My last post ("A Great Lack of Latinos at the Academy Awards") prompted many readers to slap down my observation that Hispanics haven't exactly thrived in Hollywood. Of course, there were some highly defensive, yet confrontational accusations that I was whining or calling for a quota system. I expected those rants and ignored them, but I noticed a tangential but important issue arise.
Namely, who am I to say who is actually Hispanic?
In the post, I was reluctant to count Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem as Latino. I said that because they are natives of Spain, they are European and not Hispanic. This rankled a few people. One reader said that Spaniards are culturally Latino, even if they are separated from Latin America by an ocean. Another said the fact that Bardem and Cruz speak Spanish as their native language was of the most importance - which as I pointed out, would mean that any Portuguese-speaking Brazilians are not Latinos.
Basically, it's a sticky situation. And intelligent people can disagree on an issue that is so liquid and emotionally loaded.
But I know what you're thinking. How can the U.S. government help resolve this situation? Can they offer us a kind of ethnic bailout, as it were?
Well, a little research reveals that the U.S. Office of Management and Budget first defined a Hispanic to be "a person of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American, or other Spanish culture or origin, regardless of race."
The U.S. Census Bureau included the term on its 1960 form, but this, the government's initial attempt at a definition, wasn't published until 1978. Apparently, nobody was Hispanic before then.
Now, it's far too easy to take shots at a nameless bureaucracy that pathetically attempts to corral the messy realities of the world. But I'm going to do it anyway.
The first thing we notice in this definition is the phrase "regardless of race." This is problematic, because many of us thought we were talking about race. How can it be irrelevant when it's the whole point?
Well, if you've ever worked for the U.S. Census Bureau (I did, as a teenager for one horrific summer, but that's another story), you know that Hispanics are not considered a race. We are an ethnicity. That means that we can be white, like many residents of South America. Or we can be black, like many Cubans. Or we might be, as is often the case, a pleasing brown (like everyone in my family).
Of course, many people consider "race" itself to be an artificial construct, a mere cultural crutch. Let's leave that argument aside for now.
The point is that any attempt to define a large group of people who come from vastly different cultures is doomed to be incomplete, sketchy, vague, and possibly insulting. But we need to cut the government some slack here. They have to define Hispanics. Otherwise, we would have no way to measure how badly we're doing on the economic scale, and we would have no idea who's being acknowledged during Hispanic Heritage Month (it's in September, by the way).
So do Spaniards count as Hispanics? Are Brazilians really Latino? Can Jamaicans sneak in there? Do third-generation Chicanos in interracial marriages remain part of the tribe?
Ultimately, perhaps you're Hispanic if you say you are. It's not like there are ceremonies to induct you into the lodge or anything - although that would be most cool if there were.
As I mentioned in one of my first posts, many people would not consider me (I'm half-Anglo) to be Hispanic. So I should feel validated because I fit the government's definition. After all, my family is originally from Central America.
But slipping easily into a government-built box means nothing, of course. Independent of some red-tape organism, all of us develop our own definitions and self-images and myths and creation stories - everything we need to say, "This is me."