How Latino Identity Goes Beyond Language

Photo courtesy of psychcentral.com

Our community has historically rejected the Spanish language around their identity. It’s not just now — so why are people still so salty?

The cultures, languages, and identities that make up the broad term “Hispanic,” which Hispanic Heritage month attempts to encompass, are as numerous and colorful as a jar of jelly beans. 

The origins of the use of “Hispanic” as a label for all people in the U.S. are complicated, to say the least. The U.S. government didn’t use the term in the census until 1970, and that came out of efforts dating from the  1960s on the part of activists, especially Puerto Rican activists like the National Council of La Raza (now UnidosUS), to use a term to count Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans, and other Spanish-speaking communities which until that time were otherwise classified as white. 

But it’s never been a label that resonates with all of the people it seeks to include.

A prism of identities

For one, there’s the implicit connection to Spain in the term “Hispano,” which for many Latin Americans is a vestige of the history of colonialism in their countries. It is an unwelcome reminder of the violent changes wrought on the continent by the conquistadores, who forced the Spanish language down the throats of Native populations at swordpoint. 

And then there’s the inexact mapping of language onto an identity. There are Mexicans, Ecuadorians, Guatemalans, Bolivians, and more who come to the U.S. and do not speak Spanish, or even if they do, it is not their mother tongue. They speak Quechua, Kaqchikel, Nahuatl, or Mixteco. They speak Aymara and Wayuu and Guaraní. The Spanish language does not define their cultures, perspectives in the world, and sense of self. 

On the other hand, there are Latinos in the U.S. who have grown up with English as their mother tongue and do not feel that that takes away from their Latinidad and their belonging to a larger community of those who are from or have parents and family from Latin America. 

But for both of these groups, the term “Hispanic” emphasizes Spanish, where the language itself is not at the core of their identities.

More than a language 

According to the Pew Research Center, as of 2020, there are 62.1 million Hispanics in the U.S. But other studies show that even if people identify as Hispanic on the census or in other governmental capacities, they don’t actually identify most with that label if they have other choices. 

In a 2019 survey, Pew Research Center found that 47% of Hispanics are more likely to refer to themselves as Cuban-American, Guatemalan-American, Salvadoran-American, or Puerto Rican, or whatever their country of origin is rather than as Hispanic. This means that nearly half(!) of Hispanics in the U.S. don’t personally feel the term reflects their identity; instead, they just say use it for the sake of the government, the census, etc.

Out of that, a perspective like Harvard student Manuel F. Cachan’s is hardly unique. Cachan writes in the Harvard Crimson that as a Cuban-American, he has felt at times ostracized and glossed over in how people see him and his specific identity within the Hispanic-American context. He writes that it’s a good thing to emphasize the differences within the Hispanic/Latino community and understand the needs and priorities of the many faces of Latinidad without rushing to label everyone as the same. 

But as G. Cristina Mora writes in the preface to her seminal 2014 book, Making Hispanics, the ambiguity of the term Hispanic is what led it to be a powerful force for change in the American political landscape, despite its complications. 

“The panethnicity narrative,” Mora writes, “is about the frustrations, struggles, and compromises that ultimately placed the nation’s Latin American diaspora at the center of America’s discourse on race and ethnicity.” 

Latin American, Latino, Latinx, Hispanic — the one thing that is uncontested is the important role that so many members of these communities, however they might be defined, have played in the formation of this country and the impacts they will continue to have going forward.