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At no time has anyone ever said that the Latino population is a homogenous population. Even if the government and outside groups sometimes like to think otherwise, Latinos themselves, from politicians to corporate leaders to community advocates, have always said that Latinos are a diverse group with diverse backgrounds, diverse languages, skin colors, and experiences in the United States. You can’t see us as one monolithic group.
But at the same time, we also have this common experience of being underrepresented, under-heard, underacknowledged, and underappreciated. And that is a really strong tie, that we are often the only one in the room: despite the fact that you might have ancestry in the Caribbean and have a different skin color than I do, or despite the fact that I’m first-generation and you’re fourth-generation, there is this common sense of always fighting to be heard or to have adequate representation.
That is really the basis of the group dynamism for Latinos. We’re different and we have different ideas, yet there are some key similarities that unite us as strands across our group. And to be taken seriously within the Latino community, we have to be able to fold those two contrasting narratives about diversity and similarity together.
“To be taken seriously within the Latino community, we have to be able to fold those two contrasting narratives about diversity and similarity together.”
Latinos—cultural leaders, corporate leaders, and political leaders—have all been really vigilant about protecting and nurturing diversity. The danger of homogenizing or overgeneralizing tends to come from outside, when the government wants to see us all as one homogenous group and then suggests that everybody has the same experience, that everybody is an English learner, or that everybody has an undocumented family member. That is the nature of race politics and categorization politics: the trend is to get at the average experience.
The paradox of our time is that now, when the Latino community is perhaps the richest it’s ever been, the largest it’s ever been, and one of the strongest contributors to the economy it’s ever been, is also a time in which the demonization of the community is at its most explicit.
Not that the community hasn’t been demonized before—the United States has never embraced and enveloped the Latino heritage as part of an American heritage. But now it’s being done with a bullhorn. Every thirty seconds, another Latino turns eighteen, but they are coming of age at a moment in which arguments that criminalize Latinos are at the absolute forefront of the conversation.
Racialized politics don’t necessarily follow fast or hard data, but we shouldn’t deny the fact that a large swath of Latinos see themselves as not white, not black, not Asian, and see themselves as a racialized category at the same time. That’s not to say that there aren’t debates—fierce debates—within the Latino group about who we are as a whole. Right now, we’re having much more of a conversation about gender politics and non-binary genders, a conversation about the term “Latinx.”
But we’re having that conversation, which just wasn’t around twenty years ago. We’re having a conversation that acknowledges the diversity of skin colors that we just weren’t having in the 1970s. The beauty is that we are having these conversations, and that those conversations are not static.
Having a common understanding of labels allows us to start those conversations about who we are as a community. You cannot have something called Hispanic Executive, in which we can come together to debate the boundaries of the group or the values that bring us together, without having some sort of starting point for what Hispanic means.
In the US, the Latino population goes almost unanimously back and forth between Hispanic and Latino. And the biggest positive of these terms is that they convey a sense of numbers and a sense of existence in different ways.
When you consider Hispanic as unifying the Cubans in Miami with the Puerto Ricans in New York and the Mexicans in Los Angeles, not only are you bringing together larger numbers but you’re also saying, “Look at us. We’re not just a regionalized issue for the governors of the US Southwest. We’re not just an issue for the mayor of New York. We exist everywhere; we are a national issue.” We are thoroughly American, and we merit both national and federal attention.
But no one forces someone to say that they are Hispanic: it is a chosen identity. Self-identification is an important aspect of the Latino community, and the ambiguity of terms like Latino and Hispanic has allowed for an expansive and continuous form of self-identification. A child of a fourth-generation Argentinian American can identify in the same category as a person that just crossed the border from Guatemala, for example. And that is powerful, seeing our different stories through a common thread as well as seeing differences in culture, differences in experience.
All of these conversations about difference and different experiences will probably never be settled, and that is fine. All groups go through this, and the best groups know how to moderate an authentic conversation. They know that simply continuing that conversation is the key, rather than asking when these questions will be resolved.
Also edited by Kathy Kantorski and Juanita Vivas