The Elusive Nature of the Hispanic Category

By 2060, 115 percent more Americans will be of Hispanic origin than in 2015. Consequently, pundits identify “the Hispanic vote” as the next frontier for ensuring political success. Political elites have thus scrambled to investigate, quantify, and draw conclusions about this group in any way possible. They have asked Hispanic respondents about their political beliefs on a range of issues — principally, immigration­ — in an effort to define the policy matters that are most salient to Latinxs in the United States. This analysis propagates throughout campaign teams, interest groups, academia, and journalism, heavily influencing judgments about the allegiances of the Hispanic community. But, a central and largely unacknowledged point about mainstream political discourses regarding Hispanics are the inherent flaws in defining the Hispanic category itself. Because of distinct colonial histories between Latin America and the United States and between different nations within Latin America, the American mainstream cannot and should not assume that Latinxs identify themselves using American conceptions of race. At present, this mode of analysis only functions to restrict the Hispanic ethnic category, and prevents America from having substantive discussions about what it actually means to be part of the Latinx community.

The broadest racial categories in Latin America, such as indígeno (indigenous), blanco (white), negro (black), or mestizo (mixed race), to name only a few, arose because of the impact of Iberian colonial conquests on the native peoples and lands of the Americas. As the Spanish and Portuguese colonialists built up plantations, churches, and households, they violently reshaped populations and socially constructed entire racial categories. In this way, conquistadors and subsequent European colonialists initiated the dynamics of racial oppression, struggle, and complicity that endure in contemporary Latin America.

As these New World societies grew larger, European colonists in Latin America enforced a highly specific racial hierarchy of castas, or castes, that were explicitly predicated upon this ever-expanding mixed race population. Of course, the casta was not only based upon physical appearance, but also significantly upon societal factors such as wealth, language, and cultural heritage in relation to whiteness. Pedigree was integral to this system, and was related closely to the nuances of one’s ancestry, so as to whiten entire populations. This process of blanqueamiento, or whitening, entailed continuous childbearing between Afro-Latinxs, natives, and Europeans in order to attain European standards of beauty. In essence, the absorption of non-White populations was integral to racist agendas in colonial Latin America. As articulated by one scholar of the Hispanic world, this politicization of the mixed race identity through whitening efforts was crucial in maintaining dominance over African slave populations and in many ways, sustaining the primacy of whiteness.

In contrast, white American slave owners more significantly capitalized upon the prejudices of whites, not mixed-race individuals, to reinforce white supremacist agendas. Race in antebellum America, or even in the present, as many would argue, operated using the “one drop rule” in which individuals are considered black, or people of color, if their pedigree contained even the slightest trace of non-white ancestry. This is a strong contrast to racial logic within the colonial Hispanic world, in which the whole population was intended for a kind of eugenic whitening project. Antebellum white Americans, in comparison, preferred to retain an “other” category that constructed and maintained supposedly clear boundaries between races, rather than to whiten the entire American population. Within the colonial beginnings of the Hispanic world and the racial hierarchies of antebellum America, then, it is completely clear that these two regions developed and operated using different racial logic.

These differences in conceptions of race persist into the present day. A 2000 study revealed that Hispanics view race in relation to factors such as nationality, socialization, place of birth, ethnicity, and phenotype. Unsurprisingly, given the starkly different colonial histories between the Americas, the study highlighted over-simplifications within American binaries between white and black. This being said, it is also important to note that different nations in Latin America have produced distinct racial narratives for themselves with regards to their specific histories and specific experiences with European colonization. Ultimately, the intricacies of Latinx identities often remain completely undetected by the racial hierarchies of the US when a Hispanic family establishes roots in America.

For example, many polling organizations account only for Americanized conceptions of race in very presentation of their data. While these agencies have in part accounted for this by marking Hispanic to be an ethnic category in which Latinxs can identify as any race, they often err in the data that they choose to present. In a 2015 study, Pew attempted to quantify public attitudes towards civil rights and black empowerment. The first graph in the article showed how many respondents agreed with the statements, “Our country has made the changes needed to give blacks equal rights with whites” and “Our country needs to continue making changes to give blacks equal rights with whites.” Significantly, the small print underneath the graph revealed that the study considered only “whites and blacks include only those who are not Hispanic.” In essence, this methodology perpetuates America’s one-drop rule. Rather than accounting for mixed race populations within the Hispanic category, or simply producing a graph that accounts for intersectional identities within the Latinx community, Pew highlighted only Americans with a single, “pure” racial identity. The shortcomings of this sort of analysis become incredibly clear — is a black Panamanian-American, such as the author of this piece herself, only to be counted in the Hispanic category of this study even though her Latinx identity is invisible to most other Americans with whom she interacts? Similarly, would a mestizo-identifying Mexican-American teen have to check “white” on a census survey even if he did not receive the privileges that accompany phenotypic whiteness in his day-to-day life? In this way, the difficulties in accounting for and portraying the various forms of identity among Hispanic communities become entrenched within American perceptions.

The kind of large-scale address that mainstream elites tend towards has proven insufficient because of its ignorance of Latin American colonial histories and contemporary conceptions of the Hispanic racial identity.

In addition to oversights by data collection agencies, political rhetoric often ignores the nuances of life as a Hispanic American. Frequently, the mainstream political class neglects the multifaceted ways in which ethnicity, culture, socialization, and race intersect to influence individual Latinx’s views on their own identities and their perspectives on particular political issues. Immigration has been defined as the (read: only) truly Hispanic issue. Of course, there is tremendous need for immigration policy reform. By no means should the work of activists or Latinxs who have clamored to put this issue at the forefront of our political climate be discounted. However, the way in which the immigration issues focus upon the Hispanic community homogenizes and over-simplifies this group. In fact, the three most salient issues to Latinxs in the US are education, jobs, and healthcare according to a 2014 study.

Perhaps, this immigration focus is a direct symptom of the imposition of American racial hierarchies onto Latinx conceptions of identity. That is to say, because of the complexities within Hispanic conceptions of race, maybe the physical act of coming to America at some point within a family’s history is the only unifying Latinx experience in American eyes. Some Latinx leaders, such as Angelo Falcón, President of the National Institute for Latino Policy, say that the focus on immigration reform is “sucking up, as one colleague recently put it, all the oxygen on Latino issues.” Falcón went on to explain, “We need to strike a better balance…We have to get to the point where we can walk and chew gum at the same time, and focus on other things like discrimination, education, and the infrastructures in our communities.”

In keeping with this non-nuanced understanding of the Hispanic population, candidates often use tired cultural references rather than substantive policy platforms to “hispander”, or pander to Hispanic voters. For example, many people following Hillary Clinton’s online campaign were recently maddened by an article entitled, “7 Things Hillary Clinton has in Common with Your Abuela.” The article asserts that Hillary “isn’t afraid to talk about the importance of el respeto [respect]” or that she “worries about children everywhere” just like a Latinx grandmother. Finally, the post ends by saying, “Everyone loves abuela — even this guy” alongside a photo of Clinton with Marc Anthony. Firstly, the qualities that supposedly make Clinton an abuela are rather general. They demonstrate a total lack of specificity in addressing the Hispanic community, and one might argue, anyone’s grandmother. In actuality, they are only deemed Hispanic because they use the word abuela rather than grandmother, or any other term for your mother’s mother.  Similarly, the Marc Anthony reference at the end of the piece also serves to make it superficially “Hispanic”. Other than its use of Spanish and its Marc Anthony reference, the article does not speak to the experiences of Latinxs in the United States in any substantive way. Rather than courting Latinx voters with substantive policy proposals that would affect their daily lives, the article uses only language and music to code the piece as “Hispanic”. Once again then, Clinton’s abuela post demonstrates the gross imprecision with which mainstream political rhetoric addresses the Latinx community. And of course, this lack of specificity is a result of the tendency of American racial logic to distort or completely ignore the nuances of racial experiences within Latin America.

In a departure from this homogenizing strategy, Bernie Sanders’ March television spot, “Tenemos Familias”, meaning “we have families”, speaks to an individualized, specific Latinx experience. Sanders’ campaign deftly relates Udelia Chautla’s time on a tomato farm, where she spoke out against abusive bosses and unjust working conditions, to his essential political platform of worker empowerment and income inequality. While the advertisement does expand upon a familiar and sometimes stereotyped image of Latinxs — the Mexican farmworker — it also explores Chautla’s position as a mother, activist, and community leader, which she describes in her own words. Of course, Sanders’ advertisement does not at all speak to the celebrations of or strivings within the Hispanic identity as a whole, but it doesn’t attempt to do so. Rather, it allows one woman to tell her specific story, while Clinton’s blog post aims to speak to Hispanics as a whole, without much differentiation.

The kind of large-scale address that mainstream elites tend towards has proven insufficient because of its ignorance of Latin American colonial histories and contemporary conceptions of the Hispanic racial identity. As the racial hierarchies within the colonial Hispanic world operated with the mode of absorption and whitening, while American racial logic tended towards demarcation and absolute segregation, individuals in the two Americas conceive of their identities differently. Therefore, Hispanics are frequently homogenized and over-simplified while the political mainstream ignores the many ways of self-definition from within the Hispanic community. For now, politicians and pundits alike shouldn’t try to connect with all Hispanics unless they can distinguish between individuals at the same time.