This morning while doing my daily rounds on the web I stumbled across a BuzzFeed list. The list was about the hashtag #WhatLatinoMeansToMe and was meant to kick of Hispanic Heritage Month.¹ Being that I studied Spanish (history and heritage) while in college, and being someone who is categorized as Hispanic, I took special interest in the responses that people had penned.
For the most part, the responses are positive. People believe that Latino is something to be proud of because it places special value on working hard and loving your family. There are, however, a handful of people who take the opportunity to distance themselves from the term by not using it in their response at all. And suddenly the elephant in the room is clear. Who is a Latino? Who is Hispanic? Honestly, it could be as general as everyone with Spanish blood or who speaks a Latin-based language and originates from certain geographical locations.
Here are some definitions I pulled from the Internet that best described the terms in the way that they are most commonly used. (I will offer a disclaimer – it is 100% possible that people will not agree with these definitions. These were just the best I could find that represent the terms.)
Latino – “Latino is a person who speaks a romance language (i.e. Italian, Spanish, French, [and] Portuguese) or their cultural heritage comes from any country that speaks any of those languages … In the US the word Latino is misused to name only people from Latin America.”²
Hispanic – “In Spain, the term Hispanic refers to people of that country or those who can claim Spanish ancestry. It also refers to countries that have Spanish-based cultures such as those found in Latin America … In the United States, the term Hispanic was chiefly made up to group together disparate groups from Latin America that shared common cultural attributes, religion, and language but were not racially the same.”³
Let’s take them one at a time. One could argue that “Latino” is a great term because it ties people together – people spanning natural, imaginary, and political borders. Nothing wrong with that, right? Well … not so much. The inhabitants of these Latin-American countries are diverse. As diverse (if not more so) than the population of the United States (a country composed of immigrants). In my personal opinion, Latino is a good term for geographical purposes, but it has little value as a term for people.
The term “Hispanic” is a whole new can of worms. It is a fine term for those from Spain with Spanish ancestry. Although it is irrefutable that almost all of the peoples that inhabit Latin-America are descended or have otherwise had their entire lives shaped by the influence of the Spanish reign in colonial times, there is very little love lost between the cross-Atlantic cousins. Many still carry the burden of centuries of enslavement and feel that their already rich and diverse cultures were undermined by the Spanish Crown and the Catholic cross. (Although now many would be hard-pressed to find a Spanish-speaking home without at least one crucifix.)
The problem with these two common terms is that people believe that they are PC and interchangeable. In reality, while you can say that an apple is an apple, a Granny Smith will never be as sweet or light as a Fuji nor should it ever want to be. The sweeping generalizations are made worse by the fact that the labels come from outside of the group that they are trying to describe. Taken in a global context, these words are far too all-encompassing and they blur away the beauty and the individuality of each country (including, but not limited to, their race [which we all know means the color of someone's skin] and native culture).
So what the hell do we call ourselves? In California and the South Western United States in general, there are many people who identify themselves as Chicano.
Chicano – Someone of Mexican descent who was not born in Mexico. Many people believe that the word itself is derived from the word that the pre-Columbian tribes used to mean native. ⁴
While there is evidence that this term was first used as a type of racial slur for poor Mexicans, the moniker was redefined during the Civil Rights movement. It became associated with empowerment of the Mexican-American people. As a result, there is a certain amount of reverence and it is difficult for many Mexican-Americans nowadays to identify with the term (particularly those that are not first generation Mexican-Americans [this isn't necessarily a scientific finding, just something I've discovered talking to peers]). There is a certain amount of distance between the struggles of adapting to a new culture since they are one generation apart from it. They’ve grown up speaking either English only or some mix of both.
I, myself, fall somewhere in the gray area. (There is a whole lot of gray area here.) My father’s side of the family has been in California since before it was absorbed into the United States. I have great-uncles and great-grandparents who have suffered through World Wars and the Great Depression. On my mother’s side my grandparents immigrated to the U.S. at young ages and for their own reasons. (My grandma’s mother was a U.S. citizen and brought her two daughters to live with her once she had established herself. My grandfather was almost done with his studies to become a CPA when his girlfriend broke up with him and that was enough reason for him to look for a change in scenery.)
Growing up my dad was laid back and very American about raising me and my siblings (he didn’t even speak Spanish when he met my mom). My mom was (and continues to be) the creator and enforcer of rules. The rules ranged from common sense to eye-roll inducing. It was an interesting experience to say the least. So when it boils down to it, how can I call myself anything other than what I am? I am Mexican-American.
I don’t eat Mexican food every day, pizza is a food group, and I don’t go to church every Sunday. I talk like a Valley Girl and a college educated adult and I speak, read, and write Spanish fluently. There are words in one language that describe something so perfectly that I need to use them even when I’m not speaking that language. My Mexican heritage is an important part of my life but it does not overshadow how undeniably American I am. Being Mexican-American means having a great support system, challenges to overcome, and yummy food with all of the trappings of the middle-class American dream.
In short, I believe that having a month to celebrate any race/culture/people is never enough. There is too much history to be crammed into one cultural potluck lunch in your middle school history class. It is important to recognize every person for their unique makeup and heritage. No one has the same experience and we can learn a lot from one another. Hopefully this will inspire someone to take a few extra minutes to examine how they feel about their own heritage or, even better, take a moment to learn about someone else’s.
Oh, and never assume anyone is anything. You know what they say when you assume. ;)
Thank you for reading my ramblings!!