Last semester, a student of mine named Fernando came to speak with me after the last meeting of my class on Latino identity. He thanked me for getting him to think about not only his roots but his connections with other Latinos, and our contributions to history and culture. He was an engineering student of Colombian ancestry and he’d done a presentation about a 1992 song by Mexican alternative rock group Café Tacuba called “Trópico de Cancer.” The song was about a Mexican engineer who questioned the threat to the environment by unbridled development, and rejected the notion of the superiority of modern civilization and the so-called savageness of indigenous culture.
Students like Fernando represent a pattern among some young Latinos who were raised as “American” and during the crucial formative years find an urge to connect with and understand their ancestral culture that is often sacrificed in the pursuit of mainstream acceptance. These young people defy the notion of gradual assimilation that is often the conclusion of carefully researched studies, because the way Latinos relate with their cultural and racial identity is never set in stone. How we see ourselves can take a marked turn that can be inspired by personal experience and political and historical circumstances.
A study released last month by the Pew Research Center suggested that lower immigration levels and high interracial marriage rates among Hispanics causes their identification as Hispanic to fade over generations. The study says that although recent immigrants identify as Hispanic at a rate of almost 90 percent, this number drops to around 50 percent after the fourth generation. Currently, 11 percent of adults with Hispanic ancestry do not identify as such, the report stated, and 23 percent of Hispanics most often refer to themselves as “American.” The implication of these findings, say the researchers, is that despite projections that Latinos will be 24 percent of the U.S. population by 2065, these trends in self-identification may affect the way we view the influence and impact of Hispanic identity in the future, as well as the notion of a future majority-minority United States.Whether we choose to identify ourselves as Hispanic, Latino, or the increasingly popular Latinx, these labels help us find our place in American society and culture. While there will always be Hispanics who no longer need or want to identify, the forces in society that create “included” and “excluded” groups on the basis of what one’s race or ethnicity appears to be are not going away. From the early 20th-century activism of W.E.B. Dubois and Marcus Garvey through the civil rights movement, African-Americans have consolidated a powerful notion of identity based on racial solidarity. This approach pushed back against anti-black racism and yielded tangible political results, as well as power and influence in American society. Such leverage will remain elusive to Hispanics if we move away from acknowledging and embracing our “difference.”
Hispanic identity is fluid to begin with, because so many of us have mixed-race ancestries. That why it’s important to put this issue in proper historical and social context — and no disrespect to the Pew Research Center, whose work on Hispanics I find extremely valuable. Our multiracial backgrounds make it more likely for Latinos to “lose” our identification than African Americans. The strict black/white binary of racial identity in the United States differs from the more nuanced racially mixed narrative of Latin America, whose societies offered a form of “racial status mobility” through intermarriage with Europeans. In the past some have chosen to strive for whiteness through marriage — in Spanish it’s an adage called “mejorar la raza” or “better the race.” But many Hispanics reject white identity: On the census forms most Latinos prefer not to identify as either black or white, and 97 percent of those who check the “some other race” category are Hispanic.
The report cites the slow growth in immigration as a factor in decreasing Hispanic identification. But the reason for that decrease could be influenced by current political and economic trends. The slowdown in the U.S. economy since 2008 has substantially lowered rates of immigration, but the anti-immigrant attitudes that have been stoked in America in recent years and have climaxed with ascendant white nativism and the election of Donald Trump are also to blame. Such a climate, which can cause concern over something as small as micro-aggressions in the workplace to more serious concerns like a rise in hate crime, are a strong motivation for avoiding identification as Hispanic.
Decreased contact with Spanish-speaking relatives and cultural celebrations also are cited in the report as significant reasons that Hispanics are losing their identity. Culture is often transmitted, as the study says, through “pride” for Hispanic cultural traditions — which can include influences from Spanish, indigenous/Amerindian and African origins — practiced by parents and relatives. Such pride can be traced back to political movements of the 1960s that were a reaction to difficulties Hispanics faced during the 1950s, when Operation Wetback led to thousands of deportations and the stereotyping of young Puerto Ricans as juvenile delinquents criminalized a generation. The lessening of this talk about pride in later generations can be due to increased assimilation and the success of affirmative action programs. But the recent surge in anti-Latino sentiment can potentially spark the return of pride messaging.
And then there’s the issue of language. The report explores the connection between fluency in Spanish and Hispanic identity. But there is a growing trend in which young Hispanics are insisting they are Latinx even if they don’t speak Spanish. This is the response of a generation of U.S.-born Hispanics who sometimes find their identities challenged by natives of their home countries who don’t think they’re Hispanic enough, and come off as too American.
All of these factors suggest that while the Pew Research Center’s findings have validity, Hispanic identity is always changing — between identifications with the larger label “Hispanic” and that of specific countries, between being bilingual or English- or Spanish dominant. The gray area that Latinos inhabit in this country’s historical black/white binary inevitably leads to shifts in identification that are the rule rather than the exception.
What’s most important is that labels like Hispanic or Latino will always be here as long as mainstream America remains intolerant to difference. The importance of the ethno-racial designation is the way it can be used by the Census Bureau to determine the need for social programs that address wealth inequality, access to education, and residential segregation, to name a few of our nation’s societal imbalances.
Viewed through such a lens, it becomes clearer that to identify as Hispanic or Latino is not just a whim, a personal preference, or a demographic or cultural trend, but often an act of survival.
Originally published in the Washington Post on February 2, 2018