is.

pam w.
pam w4 years ago

There is no such thing as RACE! There is skin color, culture, geographical connection...but we all originated in Africa and we're as diverse as people who still live there. Just because some of us evolved light skin/eyes, advantageous physical characteristics, etc, doesn't mean we're not the same underneath that skin.

pam w.
pam w4 years ago

Diana...I'm trying to send you a green star for your wise and informed comments but it doesn't seem to work. So...GREEN STAR to you! :-)

It's not just Americans...look at all the categories people have imposed on South Africans, for example. I'm afraid many humans throughout history have had the idea of ''race'' to separate people. And it's just wrong.

Look at all the people with mixed genetic heritage who are still categorized as "black," not just in the US but in Europe, too. I loved seeing Brazil,,, where there are so many skin colors it's impossible to categorize anyone and nobody tries!

We're so "politically correct'' that we've resorted to terms like "African American," which is ludicrous, since it refers to people with dark skin...many of whom are from places like India, the Maldives, etc.....and have no cultural connection to Africa at all!

If we really NEED to describe someone, words like "African American" lose all meaning when you consider the beautiful actress, Charlize Theron, for example, who was born in South Africa and recently became an American citizen. Millions of people in Africa are as pale-skinned as I am....and they're as African as Nelson Mandela.

Lin M
Lin M4 years ago

Thanks for the info, didn't know it was so complicated.

Teresa Wlosowicz
Teresa W4 years ago

well said, Aurea