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What It Means to Be Latino

by Dr. Clara E. Rodríguez


Dr. Clara E. Rodriguez
Dr. Clara E. Rodriguez

To be a Latino means that in the 2000 U.S. census, you were counted as one of 35.3 million people, of any race, classified as “Hispanic,” and that you were part of a group that comprised 12.5% of the total U.S. population. It means you are part of a group that now equals, or has surpassed, African Americans in number. It also means that you are part of a group that is growing faster than all other groups (50% since 1990) and is expected to continue to grow rapidly because of high immigration, high fertility rates, and the youthfulness of the current population. Only Asian Americans, who represented 3.6% of the U.S. population in 2000, had greater rates of growth. Finally, it means that you are a member of a very diverse group, in terms of socioeconomic positions, religions, racial classifications and national origins.

If we look at the Hispanic/Latino population pie in 2000, we see that Mexicans comprised the majority of all Latinos (58.5% or 20.6 million). Puerto Ricans were the second largest Latino group, constituting 9.6% of all Latinos or 3.4 million. However, if we include the 3.8 million Puerto Ricans who resided in Puerto Rico, then this figure more than doubles. Cubans were the next largest single national origin group and constitute 3.5% of the total Latino population, followed by Dominicans with 2.2%. Collectively, the Central American countries accounted for 4.8% of the total Latino pie, with Salvadorans (1.9%) and Guatemalans (1.1%) being the two largest groups among Central Americans. South Americans comprised another 3.8% of the total U.S. Latino population with Colombians (1.3%) the largest group here. All of the other countries in Central and South America constituted less than 1% each of the total Hispanic population. Interestingly, in view of the extensive diversity of national origins, there was a surprising 17.3% that reported they were Hispanic or Latino but did not indicate a national origin. Analyses have yet to be done on this group, but it may be that this fast-growing group represents either those who have parents from more than one country, or, those who consider themselves “Hispanic/Latino,” but do not identify with a particular country.

All states now have Latino populations, many of which are increasing rapidly, and almost all cities are experiencing substantial changes in their Latino mix.

Although historically there are important regional concentrations of each of these groups, e.g., Cubans in Florida, Puerto Ricans in the Northeast, and Mexicans in California and the Southwest, there is increasing Latino heterogeneity in all of these areas. All states now have Latino populations, many of which are increasing rapidly, and almost all cities are experiencing substantial changes in their Latino mix. For example, Miami now has an increasingly diverse Latin American population, with Colombians, Puerto Ricans, and diverse Central and South Americans increasing their presence. New York City now has substantial and growing Dominican, Colombian, Ecuadorian and Mexican populations. The same is true of Los Angeles and other large cities and many suburban areas.

Being Latino also means that you lay claim to one (or more) of the rich and unique histories that each of these groups brings to the United States. Likewise, each of these groups has had a unique narrative in the United States, involving different times of arrival, areas of settlement, and types of migration and reception experiences. Like so many other groups coming to the United States, some groups came mainly as political refugees, or, political exiles without the benefit of refugee status. Others came as free or contracted laborers, and still others simply as immigrants looking to improve the opportunities in their lives. Unlike most other groups, Latinos have come from this hemisphere. Therefore, they have been consistently impacted by U.S. hemispheric policy and they have had more “va y ven” (coming and going) between their countries and the United States. This has contributed to the sustenance of the Spanish language and multiculturalism within Latino communities while adding new infusions of Latinos to the United States.

Since Latinos have been part of the U.S. landscape for centuries, the nature of the migrations has also varied over time. For example, political immigrants or exiles were more characteristic of the migration from Puerto Rico in the late 19th century, while those who came in search of work characterized the exodus in the mid 20th century. There were also varying methods of migration, where some groups arrived mainly by boat, others by plane, and still others over land in cars, trains or buses. Some have arrived legally as immigrants, others were undocumented. Some became naturalized citizens, others became citizens because they were born in the United States and still others arrived as citizens or became citizens because their lands had become subject to United States rule. Different groups have also had different receptions in the U.S. at different times.

Curiously, however, you can be called a Latino, or classified a Hispanic, and yet not speak Spanish very well or at all.

Being Latino means a connection to the Spanish language, although, in Latin America there are also a multiplicity of other languages spoken by various groups, e.g., the indigenous peoples. Each Latino group coming to the U.S. spoke Spanish, but each country has its particular way of speaking Spanish. Spanish speakers throughout Latin America and the Caribbean understand one another. However, the way the language is spoken varies according to class, regional, ethnic and racial differences within each country. If we think about how English is spoken in Australia, Britain, Brooklyn, New York, as well as the southern, eastern, and midwestern parts of the United States, we have some idea of how the same language can vary with regard to accent, intonation patterns, and vocabulary. Curiously, however, you can be called a Latino, or classified a Hispanic, and yet not speak Spanish very well or at all.

Finally, being Latino means you are a part of one or more groups that have their own unique cuisine, music, and cultural and artistic traditions. For example, spicy, hot food is common in some diets and relatively absent in others. But there are also some commonalties. For example, in the same way that meat and potatoes can be considered a staple of the U.S. American diet -though not everyone eats this – rice and beans are a staple throughout much of Latin America. Pink beans are preferred in some countries, black beans in others, and pinto beans in still yet others and so on. Most members of each group are proud of their own uniqueness and history – both in this country and in their country of origin. However, as Celia Cruz, the great Cuban Salsa singer, has said, “we are all brothers in a different country” and the level of bonding and common identification often goes beyond speaking Spanish.

On Terminology: Hispanic or Latino?
The term “Hispanic” is often used interchangeably with the term “Latino.” The term “Hispanic” was introduced into the English language and into the 1970 census by government officials who were searching for a generic term that would include all who came from, or who had parents who came from, Spanish-speaking countries. It is, therefore, an English-language term that is not generally used in Spanish-speaking countries. The term “Latino,” on the other hand, is a Spanish-language term that has increased in usage since the introduction of the term Hispanic. Some Latinos/Hispanics feel strongly about which term they prefer. Some reject both terms, and insist they should be known by their national origin; still others use all terms and vary their usage depending on context.

Those who prefer “Latino” argue that the term preserves the flavor of national origin and the political relationship between the U.S. and Latin America. Also, they say that it is more culturally neutral and racially inclusive of all groups in Latin America. For example, those of indigenous, African, European and mixed origins are assumed to be Latinos, as are Brazilians, whose main language is Portuguese. In addition, they argue that it is less associated with Eurocentric Hispanistas, who were largely conservative wealthy landowning groups; and lastly, they maintain that it is the term most used in numerous editorials that are written in both Spanish and English.

Those who prefer the term “Hispanic” maintain that it should be used because the data on this population is gathered using this term, and the data should not be re-labeled. It is seen to be preferable for scientific publications because it is seen to be more rigorous and consistent with the data. It is argued that Hispanic is a more universal term because this is the term used by most agencies and other data gathers, while Latino is a regional term more often used in areas where there are large numbers of native Spanish-speakers. In essence, the argument is that this is the term that most people - particularly those living far from Spanish-speaking populations  – will use. The term includes those from Spain, although it does not cover those from Brazil. It is also argued that the term “Latino” might be legally problematic, for others of “Latin” descent whose families have never lived in Latin America, e.g., the French, Italians, and others might conceivably argue that they are “Latinos” and therefore should be considered minorities.

Dr. Clara E. Rodríguez is a Professor at Fordham University, Lincoln Center campus. Her last two books are Changing Race: Latinos, the Census and the History of Ethnicity in the United States, New York University Press, 2000, and Latin Looks: Latina and Latino Images in the U.S. Media, Boulder, CO.: Westview Press, 1997.

 
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