A CULTURAL IDENTITY
June 18, 1997
Essayist Richard Rodriguez, editor of the Pacific News Service, considers what it means to be Hispanic.
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RICHARD RODRIGUEZ, Pacific News Service: In Washington recently the Census Bureau predicted that by the year 2005 Hispanics will replace black Americans as our nation's largest minority. 2050 one quarter of all Americans will be Hispanic. The only question I have is this: Do Hispanics exist?
24 million Americans of Hispanic origin.
There are around 24 million Americans who trace their heritage to various countries of Latin America. We call them Hispanics. But I meet Hispanics all the time who reject the label. If they speak of themselves by reference to their ancestral past, they speak of themselves as Bolivians or Puerto Ricans or Colombians or Mexicans.
It was Richard Nixon's administration that came up with the notion of the Hispanic. In 1973, federal bureaucrats divided the nation's population into five: Native American/Eskimo; Asian/Pacific Islander; White; Black; Hispanic. Nearly 25 years later we see and use the word "Hispanic" routinely. I say I am Hispanic. I tell you I am standing on a rundown corner of downtown Los Angeles, the largest Hispanic city in the United States, and look, look at the Hispanic faces. But what do you look for when you expect to see a Hispanic face? In fact, there is no such thing as a Hispanic race.
Every race of the world exists in Latin America. There are Japanese Hispanics. There are African Hispanics. There are blond Hispanics. If many of us are brown, the majority of Hispanics are from Mexico and are, therefore, Mestizo, many us are not.
It's true a real competition is taking place today between Hispanics and Blacks in LA, a competition for dollars, for housing, for jobs. The city's black neighborhoods--Watts, South Central, Compton--are becoming Hispanic, filling with immigrants from Latin America. There is new Hispanic influence at city hall. Hispanics recently forced the ouster of Willie Williams, LA's black police chief. On the other hand, immigration officials say that the majority of calls they receive reporting illegal immigrants come from African-Americans. While it's important to acknowledge the friction between Hispanic and Black, it's important also to say that any comparison of Black and Hispanic risks utter nonsense, for Hispanic and Black are not finally comparable categories.
Hispanic: A cultural identity.
To put the matter bluntly, there are many Hispanics who are Black. Hispanic is an ethnic, a cultural category, not a racial one. Remember that the next time you hear Hispanics compared to Whites or to Blacks. What you are actually hearing is one group of Americans identified by culture being compared to another Americans identified by race. Here is the most revolutionary aspect of Hispanicity.
I stand here. I tell you I am Hispanic in a country that traditionally insists on racial categories. I define myself not by reference to race or color but by reference to culture. For the moment, because of so much immigration from Latin America it seems easy to believe that there is such a thing as a Hispanic culture. Here on Broadway, amidst the sounds of Spanish, the music, the voices, amidst the brown faces, Hispanic culture seems evident. But as politicians have found, there's no single cultural experience uniting all Hispanics.
Dividing the nation into labels.
What--after all--does the White Cuban have in common with the Black Puerto Rican? What does the Guatemalan Indian, who arrived today in the United States, have in common with the new Mexican who traces his family back to colonial Spain? Some of us speak Spanish; some do not. Some are Catholic; many are becoming Protestant. It's possible as Hispanic numbers grow that the slipperiness of the label will see more apparent to Americans and our government's practice of dividing our nation into five neat pieces will seem absurd. In the meanwhile, we go around talking about Asians and Hispanics and Blacks imagining neat distinctions in borders where they may not exist.
For the moment, Madonna, the singer/actress, plays Eva Peron from Argentina, while in real life Madonna's baby daughter, Lourdes, is Hispanic, as is Henry Cisneros and Anthony Quinn, and the children of Lucille Ball, and several of the grandchildren of George and Barbara Bush.
For the moment, with a growing sense of irony, I check "yes" on the government form. In English, I acknowledge I am Hispanic.
I'm Richard Rodriguez.