Being Latino means being part of a rich, diverse culture. Or does it? Some Latinos feel removed from their peers because of their skin color, language ability, or mixed-race heritage. Others have faced criticism for holding political views at odds with the Hispanic mainstream. In fact, many Latinos know all too well what it is like not to fit in with their own community.
“Most people believe that all Latinos look like the stereotypical Puerto Rican or Mexican,” said Mirna Martinez-Santiago, 43, a New York attorney. “I am from Honduras. I am black, racially, but I identify as Latina.”
The host of The Opinion Talk Show gave some examples of how her skin color has caused confusion - and awkward moments.
“I walk into a Dominican hair salon and the employees are talking about me,” Martinez-Santiago said. “I can hear them talk about my pelo malo (bad hair). I tell them there is nothing wrong with my hair, and they are shocked that I can understand them. I try to educate people, but the best way to educate people is just by being,” said Martinez-Santiago.
She said she teaches her son to stand up for himself when people question his background. “You have to tell people, I am happy in my own skin.”
Still, Martinez-Santiago acknowledges that stereotypes of Latinos are everywhere, even in Spanish-language media. "We step out the door and we see Latinos of all colors, all walks of life and yet there's a telenovela (soap opera) and we're the voodoo priestess!...I'm not (that)! So why are you depicting me that way? It's very frustrating," she said, talking about the the few - and more "stereotyped" black Latino roles in soap operas.
“I am light-skinned, so people often forget that I am Latina. I’ve been around extended family members who made racist comments, not realizing that they were offending me," said Rodriguez. "Then I point out, ‘Hey, you are talking about me right now.’ It gets awkward and everyone apologizes,” she said.
Yet Rodriguez, who lives in the San Francisco Bay area, said she doesn’t fully connect with other Latinos because she doesn’t speak Spanish. “If I go to a Spanish grocery store, people try to talk to me. I am embarrassed to say that I sometimes feel a need to shut them down pretty quickly, because I don’t speak Spanish beyond a few phrases.”
“I’ve always related to people from mixed backgrounds because we didn’t fit the stereotypes together,” Rodriguez continued. “It can be just as hard to connect with Latinos as it can be to connect with white Mormons. I am not quite in either space. I feel like I am between both worlds,” said Rodriguez, whose family, including her Mexican grandparents, are Mormon and who was raised in Utah and later Colorado.
It should not be surprising that Latinos have nuanced views of race, ethnicity, and identity. A 2012 Pew Research report found that 69 percent of Latinos believed that Hispanics have many different cultures, rather than just a common culture. And while 82 percent of Latinos reported they could carry on a conversation in Spanish, fewer than half of third-generation Latinos say they can speak Spanish proficiently.
Prominent Latinos sometimes face an “ethnic authenticity” test. When Gabriel Gomez ran for the U.S. Senate as a Republican candidate from Massachusetts in 2013, one Spanish-language newspaper columnist dubbed him a LINO – a “Latino In Name Only,” prompting debate in the Latino community.
Gomez, 48, was unfazed by the label. “It was unfortunate, it was shortsighted of the newspaper,” he said. “My understanding is that they wouldn’t support me because I had an “R” [for Republican] after my name. The perception is Latinos are all cut from the same political cloth, and that is not true.”
Gomez, who is now running an eco-friendly fitness venture, points out that “I don’t fit the stereotypical description of a Republican either.”
Julie A. Dowling, associate professor of Latina/o Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said Latino identity depends on many factors, including regional differences, national origin, physical features and language ability.
“There are wide, diverse experiences in competition with the stereotypical images. So people are constantly judged by these images,” Dowling explained.
“The stereotype of Latinos is that they are Mexican, Spanish-speaking immigrants, and possibly undocumented,” Dowling said. “And because it is such a strong stereotype, people often define themselves in relation to it.”
Author Stephanie Elizondo Griest joked that, “I feel like I should start a support group for people who don’t feel like they are Mexican enough (the title of one of her books) or Latino enough.”
It was her adventures traveling the world that made her realize that she could re-connect with her heritage on her own terms.
“I am half white,” said Griest, 40. “Half. Yet why is it that people, including Latinos, always relate to me that way first, and assume that I am white? I’ve learned to emphasize that I am a proud Latina, to challenge the assumptions. I start my emails with Hola, and my writing students read Latin American literature.”
Griest believes that a certain amount of “identity angst” is to be expected among Latinos.
“This is something all hyphenated people deal with. I think our parents’ generation lost some of their culture, or it was taken from them. Our generation is sort of fumbling around, looking for it. Hopefully, the next generation will reclaim it. They will have an even stronger sense of who they are, and that will be powerful.”