Hispanic"-"American: When A Hyphen Is Not Needed
The one type of comment that I can always count on to show up -- pipin' hot -- in my e-mail inbox is "Why must you use the term 'Hispanic' or 'Latino'!?"
There's a little something for everyone to chew on here. There are those
who dislike that I use both terms instead of sticking to their favored moniker,
and there are non-Hispanics with grave concerns about why I don't employ
hyphens such as with "Irish-Americans" or "Italian-Americans."
A recent series of smart and thought-provoking blog posts by Stanley
Renshon, a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, an organization that
favors restrictions on both legal and illegal immigration, examined the value
of the hyphenated identity.
"Hyphenated American identities have helped many millions of new
legal immigrants to the United States, from every continent in the world, find
their way eventually to becoming full-fledged members of our national
community," Renshon wrote. "So why do we seem to have discarded that
unparalleled record of success when it comes to America's largest and fastest
growing new immigrant group -- 'Hispanics'/'Latinos'?"
Renshon cited a 2006 survey by the Pew Hispanic Center that found that
48 percent of Latino adults generally describe themselves by their country of
origin first; 26 percent generally use the terms Latino or Hispanic first; and
24 percent generally call themselves American on first reference.
He didn't mention that the report specifically noted that "the
labels are not universally embraced by the community that has been
labeled," and did not break out, compare or correlate attitudes between
immigrants and the U.S.-born -- an important distinction.
Reading this, my reaction -- one I think many U.S.-born Latinos will
recognize -- was that I never thought of myself as anything other than an
American until some well-meaning person pressed me for further explanation of
"Where are you from?" because "Chicago" was never a sufficient
And like many others whose parents come from any of the 20 different
Latin American countries, I'll never call myself exclusively a Mexican-American
or Ecuadorean-American because that leaves out too much of the story.
We all pretty much go by the standards set by the U.S. Census Bureau,
and today most people know that the bureau uses Hispanic/Latino interchangeably
with the note that "persons of Hispanic origin may be of any race."
Some people take these labels very seriously, even though a 2008 Pew
Hispanic Center survey found that 36 percent of respondents prefer the term
"Hispanic," 21 percent prefer "Latino" and the rest have no
preference. I get impassioned e-mails from people who prefer "Latino"
and about how the term "Hispanic" hearkens to Spanish conquest and
denies the proud heritage of the Incas, Aztecs and Mayans because it refers to
Latin America as a whole. I simply use the terms interchangeably to be
inclusive and to avoid tedium.
In his final post in the series, Renshon suggests that a
"Hispanic-American identity" would "help to move members of this
group towards thinking of, and characterizing themselves as, Americans over
time, and this country should be encouraging that kind of thinking."
The simple answer is that we don't need the hyphen, the
"American" part is already baked in to the terms "Latino"
I learned this very important lesson a few years ago from Jorge A.
Girotti, a director at the University of Illinois-Chicago Hispanic Center of
Excellence who is an Argentine married to a Venezuelan woman with U.S.-born
children. "You know you're an American if you call yourself either because
those terms don't exist anywhere but in America," Girotti once told a
crowd of non-Hispanics gathered to learn more about Latinos. "Anywhere
else in the world you're just from your country."
I love the irony. Non-Hispanics are concerned about the ability of the
Latino community to fully integrate into mainstream American culture and yet,
on a very basic level, we already shout that integration to the world by the
default -- and sometimes passionate -- adoption of the labels the U.S. Census
Bureau assigned us. What could be more American than that?
Esther Cepeda's e-mail address is [email protected].
© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group