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Latinos, Hispanics and Racial Identity

Submitted by on January 15, 2012 – 8:55 am11 Comments

Hispanics in the US 2010 CensusQuestions of Race and Ethnicity

There are more people living in the one Miami subdivision where my parents live than in the whole of my little town outside of Nashville, Tennessee.

And except for the nice family who owns the local Mexican restaurant, and the woman from Spain, and maybe one other Cuban I have heard of, but haven’t met, there aren’t too many of what the government calls “Hispanics” in my tiny corner of the Boonies.

So, when the Census Bureau forms came out, it was important to me to be counted as Hispanic. And to count my daughter, who like me is half gringita. (Though, technically that makes her officially less than half Cuban.) But, when it comes to identification as a Latin, there are no rules, only self-identification matters.

I tell you this because this past week I found a national story and a university study about racial and ethnic identification among Hispanic-Americans and Latinos that struck me. Both of the stories said many of us, as a population, are not identifying as Hispanic on the census, or at all.

For one reason, we see ourselves made up of more than one race (more than one little box). How do you pick one race when your bloodstream potentially has everything from Spanish to African to Indian to Chinese?

And secondly, the deeper our roots are — second, third-plus generations — the less likely we are to self-identify as Hispanic/Latino. We become just “white” or “black” or “other.”

The case could be made that my little daughter and I could, or should, just check “non-Latino white.” But for me, that wouldn’t be right spiritually and emotionally. I am not sure how my daughter will check her own box when she’s an adult.

Ethnic Attrition

But, here is what the University of Southern California study I found said about the second, third-generations (like my daughter and me) not checking the box:

“As a result of some Latinos’ propensity to not check the Hispanic race box on the census, a correct analysis of Hispanic achievement and mobility in America is undermined.”

According to the USC survey, approximately 44.1 million U.S. residents declared Hispanic or Latin-American roots, but 2.5 million did not check the “Hispanic” box on the 2010 Census.

The New York Times yesterday published a great story titled “For Many Latinos, Racial Identity is More Culture than Color.” It quoted a 2011 survey of Mexican-Americans that found that the parents of “more than a quarter of third-generation children with Mexican ancestry do not identify their children as Latino on census forms.”

Much of the “ethnic attrition” happens when Mexican-Americans marry non-Mexican or non-Hispanic whites, the story said. Additionally, the story said, it fails to show the economic and social progress of Mexican-Americans in America.

From the USC study, assistant sociology professor Jody Agius Vallejo:

“Scholars and politicians question whether and to what extent Latinos are assimilating. Some Latinos are not identifying as Latino and disappearing into the population.

People with Latin American ancestry who do not identify as Hispanic may be a harbinger of future patterns of assimilation, but because these people are left out, we might be underestimating the extent to which Latinos are assimilating into America’s core social structures.”

The Census will forever reflect that in 2010, in my little town with a less than 1% Hispanic population, there was at least one successful, proud Cuban-American and her Hispanic daughter. And as long as I can check the box for both of us, that’s what it will say.

Y tu?

It’s tricky, right? This question of race and identity. Only further proves, to me, that holding on to la cultura is a task and a challenge, that the rewards of immigration come at a cost and, it could be argued, a loss.

So, how do you identify when someone says: What are You? What does the 2010 Census say about you?

How would you change the question on the Census?

Share, por favor!


  • Cassy says:

    I’m 1st generation born here,to Bolivian parents who came to New Jersey in the late ’60s. I also married a gringuito, and we have one son. I check off “Hispanic” on all forms. My son (now a 15-yr old) also calls himself Hispanic, which just totally warms my heart.

    When asked what I am, I proudly say “I’m a Latina” and I know it catches people off guard sometimes. They seem to expect a certain “look” or behavior, or something. Some folks expect, that “by now” I would call myself American, only. But I can’t leave the other part, my authentic Latina-ness, anywhere else than in the front, en el frente para que todos lo vean.

  • Melek says:


    I think that the issue is that out of ignorance, many confuse “race” with “ethnicity” or “Racial Identity” vs “Ethnicity”. . . I believe that many of these government forms need to be corrected!!!

    They usually have a “square” to mark multi-racial . . . when for many what applies is multi-ethnic! People can share the same race and yet have different ethnic backgrounds!

    “Cuban by birth & American by the grace of God”

    :) Melek

    “In world history, those who have helped to build the same culture are not necessarily of one race, and those of the same race have not all participated in one culture.” ~ Ruth F. Benedict

  • “As a result of some Latinos’ propensity to not check the Hispanic race box on the census, a correct analysis of Hispanic achievement and mobility in America is undermined.”

    …”check the Hispanic race box”? Wait a second. The Census Bureau makes one thing certain: Hispanic is not a race. It is an ethnic designation.

    Most scientists agree that “race” is primarily a social construct. Still, there are genetic predispositions among people from different geographic regions. Sickle cell anemia is more prevalent among people with ancestors in Sub Saharan Africa and skin cancers are more common among those with roots in Northern Europe. However, both these genetic groups are present within the category currently labeled “Hispanic” within the United States. Moreover, the genetic distribution is not an even blended mix that each of us carries in our veins. Latinos from the Caribbean differ greatly in phenotype from those in Central American or the temperature regions of South America.

    Immigrants from all over the world have migrated to Latin America for centuries and into the present day, making the region as genetically diverse as the United States.

    I am extremely proud of my heritage. However, we do not honor our roots by buying into a the commonly held misconception that Latinos are a single race. We are a group joined by language, traditions and culture.

    Thanks for discussing this important issue on the Tiki Tiki blog.

    • Tia Mirtha says:

      Thank you Raul, for this great explanation.
      When I take surveys and I so a lot. They always ask, are you Latino, Hispanic.? If you say “Yes” then they ask ” What race?” I always check “White”.. because that’s what I am.. I am a White-Hispanic/Latina person. My Godmother is a “Black Hispanic/Latina person”. I just hated when the make a “heritage” like it was a “race”.. Tenemos Chinos-latinos, Arabes-Latinos, etc., etc.. Like Raul said: We are a group joined by language, traditions and culture.

    • Carrie says:

      Raul, I agree. I think that had to have been misspoken, or a wrong quote..because I can’t imagine “Hispanic race box.”

      I think we confuse demographers and social scientists, and I think we, ourselves are confused sometimes.

      I can see it being tough for a third- or fourth-generation Latino, who doesn’t speak Spanish, doesn’t keep to traditions, or only has one Hispanic parent/grandparent, to wonder exactly just why they should put Hispanic on a form.

      When the Census worker came to my house — because my form supposedly didn’t arrive — she looked at me sideways when I told her I was Cuban, Hispanic and said: “But you are white, right?”

      Yes, that is a possibility for Cubans, I said.


      Thanks for your thoughtful comment! I miss talking to you!

  • Lisel says:

    In this casa- there were 3 boxes checked Hispanic at Census time.. to identify ethnicity and the others were all checked white (for race)… and those boxes are checked on any and all forms- school, church, work.

    Living where we do and married to my very blanco husband, when I say I am Hispana or Latina I too get the shocked look and sometimes the comment- ” But you are so white!” Which always makes me laugh- and then gets the person making the comment a little lesson in race vs culture and ethnicity.

    My kids tell everyone proudly that their Momma was born and lived in Cuba before she came to the US- and I find that it’s a good way to talk to them about traditions, and language and foods, and being Hispano or Latino! And my husband makes sure to always tell them that they are Cuban just like their Mom!

  • Dembow says:

    Muy buena Informacion. Latinos should always keep the cultural values intact.
    Dembow Dominicano

  • [...] to this post on how labels are used to define ethnicity in the arts, I wanted to point out this excellent post on the Tiki Tiki blog. It discusses the implications of racial and ethnic labels beyond [...]

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