The Hispanic identity: The limitations of the U.S. Census

A few weeks ago, the Trump administration made public its new additions to the U.S. Census. Except for the usual suspects, most media outlets’ responses were not positive. With one question – “Are you a U.S. citizen?” – the Trump team has inspired journalists to denounce the president for a decision that’s clearly race-driven and could perhaps go as far as change the makeup of Congress (Check out Alicia Parlapiano’s article “Are you a U.S. citizen? How a 2020 U.S. census question could affect states,” The New York Times, April 3, 2018) and, in a shocking turn of events, has already driven several states to sue the federal government. Since the mainstream media has already said plenty on that issue, I would like to address another of the more conflicting labels within the Census: the Hispanic identity question.

People from Spanish-speaking countries have been summarily baked into one big multi-national and multi-ethnic casserole based on a shared native tongue, similar cuisines and music and a distantly shared historical background. Let’s take Argentinians and Nicaraguans, for example. They were both colonized by the Spanish and/or are descended from them. Most of them speak Spanish. They both eat empanadas. (That is if you consider Argentinian empanadas to be the same as Nicaraguans empanadas. Hint: They are not.) Some might listen to regueton. But if you believe that Argentinians, Nicaraguans and other people of Spanish-speaking countries deserve to be grouped into an ethnic group according to these parameters, then why shouldn’t Canadians and Americans be segregated in the same way? They both speak English, listen to Drake and eat Taco Bell burritos. And if you hear of any country grouping all Americans and Canadians as “anglos,” you’d be surprised. After all, both of those countries have people from several different ethnic backgrounds and have different histories. Well, so do all Latin American countries. Some last names of friends of mine back home (Caracas, Venezuela) include “Di Stefano,” “Youssef,” “Brewer” and “Hoffman.” Many Venezuelan mestizos and mulatos probably don’t even have half Spanish ancestry. I wonder how many boxes they would have to check in their Census forms.

I will not deny there is use to collecting data on people of Latin American descent. Historical evidence of discrimination against those of these “undesirable” national origins is plentiful, and programs addressing this type of nationalistic discrimination need as much information as necessary to fight against it. Yet as well intentioned as these programs may be, when they use the label of “Hispanic” and “Latino” as catchall terms, or when they confusingly claim it is one ethnic group when each nation is composed of several different ethnic groups, they inevitably partake in the same discrimination they are trying to fight against. The fact is that the Hispanic peoples are culturally and socially distinct from one another, and misuse of these words has blurred their unique cultural identities in the eyes of the American public.

I remember the numerous occasions people have asked whether I listen to mariachi music because I’m Hispanic. I have to constantly clarify that I’m not Mexican, but that yes, I love me some mariachi. And I love my Central American, South American and Caribbean cousins, but we are not the same. We are part of a family with common roots, but each of us has flowered in our own, enchanting way. I’m proud of belonging to this family. I’m proud of being Hispanic. But that word within the U.S. seems to represent a brand of sameness. That’s why, until we manage to change American society’s simplistic view of the world, the U.S. government should revise the way it addresses us on the Census. For now, it will sadly have to state: “Mark this box if your family traces its origin from a Spanish-speaking North American, Central American, South American, Caribbean or European country.”

Manuel Matos ’21 is from Caracas, Venezuela. His major is undecided.

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