A recent national survey by the Pew Hispanic Center (2012) revealed that people from Latin American origins living in the USA that are usually categorized as “Hispanics” or “Latinos/as” do not identify with neither of those labels. While a majority (51%) said they most often identify themselves by their family’s country of origin, only 24% said they identify with a pan-ethnic label. More than two-to-one (69% versus 29%) of the respondents said that the Hispanic/Latino population in the USA (more than 50 million) has not a common culture, but multiple ones. As a person of South American origins, these findings don’t surprise me. I have been subject of such kind of categorization while the time I have spent in the USA and I have always struggle with the meaning of those terms. What are the implications of using any of those terms?
The debate over the appropriate terminology that is used to refer to people from Latin American origins living in the USA is not a recent one. Scholars, activists, visitors, and the immigrants themselves have constantly pointed out that pan-ethnic terms such as “Hispanic” or “Latino/a” homogenize a diverse population with a variety of national backgrounds, cultures, classes, races, and genders. Several researchers have stated that the use of “Hispanics” or “Latino/a” terms by government agencies, social scientists, the media, advertisers, and the public at large obscures the social and political experiences of immigrants from Central, South, and Caribbean countries. (Hernandez, 2012, Alzaldua, 2012; Torres-Saillant, 2002; Oboler, 2005; Padilla, 1985).
As a statistical construct, both terms, “Latino” and “Hispanic” are problematic because there are so many differences among nationality groups, class, and education from people of Latin American descent. Very frequently, especially from official institutions and dominant perspectives, “Hispanics” are categorized as trouble population, perceived as a social problem: low income, unemployed, poor, associated with school dropouts, early pregnancies, drugs, lack of health insurance coverage, and crime. Other times, the label “Hispanics” constructs an active population of consumers, a market segment. And still other times, especially when its voting capacity is recognized, “Hispanics” and “Latinos/as” are constructed as citizens.
“Hispanics” and “Latino/as” sometimes are categorized as “low-income people” who confront “unusual poverty and unemployment,” who speak Spanish language and don’t want to learn English, and who don’t want to embrace being Americans. Valdivia and Garcia have criticized the kind of moral panics that certain American scholars and writers build around the “Hispanic” and “Latino/a” population. Scholars like Huntington (2004), for instance, have argued that the most serious challenge for American identity is the presence of “Hispanics,” (especially Mexicans) because they have high fertility rate, and they are not assimilated to mainstream American culture. However, other times, this population is not perceived as a social problem. From the perspective of cultural entrepreneurs, for example, the term “Hispanic” or “Latino/a” ethnicity identifies a lucrative market segment and good box office and those labeled as Hispanics are created as consumers. Moreover, when scholars and politicians refer to the growing numbers of the “Hispanic” community as indicating that Latinos constitute a ‘growing force to be reckoned with,’ they value them as a powerful voting block and citizens.
The construction of a homogenous pan-ethnic group has been made by different sectors of the American society. Policy makers, government bureaucrats, marketing specialists, cultural industries, non-governmental organizations, social scientists, scholars from the humanities, and others, have attached different values to the terms “Hispanic” and “Latino” making different representations. Each term appears at particular moments in the history of the USA and reflects specific political, economical, social, and cultural connotations of the American society at large, especially its strong segregation tendencies. Important contexts are the war against Mexico (1846-1848), the occupation of Puerto Rico (1898), the decades after the World War II, the civic rights movement, and the post 1980s globalized world. As Oboler explains “people of Latin American descent in the United States have long been perceived homogeneously as ‘foreign’ to the image of ‘being American’ since the nineteenth century, regardless of the time and mode of their incorporation into the United States or their subsequent status as citizens of this nation.”(18) Ideologies that justified the expansionism of the U.S in the 19th century conceived “foreign others” the people from Latin America and the Caribbean. These groups of people became the minorities that were excluded of “being American.” The community of Americans was imagined as white, protestant, and anglo-saxon, despite the presence of people from other origins and the diversity of classes, races and national origins. The nation self-definition and public image was constructed in white-only terms. (Oboler 2005)