The nation’s largest Latino civil rights and advocacy group is rebranding. The National Council of La Raza (NCLR), currently wrapping up its annual convention in Phoenix, has announced that it will be changing its name to UnidosUS. President Janet Murguia said that the name change was three years in the making, and came in response to members who felt that the NCLR name was outdated.
The new name deliberately leaves out any punctuation, so that the part following “Unidos” — Spanish for “united” — can be pronounced as “U.S.” or “us.”
This move by NCLR is smart and welcome. For too long, the group has been saddled with a name that many non-Latinos and Latinos alike did not fully understand. The new name is more inclusive and contemporary, and better reflects the growing diversity of the U.S. Hispanic population.
The National Council of La Raza can be viewed as a Latino equivalent of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP. The nonpartisan NCLR was founded in 1968 in Phoenix to fight discrimination against Hispanics. Then as now, the Latino population in the Southwest was predominantly Mexican-American, and the group took as part of their name the term “la raza.”
Although that term translates literally as “the race,” its usage arose in the 1960s during the Mexican-American civil rights movement to convey cultural pride. Even today, the term is used among Mexican-Americans to refer to “our people” or “the community.”
Yet over the years, this term has become a matter of controversy. Conservative critics have seized on the literal translation of “la raza” to make the false charge that NCLR advocated the superiority of the “Hispanic race” (which does not exist, as Latinos can be of any race).
Former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly called NCLR a “pretty radicalized group,” while a writer for the National Review Online compared NCLR to the Confederacy for allegedly advocating for racial superiority.
To be clear, “la raza” and NCLR have never been about a “master race,” racial purity, or a superior race.
Unfortunately, the term “la raza” has become so loaded that NCLR once released a fact sheet entitled ‘Myth vs. Reality.’ In it, the group explained that they were not a Latino version of the Ku Klux Klan – as former Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Co.) once asserted – nor did they advocate a reconquest of the U.S. by Mexican-Americans.
In truth NCLR does vital, constructive work in areas like health care, education, LGBT equality, and immigration reform. Far from advocating only for Latinos, the group has partnered with groups like the National Urban League and the National Defamation League of B’nai B’rith to help advance civil rights for all.
That said, NCLR leadership is wise to move away from a term that has lately become an unnecessary distraction from their broader goals.
As Elvia Diaz wrote in the Arizona Republic, NCLR is “a good organization with a bad name.”
But the best reasons to drop the use of the term “la raza” have nothing to do with NCLR’s critics on the far right, who will no doubt find other ways to aim their fire at the group under their new name.
Now headquartered in Washington D.C., NCLR has grown into a group with affiliates across the country, from California to Massachusetts to Puerto Rico. Its identity has transcended its Mexican-American roots — and “la raza” is simply not an expression that is used, for example, among Dominican Americans or Cuban Americans.
In 2017, “unidos” is better than “la raza” because it can better appeal to all U.S. Latinos — not just Mexican-Americans.
This is a sensible move, especially at a time when Latinos continue to lack a national leader.
Most importantly, “UnidosUS” is the best name for the now-former NCLR because this decision was made by the organization itself.
“It was our own community that led us to the UnidosUS name,” the group’s president told NBC Latino.
And if there is one thing that Latinos can agree on — whether we are Tejano (“Tex-Mex”), Nuyorican (New York Puerto Ricans) or Latinx (a gender-inclusive term for Latinos) — it's that we believe in self-determination.
The term “la raza” will always resonate with Mexican-Americans.
But NCLR’s name change will help the group more successfully advance its mission of empowering and improving the lives of Latinos.