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Column: Who is Latino? And When?

Maria Fernanda Medina, 7, wraps herself in a United States flag as she marches with her father, Jorge, during a May Day demonstration in San Francisco, Wednesday, May 1, 2013.  Demonstrators demanded an overhaul of immigration laws Wednesday in an annual, nationwide ritual that carried a special sense of urgency as Congress considers sweeping legislation that would bring many of the estimated 11 million people living in the U.S. illegally out of the shadows. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Maria Fernanda Medina, 7, wraps herself in a United States flag as she marches with her father, Jorge, during a May Day demonstration in San Francisco, Wednesday, May 1, 2013. Demonstrators demanded an overhaul of immigration laws Wednesday in an annual, nationwide ritual that carried a special sense of urgency as Congress considers sweeping legislation that would bring many of the estimated 11 million people living in the U.S. illegally out of the shadows. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

e_SSLqShut up, you stupid Mexican!”

The words spewed from the mouth of a pale, freckle-faced boy, taunting me on our elementary school playground.

I wish I could recall what I said to inspire the insult. But more than three decades later, I remember only my reply. “Stupid Peruvian,” I pointed out, wagging my finger.

My family had emigrated from Lima to Northern California a few years earlier, so my nationality was a point of fact (whereas my stupidity remains a matter of opinion). The response so confused my classmate that my first encounter with prejudice ended as quickly as it started. Recess resumed.

Today, my grade-school preoccupation with nationality feels a bit quaint. Peruvian or Mexican – does it even matter? We’re all Latinos now.

And don’t call us stupid. Ever since the 2012 election, when the Hispanic vote helped propel President Obama (71 percent) over Mitt Romney (27 percent), Latinos have become coveted, exciting, DREAMy. When politicians ride Hispanic ancestry to presidential short lists and convention keynote slots, when a stalemated Congress has a shot at immigration reform because Democrats need to keep us and Republicans need to woo us, and when Univision beats NBC in prime-time ratings, you know that America’s 51 million Latinos are officially marketable, clickable, unignorable. And if you’ve written a dissertation arguing that we’re dumber than white Americans, you’ll lose your job. Even at the Heritage Foundation, no se puede.

The attention is nice, I admit. Our background as immigrants or descendants of immigrants is no longer considered a liability; in the wonderful reductionism of American politics, it’s a great story.

But it’s a story with an odd plot twist: It’s not evident what being Latino – or Hispanic or hispano, take your pick – truly means, and most most Hispanics, it turns out, don’t even identify with the term.

Geographic identity

Is being Latino a matter of geography, as simple as where you or your ancestors came from? Is it the language you speak or how well you speak it? Is it some common culture? Or is it just a vaguely brown complexion and a last name ending in “a,” “o” or “z”? Politicians build Latino-voter-outreach operations, businesses launch marketing campaigns to attract Hispanic “super-consumers,” yet depending on whom you ask – politicians, academics, journalists, activists, researchers or pollsters – contradictory definitions and interpretations emerge.

If all ethnic identities are created, imagined or negotiated to some degree, American Hispanics provide an especially stark example. As part of an effort in the 1970s to better measure who was using what kind of social services, the federal government established the word “Hispanic” to denote anyone with ancestry traced to Spain or Latin America, and mandated the collection of data on this group.

“The term is a U.S. invention,” explains Mark Hugo Lopez, associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center. “If you go to El Salvador or the Dominican Republic, you won’t necessarily hear people say they are ‘Latino’ or ‘Hispanic.’ ”

You may not hear it much in the United States, either. According to a 2012 Pew survey, only about a quarter of Hispanic adults say they identify themselves most often as Hispanic or Latino. About half say they prefer to cite their family’s country of origin, while one-fifth say they use “American.” (Among third-generation Latinos, nearly half identify as American.)

The Office of Management and Budget defines a Hispanic as “a person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race” – about as specific as calling someone European.

The absence of a unifying culture makes even more sense as the Latino community evolves and spreads. The days when Hispanics could be broken down largely as Mexican American migrant workers in the Southwest, Puerto Ricans in New York and Cuban Americans in South Florida are vanishing. Salvadorans are catching up with Cubans as the third-largest Latino group in the nation, for instance. And guess the four states where the Hispanic population grew fastest over the past decade: South Carolina, Kentucky, Arkansas and Minnesota.

Language barrier

Even the Spanish language is losing some of its power as a cultural marker for this community. About 80 percent of U.S. Hispanics say they read or speak Spanish “very well” or “pretty well,” according to Pew, but only 38 percent claim it as their primary language, while another 38 percent say they are bilingual, and 24 percent say English is their dominant tongue. By the third generation, nearly seven in 10 Latinos say they are English-dominant. Little surprise that the latest battleground for Hispanic media companies is over the English-speaking Latino market.

Is fluency in Spanish a precondition for full Latino-ness? If so, then people such Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, a Republican, and San Antonio, Texas, Mayor Julian Castro, a Democrat, would not be in the club. I, for one, would not presume to revoke their membership.

Political fix

If language or race or a common culture aren’t enough to define or unite us, perhaps politics can help.

For Republicans, the challenge appears straightforward. In his breakdown of the GOP’s shortcomings in March, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Preibus emphasized the need to elevate Latino leaders in the party, cultivate Latino media outlets and craft a message on immigration that considers “the unique perspective of the Hispanic community.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, has put the GOP’s plight more bluntly: “We’re in a demographic death spiral as a party,” he said on Meet the Press recently, “and the only way we can get back in good graces with the Hispanic community, in my view, is pass comprehensive immigration reform.”

Fix immigration and Hispanics will love you. Simple, right?

“The great problem for the Republican Party with Hispanics is not about immigration,” Bendixen counters. “The problem is that they’re looking at a Hispanic electorate that is further to the left than just about any group. They believe strongly in a government role in the economy and basically in every aspect of life – national health insurance, social services, a government role in creating jobs.”

In a 2012 survey, Pew found that immigration reform was not the key issue for registered Latino voters. When asked what subjects they considered “extremely important,” Hispanics rated education, the economy, health care and even the budget deficit before immigration.

Not that different from the rest of America.

Nearly a decade ago, Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington wrote a biting 6,000-word essay in Foreign Policy magazine arguing that Latino immigrants threatened America’s “cultural and political integrity.” Titled “The Hispanic Challenge,” the article elicited countless responses in the media, accusations of racism, and much scowling at Washington think tanks. Nearly a decade later, it is still ritually flogged in immigration debates.

A confession: I helped make that essay happen. As a Foreign Policy editor at the time, I worked with Huntington over several weeks as we prepared the piece for publication. In our many phone conversations and email exchanges, he never asked whether the piece offended me, and I never asked whether he was uncomfortable that some guy named Carlos was editing him.

Looking back, I wonder why I wasn’t more offended by his arguments. Part of it is the editor’s trade; I’ve worked on likely hundreds of essays I disagree with. But maybe I didn’t think Huntington was really writing about me. I didn’t identify with the label.

Assuming the label

Sure, I’ll check the “Hispanic origin” box on official documents – doing so feels less wrong than not – but other aspects of my identity, whether my birthplace, my faith, my alma mater, my profession, or my roles as a father, husband, son or brother have all felt more vital at different moments.

A pan-Latino identity is too broad to feel essential. I read Latin American novelists and speak to my kids in Spanish, but I’m also other things.

Besides, others play identity politics for me. I’m Hispanic when census forms and my children’s birth certificate documents nudge me to choose. I’m Hispanic when junk mail arrives at my house trumpeting special offers for my Irish American wife and ofertas especiales for me. I’m Hispanic when the Jehovah’s Witnesses come knocking on my door with a pitch for salvation ready in Spanish.

There is one moment, however, when assuming the Latino label feels right, even urgent: when the political debates over immigration turn ugly, when talk of self-deportation and racial-profiling laws and anchor babies permeates campaigns, distinctions and nuances seem to dissipate.

“When one of us is under attack, we identify, we come together,” Murguia says. “When one of us is singled out because of their accent, their skin color, our people come together out of a sense of justice. People say, ‘That can be me.’ ”

This is why the anti-Latino sentiment that has emerged in some quarters of American politics is self-defeating. It fosters unity among the otherwise disparate peoples it targets. It strengthens, even creates, the very identity it seeks to dislodge.

“The meaning of Hispanicity is not identifiable by culture or language, but by experiences of inclusion or exclusion, by opportunities for education, whether they can live the American dream,” Princeton’s Tienda explains. “Are they a class apart, or are they going to be part of all the classes?”

(Carlos Lozada is Outlook editor for “The Washington Post.”)

Legacy Comments1

A Latino is a Latino when it suits a political or media need.

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