The Elusive Hispanic / Latino Identity
This article is excerpted from a resource guide for journalists put together by the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.
Every person has a theme. We are each a new narrative, a different drama in the American experience. Sometimes we have to work to identify it, going back over our family histories in order to understand the logic of who we are. Our story may be obvious, thrust upon us by circumstance: We may be here because of exile, war, hunger, disaster. More often the theme is more subtle, harder to pin down, clouded by time, diluted by passing generations, so that we can hardly see what it is that ties us back to another world.
More than 39 million Americans identify themselves as Hispanic. We call ourselves by that name, check that box. Why do we feel that kinship? Why do we believe we share a theme? We are not a seamlessly uniform people. We do not necessarily share a culture or a common history. We are South Americans, Central Americans, Mexicans, Caribbeans, scrambled and sliced in different ways. We are jungle people, mountain people, coastal people, desert people, island people, urban people. We have—even as Latinos—a melting pot all of our own.
Some of us have been here for a very long time. The presumption that America is a nation entirely populated by immigrants is plainly not true: There are those of us who can trace our heritage to an ancient people with a birthright to this land. When the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed on February 2, 1848, marking the end of the Mexican-American War and transferring more than half of Mexico’s territory to the United States, the document was meant to protect the rights of those of us who had populated that land for centuries. We had not arrived on American shores starry-eyed, yearning to be free. We had crossed no borders. We had settled those lands long before pilgrims ever set foot on Plymouth Rock. The border, more accurately, had crossed us.
Some of us, like so many Americans throughout history, rode in on a wave of migration, driven by war or revolution or famine. Some—the Puerto Ricans, for instance—were simply appropriated. At the end of the Spanish-American War a little more than a century ago, U.S. troops raised the colors over San Juan, and Puerto Rico passed from control by Madrid to control by Washington, D.C. And so, naturally, Puerto Ricans eventually trickled north to New York, Miami and Chicago.
The Mexican Revolution, a bloody upheaval that killed one out of eight Mexicans between 1910 and 1920, brought the first wave of Mexican “immigrants,” spilling north to California, Texas, Colorado, Arizona—the very land that had been theirs two generations before. Decades later, during the Second World War, as American boys were shipped off to war and their places in U.S. offices and factories were vacated, educated South and Central American men were lured north by eager employers, and they surged in to fill the chairs. In the late 1950’s, the Cuban Revolution spurred a new influx, this time to Florida or points along the Eastern seaboard. And then, of course, there was the 1960’s revolution in the Dominican Republic, the 1970’s revolution in Nicaragua, the 1980 Cuban boatlift, the subsequent civil wars in Guatemala and El Salvador, the Shining Path terror in Peru, and the 1990’s cocaine madness in Colombia. All these, as well as the ever alluring American dream, fueled a steady stream of Latinos to these shores.
Such are the ways we Latinos or Hispanics find ourselves here, travelers on diverse paths, with different histories trailing us. Put an Argentine, a Bolivian and a Chicano in one room and what have you got? A universe of difference. We do, however, have one important thing in common. We are, overwhelmingly, speakers of Spanish, and we can be as marked and molded by that language as anyone can be by the color of their skin or the history of their people. You may not be able to peg us by race. We are sometimes Asians (Former President Fujimori of Peru is 100 percent Japanese). We can be black (according to the current census, Cuba’s population is 58 percent black). We can be Indians, indigenous Native Americans, as many of us are. We can, as the word Hispanic implies, trace our heritage to Spain. We might be Italians from Genoa, Middle Easterners from Lebanon, or Jews from the Eastern European borderlands, people who came to the New World to start afresh. We can be any combination of these, criollos, mestizos, in whom all these worlds ally to create something new. But the Spanish language and its attendant culture are what hold us together.
Hispanics. We are the only large minority group in America classified by our tongue, even when we don’t speak it very well anymore. Imagine an African American, a Native American, and an Arab American all defining themselves as the same ethnic group because they grew up speaking English. Imagine them calling themselves “Anglos.” That gives you a bit of an idea of the stretch many “Hispanics” have to make when they take on the label. And yet it’s precisely what we do.
Language holds us together. At the same time, our language (or even the vaguest vestiges of it) may be the only thing that holds us together. We are so various, so diverse in our own right, that our life themes can be universes apart. The Puerto Rican story is not the Peruvian story is not the Mexican story is not the…. You get the idea. We each represent a different fragment of the Hispanic mosaic. But we still see each other as compadres. There are words we can say to one another, there is language, and we can, even at the most basic level, communicate. It’s useful, perhaps, to think of ourselves in light of the Chinese example, in which an enormous country with many ethnic differences (the Han story is not the Hakka story is not the Szechuan story…) and many mutually incomprehensible dialects are bound together by a writing system. Chinese people who cannot talk to one another can, if they are literate, write and be understood. The ideographs hold them together. And it holds them together in the way that Spanish is our communal bond.
Of course, if we widen the label from Hispanic to Latino in order to include Portuguese speakers (and we do), we describe ourselves as people whose ancestors can be traced to indigenous America, Africa and the whole of the Iberian peninsula. The melting pot becomes that much larger. As my mother liked to call casseroles that contain a multitude of unidentified sea creatures: We are “una sinfonia.”
The purpose of this reporters resource guide is to make some sense of that sinfonia. In the process of defining ourselves and understanding the glorious amalgamation of people we represent, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists [NAHJ] has gathered together material that may help to explain some basic things about us. What are our various histories? How wide are our racial, social and religious diversities? What sensitivities should we bring to the task of reporting on our communities? What are the pitfalls? What organizations can we look to for help?
This is a difficult enterprise, but a worthy one. Adelante. There is so much we can do together.
Marie Arana is editor of The Washington Post Book World. She is the author of a memoir, “American Chica: Two Worlds, One Childhood.”