Mexican or American? Reflections on Identity

Mexican American Identity BeLatina Latinx
Photo courtesy of salud-america.org

What does it mean to be “Mexican American”? How does one identify a person whose life is crossed by the idea of a border?

While the demographics of the United States continue to change as they become part of the bulk of the country’s larger ethnic demographics, the Mexican community’s fluidity and diversity are often a matter of debate.

Especially when it comes to the terminology they are most comfortable identifying with.

It is not just a label, but a direct connection to their roots, to the flow of history, and their status in society.

When a label is a government issue

It’s that simple: labels imposed on demographic groups are a tool — if not a reaction — of government systems to classify their population. Hence the appellatives “Hispanic” and “Latino,” both of which have been used to classify Mexicans.

The word “Hispanic” began to appear in the 1980 census, and “Latino” emerged “as a reaction to the government initially defining the social group,” but did not appear in the census until 2000.

Before the 1970s, the United States government had not been engaged in systematically counting people of Latino heritage. Census records from previous decades show a gap in these categories, implying that the terms “Hispanic” and “Latino” are almost neologisms that have nothing to do with public policy.

And since there is no accounting category, it is virtually impossible to know how many Mexicans lived in the country at the time. Therefore it shows how late they were recognized as an ethnic group in their own right.

Identity, Post-Colonization, and Rupture

In evaluating the two terms, the preference for Latino seems to come from a need to remove oneself from the association with Spain due to the history of colonization.

The term Latino was used to classify — or attempt to — people living in the United States who were of Latin American descent but were unhappy with the word Hispanic, which was too redolent of Spain.

Aida Ramos, Assistant Professor of Sociology at UTSA, states that the differentiation between people preferring the word Latino over Hispanic is since “people that may start to think Hispanic are too Euro-centric.” From this research, it becomes clear that those with a preference for Latino do so “to disown the legacy of colonialism.” 

On the other hand, those who prefer “Hispanic” are usually “people who have ancestry in Spanish-speaking Latin America, the Caribbean, or Spain.”

However, the advent of social revolutions also brought about a transformation in language and discourse. An example of this was the emergence of the term “Chicano,” which much of the Mexican community adopted after the civil rights movement broke out in the 1970s, becoming popular among Mexicans because of the demand for a once derogatory word.

Actor Cheech Marin summed it up best by stating that, “Hispanic is a census term that some dildo in a government office made up to include all Spanish-speaking brown people. It is especially annoying to Chicanos because it is a catch-all term that includes the Spanish conqueror.”

Similarly, the term “La Raza” came about to highlight ethnic roots and promote unity. La Raza, literally meaning “the race,” like Chicano, offers Mexicans a way to identify themselves and define their own identity outside the bounds of the census mandated terms. La Raza was intricately involved in political activism in the 1960s and 1970s and the Brown Power movement.

Diversity does not fit under one umbrella

This identity transformation only makes it evident that no term means the same for all Mexicans in the United States. While some identify themselves as Hispanic, others as Latino, or others as Chicano, what remains the same across the differences is that the terminology depends on each individual’s relationship to their roots and heritage.

However, what each of the appellatives does have in common is their rejection of government terminology, in the same way, that today’s neologisms such as LatiNegro, Latinx, Xicano, etc., emerge.

It is as if, in the gesture of self-identification, inextricable freedom exists.

As Cristina Mora, author of Making Hispanics, Bureaucrats, and Media Constructed a New American, states, “Some would argue that groups are powerful because they can organize by an identity. With that, labels are important. This does not mean they are perfect, but it does mean that labels matter.”