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What America Should Learn About Hispanics

Much of the tragedy that is the loss of 17-year old Trayvon Martin’s life has become politicized in the media. There is an overarching and underlying racial narrative that has been present from the beginning of the coverage of the young man’s death. Trayvon Martin, an African-American teenage, lost his life as a result of a confrontation with George Zimmerman. Zimmerman was originally classified as white, which set up the racial narrative. Since then, we have learned that Zimmerman’s mother is Peruvian and that he self-identifies as Hispanic. The media has used the term “white Hispanic,” which has been decried by CNN’s Ruben Navarrette, Jr. because Hispanic is an ethnicity, and not a race, and because we come in all colors.

I support Mr. Navarrette in his criticism of the racial overtones supplied and perpetuated by the media. However, this debate has brought the term “Hispanic,” and, thereby, “Latino” to the forefront of the national media’s attention. Race and ethnicity are tough subjects anywhere in the world, and America is no different. And I am hopeful that since the Trayvon Martin case and attached narratives have captivated the country’s attention, a responsible discussion of the terms “Hispanic” and “Latino” can be had. The US federal government instituted these classifications more than 40 years ago to classify Americans whose roots trace back to Spanish-speaking countries. Note: they are not racial categories.

This week, as if on cue, the Pew Hispanic Center released the results of a survey that I believe explains the quandary of Hispanics, who often find themselves classified as if they are a monolithic race and culture. The survey found that only 24% of Hispanics preferred the pan-ethnic terms Hispanic or Latino. In fact, of the Hispanics surveyed for this study, 51% identified themselves as “some other race” or Hispanic/Latino, while 36% said they were white, and 3% identified as black. Furthermore, the same survey showed that 51% of Hispanics self-identify by national identity. This is a product of the great racial, cultural, regional, and, even, linguistic differences found throughout Spanish-speaking countries. There are vast differences between a Guatemalan campesino (farmer) and a city-dweller in Buenos Aires, Argentina. When it comes to classifying Hispanics in the United States, one must also take into account the impact of migration and generational gaps. Therefore, I do not find it surprising that a significant majority (69% to 29%) of those surveyed by the Pew Hispanic Center believe that Hispanics in the United States have many different cultures rather than one common culture. There was, however, one issue that received almost unanimous support from survey respondents: 95% of Hispanics found it at least “somewhat important” for future generations to be able to speak Spanish. At the end of the day, the linguistic foundation for this category seems to be the only real factor that legitimizes the pan-ethnic label.

In my opinion, this study reinforces an idea that I have had for a long time: the use of the terms Hispanic and Latino is a failed attempt to create a more general category that could fit into the racial and ethnic worldview often relied upon in this country. We Hispanics share roots to Spanish-speaking countries, but I, for example, am Colombian. Most of my “Hispanic” friends self-identify by country, as well. The sooner the American public becomes aware that there is not a monolithic Hispanic identity, the sooner more responsible dialogue on key issues that impact us all as Americans can begin.

– Max Rava

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