THE LATINO EXPERIENCE: OUR IDENTITY
Defining who we are can be tricky
Vida en el Valle
(Published Tuesday, September 11th, 2012 03:21PM)
The Latino population explosion in the United States -- now the largest minority group with 16 percent of the population -- has come with growing pains.
Just ask San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
Both are rising Latino stars in the political world who had keynote speeches at their party's national conventions, but each is as different as their politics yet the same as rice (depending on how you cook it).
Castro, the grandson of a Mexican immigrant, speaks little Spanish. After his keynote speech, The Huffington Post questioned his Latino-ness for not speaking the language of Cervántez.
Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, speaks Spanish fluently.
The U.S. Census Bureau identifies Castro and Rubio as Hispanic.
What exactly is a Latino? A Hispanic? A Tejano?
Can Mexican Americans be lumped into the same basket as Cuban Americans? Or Puerto Ricans? Or Spanish Americans?
More than half (51 percent) of Latinos prefer to be identified by their family's country of origin, while only 24 percent choose the term Latino or Hispanic, according to an April report by the Pew Hispanic Research Center.
The national conversation that ensued was one the Pew Hispanic Research Center did not expect.
"The most interesting thing about this report was the reaction we received from the Latino community. We received e-mails, phone calls and even voicemails from people who wanted to tell us their personal stories of identity," said Mark Hugo López, the center's associate director.
Similar past surveys, said López, have not generated the same interest.
"Given the attention that has been given to Latinos lately -- for better or for worse -- the timing of this report seemed to really strike a nerve," he added.
In 2009, Soledad O'Brien's 'Latino in America' CNN series profiled Latinos in different parts of the country. All held vastly different perspectives and had their own unique experiences. O'Brien highlighted different components of what forms Latino identity.
The search to define Latino identity has resulted in numerous books, scholarly research and unlimited discussion.
Most agree that Latino identity is formed by a number of factors including, but not limited to, individual and personal experiences, formal education, upbringing, values, morals, culture, traditions, beliefs, religion, socio-economic background, language, music and most importantly, history.
This is why scholars believe it is important to look at how history has defined Latino identity.
"The major criticism I have with the Pew report is that it doesn't take into account the historical perspective in which we are talking about Latinos. It almost sounds as if we arrived 30-40 years ago when in fact, we have been here for hundreds of years before this country was supposedly founded by Christopher Columbus," said Dr. David Hayes-Bautista, a professor of medicine at UCLA and director of the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture.
Labels didn't arise until people from South and Central América and México settled in California during the Gold Rush and started to have children who were being raised biculturally and bilingually, said Hayes-Bautista. Prior to the new migration, California already had a Spanish-speaking population.
The "Californios" -- as they called themselves -- began to question their identities as the Civil War began to divide the country, said Hayes-Bautista.
"They asked, 'Who are we? Do we speak Spanish? Why are our children saying 'marketas' instead of mercados? It was during this time that they hung together by commonalities, instead of lines of division like class, race and language," said Hayes-Bautista.
Ecuadorians, Salvadoreans, Mexicans and others came together to support the values of freedom, democracy and a union, he said. That essentially created a pan-ethnic Latino sense of identity.
When Hayes-Bautista sat on the Census advisory board in the early 1980s, he noticed variations on how people identified ethnically. In California, for example, most Latinos rejected the term Hispanic and instead opted to check the 'other' box and wrote 'pocho.' In Texas and Florida, they largely identified as Hispanic. In New México, it was Mexican-American. Others identified by their indigenous roots, said Hayes-Bautista.
Other scholars have taken a look at the formation of Latino identity by stepping further back into history beginning with the conquest of the Américas by the Spaniards in the early 1500s, and the subsequent cultural, linguistic, and religious values that were imposed upon the indigenous populations.
"We can't forget that we are a colonized people and the result of that colonization was a 'mestizaje' -- a mixture of our indigenous and Spanish blood," said Dr. Melissa Moreno, an ethnic studies professor at Woodland Community College. "As a result, we have built up, over time, different layers of identity because we have historically been dominated by other cultures and peoples."
Education is also important in considering Latino identity, she said.
"Formal education is extremely important as is 'la educación' that is taking place at home. What kind of stories and narratives about our identities are being shared or not shared in our family and for what reasons and purposes? We are a very diverse community and for that reason, labels have emerged over time as an attempt to define who we are," said Moreno.
The term 'mexicano' didn't come about until 1821, for example, Mexican-American didn't' exist until 1848, and the term 'Chicano' emerged in the late 60s and through the heart of the Chicano Movement in the 70s, said Moreno. The term 'Hispanic' emerged four decades ago.
"All of these terms or labels have and continue to be used as an attempt to create a common ground for defining identity. Being Latino means speaking Spanish, whether you identify more with your indigenous roots or speak no Spanish at all, regardless of whether you were born in the United States or not," said Moreno.
There are a few circumstances where labels take on a different role.
"Labels begin to have meaning when they reflect the realities in which we live in, our families, communities, influences, where we are born, what generation we are born into. That ultimately impacts our sense of belonging and dignity. The disparities and inequalities that we face are also an indicator of how we are going to identify ourselves," said Moreno.
"The United States has always wanted to see itself as a melting pot but in the process, they have created labels to categorize us because they can't figure out who we really are and in many ways, these labels create a sense of 'other' and distancing while stripping a people away from their roots and heritage," said Dr. Rose Borunda, an education professor at California State University, Sacramento.
Borunda and Moreno wrote 'Speaking from the Heart: Herstories of Chicana, Latina and Amerindian Women,' a book that explores Latino identity through their personal stories, childhood recollections and experiences.
Labels are an attempt to identify a group of people that is not monolithic. The Pew report states that Latinos do not consider themselves to be the typical American.
"What if we think differently? What if we believe differently? What if we look differently? What we are hearing from our society is that its okay to be and look different and they tell us, we like that you are different from us, but at the end of the day, we want you to be like us so there is a negative association placed on our differences," said Borunda.
Differences among Latinos -- despite perpetual stereotypes -- are what make Latinos hard to define, hard to categorize and even harder to label. The diversity that exists makes it virtually impossible to identify with any pan-ethnic terms, said Moreno.
"This is the reason why so many people had a problem with the census. It fails to capture our hybridism and mixture. Labels don't tell the entire story. They don't tell you the complex and rich stories that make us who we are," said Moreno. "Checking the box on a label cannot tell your full story or paint a perfect picture. In my opinion, being Latino is not pure. We don't become our identity -- it's far more complex than that."
If there are any two things Latinos can all relate to from their historical past is the realities of disparity and inequality. Despite wanting the same things of basic survival, Latinos are different because they have a long history of struggling to be recognized as both national and cultural citizens.
"When you look at identity, is it something that you truly hold dear for yourself or something that has been given to you and you use for survival? How are you looking more critically at yourself?" said Borunda.
Latinos themselves are constantly defending and describing their identity, while society attempts to categorize based on language, physical attributes and level of assimilation.
"The bigger question to me is why are we listening to these labels? Why are we accepting them instead of rejecting them? I don't believe Latino identity can be so easily classified or labeled and terms don't do justice in defining the diverse people it is attempting to categorize nor accurately nor fairly," said Borunda.
Expectations of how Latinos should look like, what they eat, what music they listen to, and what language they speak often leaves some Latinos vulnerable and susceptible to criticism.
"At the end of the day, when we begin to peel back all those layers that make us who we are, we realize that we are all human beings who are striving to understand our culture and our roots and our place in society and this world," said Borunda.
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