My daughter, a half-Mexican half-Cuban bundle of laughter, was born last year and her birth certificate says “Hispanic.” Her school forms will also all likely say Latino/Hispanic, and when she goes to college she will likely join Latino/Hispanic clubs and perhaps – if she is so lucky – she might benefit from Latino scholarships. Her drivers’ license will say Hispanic, and she will likely identify herself as Hispanic/Latino on all of her census forms. Indeed, she will grow up in an era that takes the idea of Latinidad for granted.
Now that “Hispanic” Heritage Month is upon us this month it might be useful to reflect on just how the term came about.
In my recently published book, Making Hispanics: How Activists, Bureaucrats, and Media Constructed a New American, I show that the idea of Hispanic/Latino panethnicity was carefully developed. In the late 1960s Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and Cubans in the U.S. for the most part inhabited different worlds and tended to have different political interests and cultural institutions. Many even resisted the idea of coming together. This changed slowly as Mexicans and Puerto Ricans realized that their common fights for social equality ultimately hinged on the availability of data.
At the time Chicano and Puerto Rican activists were busy organizing and bringing attention to issues of urban poverty, discrimination, and bilingual education. They both realized, however, that they couldn’t access government anti-poverty grants because they lacked the data to substantiate their claims. At the time the US Census Bureau categorized these groups mainly as white and lumped their data together with that of Irish- and Italian-Americans. So census reports on poverty, for example, were mainly about black and white differences and the conditions of Latinos were obscured.
It was only after getting Congressional and White House support that Mexican and Puerto Ricans together pressured the Bureau to change its practices. After much negotiation the Bureau came up with an umbrella “Hispanic” category. Labels like “Latin” “Latin American” and “Raza” were considered, but officials settled on the “Hispanic” term because it was seen as attached to a more American identity rather than a foreign one.