“Being Latino”

Posted on April 2, 2013



“Are you Latino, or what would you consider Latino?”

So what Latino hasn’t had to answer this question in some way?

I feel like thoughts to that question come in cycles, especially depending on the politics in the air and if a certain article creates a dustup. This time let us attribute that how businesses will tap into the “Latino market”, how politicians will connect with “Latino/Hispanic voters”, and whether the US Census should count Hispanics as a race.

So how do you answer what makes a Latino, especially when whole books are written on it and you get three different answers for every one person? Why does it matter?

Well, with that caveat, here are my thoughts as a self-identified Chicano/Latino/Mexicano.

First I throw out race as a biological concept. Race is a social construct in terms of “black, white, Asian, etc.” With that, a Latino can be of any “race”. Thus, being Latino is not confined to skin color, though the predominance is “brown” given the history of mestizaje. Nonetheless, you can have black Latinos, Asian Latinos, white Latinos, indigenous Latinos, and so forth.

So even though we associate Latino with brown, it’s not exclusive, which leads one to think, “Wel,l it’s a ‘cultural thing’ then, no?”

This leads us to ethnicity, having to do with a shared and common heritage, culture, language and the like. But there is “traditional” culture and there is “present” culture, which keeps changing through time. This is what makes exciting what “Latino” will mean in the future, and how much more difficult it can be to figure it out.  Consider how being Latino 20 years ago is different from being Latino now and 20 years from now.

We could say that being Latino is having a shared heritage and ancestry of the Spanish and indigenous peoples of the “New World”. From this, being Latino has meant having a connection to the Spanish language.

But that is changing and will continue to do so, because you do not really need to know Spanish to be Latino since there are other cultural markers.  In addition, English can serve as a “validity” language and in many cases audiences would rather be reached out in English. Furthermore, many of us “bilingual speakers” are not really bilingual because few of us really practice academic Spanish. Yeah, we create our own Spanglish blends, which do not fool the Academia Real, but works for us American Latinos.

This brings me back to the US because it is really the main place it “matters” to be Latino. If you are in Mexico or Argentina, you do not go calling each other Latino. But in the US, if you are from Mexico or Argentina, then you can classify as Latino. Thus the term is really a “unifying” attempt that struggles with encompassing so may nationalities and differing histories— a pan-ethnic or pan-national term.

Thus the question many ask if it matters if we use the term, especially if “Latino” communities in the US don’t always see each other as such? Fair question. Thus where it really counts is from a policy perspective since that information as collected influences government spending and political representation—there is political power in the term even if we argue about it from a cultural perspective.

But then you look at other contexts with questions like “how to target the Hispanic consumer” or thinking about “Latino media”. Issues there are to straddle the thin line between authentically connecting with the community and totally screwing it up with pandering or insensitive.

So this for me leads to an increasing fluidity in the label and identity of being Latino—and that in getting to the answer your answer may be as good as mine.

We will leave “Hispanic” and “Chicano” as terms for another day.