The Ambiguity of Being Latin@

05/19/2015 03:57 pm ET | Updated May 19, 2016

As a category of social identity, "Latin@" or "Hispanic" encompasses people across various countries and reflects a diversity of racial, national, cultural, ethnic, and linguistic traditions. Yet the meaning of "Latin@" remains ambiguous: Does "Latin@" refer to a race, an ethnicity or a combination of both? Like many Latin@s, I have long grappled with how to respond to matters of race and ethnicity on demographic questionnaires. My parents, both of whom were born and raised in Puerto Rico, always told me to check the box marked "Hispanic/Latin@" for ethnicity and "white" for race. Yet growing up in Georgia as the token "Spanish girl" at a predominately white school, I recognized early on that I was not white--at least not in the eyes of my peers--and even if I was, I certainly did not reap the benefits of white privilege. Further, my Latina identity seemed to exist solely within the context of the United States. As I soon learned, the all-encompassing "Latin@" designation holds a different meaning outside of U.S. borders. That is, Latin@ immigrants to the United States--Mexicans, Dominicans, Colombians, etc.--are not "Latin@" in their native homelands; rather, they are ascribed that identity when they move to this country. So where did the term "Latin@/Hispanic" come from and what factors have contributed to its evolving conceptualization in the United States?

The term "Hispanic" first emerged as an official social marker under the category of ethnicity on the 1980 United States Census. Since then, the U.S. Census has made clear that Hispanics or Latin@s can be of any race. Based on Latin@s' responses to the race and ethnic questions in the 1980, 1990, 2000, and 2010 federal census, it is clear that many find it difficult to situate their identity within the distinct racial designations offered on the form. Most notably, 95 percent of individuals who marked their race as "other" identified ethnically as Latin@, confirming their social experiences as racialized Other within the United States. Indeed, when required to choose among racial designations of white, black, Asian, or Native American, many Latin@s will check "white", not because they identify as such but rather because there is not currently an option which authentically captures their lived experiences. Such inconsistencies between individual self-identity and state-imposed classifications of ethnicity reflect the depth of political differences over racial meaning and expose who gets to set the parameters for racial categorization and definition, further highlighting the need for a more accurate designation of Latin@ identity.

In an attempt to improve the race and Hispanic origin questions, the U.S. Census Bureau conducted the Alternative Questionnaire Experiment (AQE). The AQE tested several questionnaire design strategies, including combining the separate race and Hispanic origin questions into one. The study found that when race and Hispanic origin were part of the same question, the "some other race" category decreased to less than 1% and the non-response rate was substantially lower. Findings from focus groups with Latin@ questionnaire participants revealed that participants viewed the combined questions as more equitable and indicated that said questions allowed for greater and more accurate self-identification. Given these findings, a combined race and origin option is being considered for the 2020 Census.

Indeed, attempts to construct a simplified, monolithic experience of Latinidad under a banner of pan-ethnicity have proven grossly inadequate, as markers used to homogenize Latin@s--such as language, culture, region and a common history of colonialism and U.S imperialism--are not universal to all Latin@ populations. Likewise, classifying all Latin@ under a racial designation does not fully reflect the heterogeneity of Latin@ populations or their lived experiences. As such, the proposed option of simultaneously acknowledging both race and Hispanic origin on the Census--while not ideal--would allow for more accurate self-identification and, in many ways, would grant Latin@s the agency to recreate, legitimize and expand the meanings attached to Latinidad. Further, by acknowledging the racialization of the Latin@ subject while legitimizing the elements of subjectivity, human agency and self-representation inherent in one's ethnicity, a more ethnoracial conceptualization of Latinidad fosters deeper awareness of intragroup differences and creates a pathway for greater internal solidarity and collaboration across Latin@ subgroups. Above all, it is by owning our complex identities--both racial and ethnic--and defining for ourselves what it means to be Latin@ that we make ourselves legible.