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Who's a Latino?

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Welcome back to the Destination Casa Blanca weekly blog post. This week the program took a look at the 2010 Census, got a quick update on compliance overall, and drilled in for a closer look at the racial and ethnic categories households around the country need to fill out.

Our guests included a representative of the Census Bureau, a demographer from the Pew Center for Hispanic Research, and two advocates; one from the National Council of La Raza, and another from the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, NALEO.

The national Latino organizations have been in conversation about the design of census forms and census questions since the end of the last tabulation ten years ago. Both Clarissa Martinez of La Raza and Gloria Montano Greene of NALEO say they are generally pleased with the choices and the format allowing Latinos to self-identify on the form. We've come a long way since tabulators walking door to door with a canvas bag and writing materials made hand-written records based on personal observations of things like race. Now it is up to the individual to assign an identity to himself or herself.

It is a complicated matter, this idea of race and ethnic identity. Once social restriction and social stigma no longer accompanied identity as an American Indian, the number of people telling the Census Bureau they were Indians soared. Are there more Latinos in America than the census will count who simply don't see any benefit, or see some sort of community handicap in identifying that way?

And what is a Latino, anyway?

We can start from the simplest and least disputed definitions and move outward... and see where it starts to get complicated. Let's begin with the people who were born in the Spanish-speaking countries of the Western Hemisphere, former colonies of the Spanish Empire that now run from the US-Mexican border to the Southern tip of South America. OK.

What about Brazilians? Are they in there? Brazil was a massive imperial colony in the heart of South America, but of course isn't Spanish-speaking. Since the Brazilian-descended population of the United States is still relatively small, we can probably duck that question for now.

But we can agree on those Caribbeans, Central and South Americans who have moved to the United States. Millions of them have gotten married... most to other people who by birth or descent are connected to the Spanish-speaking countries of the Hemisphere.
All right, let's include their kids in that "Latino" category too, shall we?

Somewhere between 40% and 50% of all Latinos in the United States marry someone who does not share their ethnic background. Hundreds of thousands of those couples have kids, too. Are their children, for the purposes of understanding America, and who lives in it, Latinos too? For argument's sake, let's say the kids speak Spanish, carry Spanish surnames through their father, and then marry non-Latino Americans. Are their kids Latinos too?

Demographers tell us that Latinos will be more than a third of all Americans by the middle of the century. But sometimes, I'm not sure I know what that means. If their assimilation and acculturation trajectory follows that of earlier immigrant flows, it might not end up meaning much. For countless Americans, ethnicity is a pretty empty signifier traveling through the generation carried on a last name, a few remembered words in a foreign language, and some traditional holiday foods.

Right now, in health, education, commerce, and public services, it is handy for governments large and small to know where there are large concentrations of immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries and their children. But if America works for them the way it worked for immigrants in the 19th and 20th century, will we always have to worry about where the Latinos are?

Maybe.

At Ellis Island, there's an enormous display showing color-coded immigration trends from different home countries across the decades. In all cases, for the Irish, the Germans, the Italians, the Eastern Europeans, there was a gradual run-up, a peak, then a subsidence of new arrivals, eventually petering out to nothing. In the case of arrivals from the Spanish-speaking world there have been peaks and valleys, but all in all a steady, high and continuing flow. Maybe Latinos will be something new and different in American history, in part because unlike those other immigrant groups, they, we, are a mixed race people.

It just got complicated again.

If you come from a culture and a country where social status is calibrated in part by the color of your skin, the shape of your nose and the texture of your hair, how will you answer when your new country asks you to assign a racial category to yourself? On this week's Destination Casa Blanca program we featured interviews of a pretty representative mix of Latino New Yorkers, from dark to light, all expressing discomfort with the racial category. To hear them tell it, the American way of identifying and categorizing race simply doesn't fit the reality of who they feel they are. "I'm not black, and I'm not white," said one, "I would just want to write in "Latino."

"Which is exactly what we would want them to do," said Raul Cisneros of the Census Bureau. He said large numbers of Latino respondents in the 2000 census wrote in their national origin rather than a conventional racial label, so this year's form tried to make it even easier for them to do that. All the panelists agreed that ethnicity and race were two very separate things, and (apart from Jeffrey Passel, who said the constant changes in the questions made it hard for researchers to compare data over decades) all concluded the question would probably continue to change over time.

One of the most important functions of the census results is to figure out how many people live in which states, and therefore how many members of the House of Representatives are awarded to each. It's a little tougher than simply counting the population and then dividing by 435, the number of house members. For example, Wyoming, the least populous state in the union, only has about 540 thousand people. The average congressional district after the 2010 count is meant to have over 700 thousand residents. But you can't give Wyoming less than one member. Delaware is home to almost 900 thousand people... more than the average congressional district, but not nearly enough to get a second member. So the census results, crucial in apportioning house seats, may end up stripping some states of entire house districts based on a few thousand, or tens of thousands counted here... but not counted there.

As the Latino population of the United States has increased from decade to decade, so has the number of house seats mapped by states to make it possible for a Latino to win and go to Washington. In 1976, just four Latino members represented mainland congressional districts (the delegate from Puerto Rico has no vote on legislation), today that number has leaped to 22 members of the house and one member of the United States Senate, Robert Menendez of New Jersey.

For the short term, the ethnic and racial questions and categories on the census form will have a substantial impact on our politics, and who runs and gets elected to congress. If there is greater economic success, assimilation, and acculturation in coming decades, the stunning number of 100 million Latinos living in the US by the end of the century may not mean a whole lot.

What do you think?

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