Do Brazilians count? What about Spaniards?
Defining exactly who is "Hispanic" and who is not, when the label should be applied and when it should not, is a matter on which academics, Census-takers, and even those who identify themselves as part of the ethnic group, sometimes disagree.
Those debates have intensified as cities, corporations, and universities expand, contract, and otherwise change diversity and affirmative action programs. . In New York, Latino entrepreneurs who want to take advantage of a city program designed to give businesses owned by women and minorities access to information and guidance, must first swear that they are Hispanic, in the way that the city defines it.
Before Latino applicants can qualify they must sign an affidavit confirming their ethnic identity.
Celines De Leon-Veras, the owner of a cleaning business based in Washington Heights, says she doesn't understand why Latinos need to fill out extra paperwork which black and Asian applicants to the same program do not have to fill out.
"It’s ridiculous that I needed an additional document to prove that I am eligible for the program as a Hispanic,” Leon-Veras, whose parents were born in the Dominican Republic, told The New York World.
Created in 2005, the city’s Minority and Women-owned Business Enterprise Program, known as M/WBE, aims to promote “fairness and equity” in the city by offering minority entrepreneurs various forms of information and guidance about opportunities to do business in the city. But, in 2010, New York City officials amended the program, requiring Latinos sign an ethnic affidavit. The change also excluded individuals with parents from European countries from the program. They no longer met the city's definition of Latino or Hispanic.
Greg Bishop, Assistant Commissioner in the city’s department of Small Business Services told The New York World that "the term 'Hispanic' had been defined in a way that applicants whose parents originated from Spain or any other Spanish-speaking European country are not considered disadvantaged, and are thus ineligible for the program."
Many business assistance programs were created after cities and states commissioned exhaustive studies which demonstrated significant differences in median income, assets, and frequency with which female and minority business owners are denied bank loans for their businesses.
So, some are glad the affidavit system exists in New York City's Department of Small Business Services. The president of the New York State Federation of Hispanic Chambers of Commerce, Alfred P. Placeres, told The New York World that the new system is ultimately a good thing.
“The affidavit helps ensure that people are not sneaking into the program claiming minority status,” Placeras said. “The whole program can be jeopardized if the certification isn’t done correctly.”
But some disagree with the city's categorization. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines "Hispanic" as "of, relating to, or being a person of Latin American descent living in the U.S.; especially one of Cuban, Mexican, or Puerto Rican origin" or "of or relating to the people, speech, or culture of Spain or of Spain and Portugal." The Census Bureau says Hispanic origin is "determined on the basis of question that asked for self-identification of the person's origin or descent." Furthermore the Census Bureau notes that, "persons of Hispanic origin, in particular, are those who indicated that their origin was Mexican-American, Chicano, Mexican, Mexicano, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American, or other Hispanic."
The question of how one defines Hispanic became a point of contention when George Zimmerman, the self-appointed neighborhood watchman who shot and killed black teenager Trayvon Martin was described as a "white Hispanic" by news outlets including The New York Times, Reuters, and The Huffington Post. Some conservative commentators accused media of weaving a false narrative of white-on-black crime, while others shot back that this was indeed his racial and ethnic categorization.
Political pundit Bernard Goldberg called the use of the term white Hispanic, "a parody of liberal media."
“He’s only a 'white Hispanic',” said Goldberg, “because they need the word ‘white’ to further the storyline, which is ‘white, probably racist vigilante shoots unarmed black kid.’”
Goldberg's outrage may however stem from confusion surrounding the term Hispanic. The categorizations of Hispanic and Latino, often mistakenly thought of as racial classifications, in actuality refer to ethnicity. While collecting population data, the Census Bureau now identifies the white racial category as "white, non-Hispanic," and allows for Latinos to use both racial and ethnic identifiers to categorize themselves. Some groups of Latinos, such as Afro Latinos, often self-identify in both racial and ethnic terms.
Ruben Rumbaut, a professor of sociology at the University of California at Irvine, said in an interview with NPR last year that trying to define the terms such as Latino or Hispanic is increasingly difficult. Racial and ethnic categorization, he said, is "not a biological given." Rather, he said, it's "a social and legal and political construction whose meaning changes over time."
SLIDESHOW: LATINOS, BY THE NUMBERS: