By Nicole Acevedo, Edwin Flores and Suzanne Gamboa
Contributing Reporting by Albinson Linares of Noticias Telemundo, Carmen Sesin, Arturo Conde, Christopher Alvarez
Sept. 15, 2022
A biracial family in Wisconsin. A Black Dominican in Massachusetts. A Cuban of Lebanese descent in New York. A Mexican Chinese Californian. A white man from Texas. A Brazilian German in Arizona.
Latino identity is becoming more fluid and varied than ever before.
Amid dramatic population growth, rising intermarriage rates, geographic dispersal and the growing use of DNA technology, millions of Americans are expanding the definition of what it means to be of Latino or of Hispanic descent.
As racial, ethnic and language boundaries evolve, Latinos are defying categorization or definition in narrow terms.
“A lot of people tend to ask me why are there are so many labels — is there an identity crisis?” said sociologist G. Cristina Mora, the author of “Making Hispanics: How Activists, Bureaucrats and Media Constructed a New American.” “So many labels are an expression of how big we are getting.”
Almost 1 in 5 Americans, 62.6 million, are Hispanic, according to the latest 2020 census numbers, a 23% increase from 2010.
Among them are a young man who does genealogy work at low cost, helping others discover their Latino roots. Another uses her native Spanish to reach fellow Latino Muslims through her radio show. A third is at the helm of a university in the country’s seventh-largest city. They’re different in myriad ways — yet they all count themselves as part of the vast and growing community.
More mixed families; feeling ‘like a chameleon’
“Some people think it’s contradictory to have multiple identities,” said Matthew Reyes, 19, a sophomore at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. That’s not how he sees it.
Reyes was born and raised in Los Angeles; his mother emigrated from Hong Kong and his Californian father is of Mexican American heritage. Although Reyes sees himself as half Chinese, half Mexican, others often identify him as Asian, because people “can recognize it more easily,” he said.
Latinos like Reyes, who are multiracial or have mixed backgrounds, are one of the fastest growing groups, said Jens Manuel Krogstad, a senior writer and editor at the Pew Research Center. Krogstad, who grew up in Minnesota, has a Mexican mother and a white father of Norwegian descent.
The number of Latinos identifying as more than one race in the 2020 census has grown from 3 million to 20.3 million since 2010, while those identifying as only white dropped drastically, from 26.7 million to 12.6 million.
One of the drivers of those changes is that Latinos and Asians are the most likely to intermarry. In 2019, almost 4 in 10 U.S.-born Latinos, 39%, married someone who wasn’t Hispanic. The majority of Latinos, 70%, are U.S.-born.
Reyes acknowledged he flips between his Mexican and Chinese identities “like a chameleon” depending on the specific scenario, but he said “it feels great” to embrace both sides of his heritage.
“That’s not to say both cultures are antithetical to being American,” he said. “But at the same time, assimilation kind of removes you a little bit from your roots. So I’m always trying to strengthen these connections.”
Juan Zapata and his grandmother, Isabel Garcia, and her partner, Abuelo Ta.
Juan Zapata and his grandmother, Isabel Garcia, and her partner, Abuelo Ta.
Growing DNA deep dives — and a new look at heritage
Increased interest in DNA ancestry and genealogy has shifted the way people think about themselves, said Robert Santos, the first Latino to lead the Census Bureau.
“Their story isn’t going to be ‘I’m this one thing,’” he said. “It’s primarily going to be ‘I’m this one thing and this other thing.’... People want to tell their stories.”
At least four ancestry companies reported substantial increases in their Latino clients since the Covid-19 pandemic began in 2020. One of them, 23andMe, said it had a 50% jump in new customers of Hispanic descent, while MyHeritage said it had a 20% to 30% increase. FamilyTreeDNA and Ancestry had big increases but didn’t say how big.
As a child in Huntsville, Alabama, Juan Zapata, 25, was bullied for being Mexican. Before he obtained a green card, he also struggled with his lack of legal immigration status after he emigrated from Mexico with his parents. “I was ashamed of those roots,” he said.
Then Zapata, an Army reservist and science fiction enthusiast, became an accidental genealogist on TikTok.
Zapata has spent more than 1,000 hours sifting through paper trails to build out his genealogy tree, which dates to the 1500s. He has traced his ancestry to several continents and learned of Indigenous, Sephardic Jewish and African ancestors.
“Now, I love being Mexican. I’m proud of all my roots,” Zapata said.
TikTok videos with the hashtags #familytree and #genealogy have surpassed 280 million views. Thanks to the topic’s popularity, Zapata turned his passion project into a side hustle with his 5,000 TikTok followers. He charges $25 an hour to help others with their genealogy while still working security at a manufacturing company.
His clients include Spencer Montoya, 37, of Oregon, who is half white and half Mexican. He explored his Mexican roots years after he lost touch with his father’s family following his parents’ divorce.
Another client, Jason Lopez, 36, of Hawaii, reached out to Zapata after he took a DNA test and learned his genetic makeup is 54% Indigenous. His parents may be from Zacatecas, Mexico, but after his research, “I consider myself more Indigenous or Native American,” Lopez said. “I identify more with that now.”
For others, ancestry has led to new geographic connections. Amanda Florian, 27, grew up very familiar with her Puerto Rican mother’s background, visiting her hometown of Arecibo and getting to know the island. But her family’s new knowledge of her dad’s Irish and Italian roots led to meaningful family visits — and real ties to Europe.
“It's not like this changed everything for me. It's not like I had a huge coming-of-age moment,” Florian said. “But it does open a lot of doors. I wanted to feel connected to these roots.”
Because Latinos are inherently of mixed ethnicity, DNA and ancestry tests often help families get a glimpse of why relatives in the same family can look so widely different. Erick Galindo, 31, an award-winning writer, director, podcast creator and showrunner in Los Angeles, has red hair and light skin. People don’t think he’s Latino, and he doesn’t look much like his Mexican parents.
“I took the DNA test, and it does really look like a map of Napoleon's plan to conquer the world,” he said. “I have blood from everywhere — my father is a quarter Ethiopian, a little bit Irish. My mother's a little bit Jewish, a little bit Irish, too, French, Italian. A lot. Both have a lot of Spanish, Portuguese. And about 40% of my DNA is Indigenous from Mexico.”
Jose Moya's sister's first birthday in Bayamo, Cuba, in 1955.
Jose Moya's sister's first birthday in Bayamo, Cuba, in 1955.
In immigrant families, growing up next to the ‘americanos’
José Moya Hajje, 69, a Barnard College historian, had paternal great grandparents who hailed from Spain, one of whom married a Black Cuban, and maternal grandparents who were of Lebanese descent. Cuba attracted many Lebanese merchants during the 1910s, Moya said.
After Fidel Castro took power in Cuba, Moya was sent away by his family, like thousands of other young boys before they reached 15, Cuba’s military age. After a brief stint in Spain, Moya Hajjer reunited with his family in New Jersey in 1969.
“We had a sense of gratitude towards a country that hosted us,” he said about the U.S. But still, “I think of myself as Cuban, really. … That is the place where I was born.”
For Colombian American Christian León, 48, growing up in his Spanish-speaking household in Tampa, Florida, was a big reason he never really identified as “American” and didn’t embrace his bicultural upbringing until adulthood — even though he was born in the U.S.
He recalled that his friends came to know his place as the dancing and music house, because his parents, doctors who emigrated from Colombia, were “rumberos” who hosted big parties.
“It was very Latino and very Caleño,” León said, referring to the city of Cali, his parents’ birthplace.
For Latinos who are proficient in Spanish, knowing the language has been a way to build community.
Vilma Habibah, 52, whose last name was Santos, was born and raised in Puerto Rico. When she started practicing the Muslim religion 25 years ago in New York, she was “one of the few Hispanic Muslim women in Long Island, and I felt super alone,” she said. Now she’s part of a growing community — and she uses her native language to host “Construyendo Puentes de Paz,” (“Building Bridges of Peace”), a Spanish-language show on America’s Islamic Radio.
In 2017, an estimated 276,000 Muslims in the U.S. — roughly 8% of the country’s Muslim population — were of Hispanic descent, up from 6% in 2011, according to the Pew Research Center.
In Wilson, North Carolina, the 10 Herrera siblings grew up in a traditional Mexican household with immigrant parents who mainly spoke Spanish. Markedly more English is spoken in their home now, said Alberto, the seventh-born, compared to when Flor, the eldest, was born in 1990.
Alberto, 19, said his youngest siblings, ages 15 and 13, grew up with technology and video games that have “inherently made them more connected to the American side.” Alberto said he embraced the value of his Spanish skills at a construction internship where he was the only person who could communicate with the Spanish-speaking subcontractors.
Flor, 32, chose to own her identity after she turned 18 and was looking to legally change her middle name, Josefina, which she had always hated — until she asked her parents about it.
When her parents made the trek from Mexico to the U.S. border, her mom, then pregnant with Flor, became extremely dehydrated and thought she wasn’t going to make it. She prayed to San José ( St. Joseph) that if she survived, she’d name her child after him — hence Josefina. Flor kept her middle name.
Flor and her sister Elizabeth run Casa Azul, a nonprofit organization in their hometown, focusing on helping first-generation college students and promoting Latino culture.
“Because of my American existence, I know I’m not white,” Flor said. “I know I’m not Black. But I’m Latina.”
Does white erase Latino?
An estimated 5 million American adults with Hispanic ancestry, or 11%, said they don’t identify as Hispanic or Latino, according to the Pew Research Center.
Growing up in Speegleville, Texas, a mostly white community, Matthew Swindall marked “white” when he was asked about his race or ethnicity at school, he remembers. He felt nobody would believe him if he said he was Hispanic, even though his mother, whose maiden name is Mendoza, is Mexican American.
“Everyone sees my last name, that’s the whitest name you can have!” Swindall, 39, a red-haired, fair-complexioned police officer, said between laughs.
He fondly remembers attending family reunions in South Texas where his great-grandmother understood English but wouldn’t speak it. His mother translated but never taught him Spanish, because, as she told him, “I honestly didn’t think you’d ever need it,” Swindall said.
Now married to a Mexican American woman and with two children, “I want my kids to know they’re both” white and Hispanic, he said.
Elizabeth Méndez Berry, a vice president and executive editor of an imprint at Random House, describes herself as the daughter of a brown Colombian woman and an “incandescently white” Irish Canadian man.
She has been working on a book about a formerly incarcerated man who has a common Latino last name. But in every record she found of him, he was categorized as white. “I don’t think we are being counted well at this point,” she said.
Méndez Berry feels “very close” to her Latino identity, but she said it’s important for light-skinned Latinos like her “to acknowledge our whiteness and our privilege.”
Mirabella Isais, 22, who’s Mexican and Russian, found herself distancing herself from her Latino roots as she navigated middle school in West Covina, California, blending in with other lighter-skinned kids so she wouldn’t have to deal with the bullying she saw other Latino students face.
“I was very scared,” Isais said. “I would almost try to hide it and pretend like it wasn’t there.”
It wasn’t until college, as she got closer to her half-Salvadoran and half-Mexican best friend, that Isais felt more comfortable owning her Latino side. “It’s the first thing that I say when people talk to me. I’m half Russian, half Mexican. It’s so important to me.”
Making room for ‘Chicano’; acknowledging Spain
Abel Chávez, 43, the first Latino president of Our Lady of the Lake University, a Hispanic-serving institution in San Antonio, said he’s Spanish, French and German from his father’s side and Tarahumara, an Indigenous people from Mexico, from his maternal grandfather.
He identifies as Chicano and marks that on census forms. It’s an identity reflected in his passion for lowrider cars, which his father showed him how to build — and which inspired Chávez’s eventual career as a mechanical engineer.
On the race question, he also checks off “white,” a nod to his family nickname, “El Güero,” a reference to his light skin. Nonetheless, Chávez solidly proclaimed, “I have no doubt that I am mestizo.” The complexity of his identity allows him to be an academic executive and a lowrider fanatic, he said. “You are one and you are the other,” he said.
On the other hand, Cindy Medina, 47,-a genealogist from Texas, feels more comfortable embracing her European roots, which she attributes to her father’s lineage.
She manages the New Spain and Mexico Facebook page, where she posts about Spanish, Mexican and Indigenous history.
Medina is of Mexican descent, but she’s more likely to promote her Spanish heritage when she’s speaking to “Anglos,” she said.
“With white people, I push it. They think they are European. Well, I’m European and have been for longer,” she said, explaining the history of the Spanish colonial settlers who inhabited a wide swath of what is now the U.S. Southwest and West. Medina’s efforts have at times put her at odds with relatives who identify as Chicano, she said.
“As Mexican Americans, as Spanish Americans, we must understand each other. We are the ones with the history,” Medina said. “I’m not going to let someone else tell me otherwise.”
Embracing Blackness — amid racism’s legacy
Race is still the biggest factor in the way many Latinos see themselves — and the way others see them.
Fifty-seven percent of Hispanic adults the Pew Research Center surveyed last year said skin color shapes their daily life experiences, and 62% said they believe having darker skin hurts their ability to get ahead in the U.S.
Massachusetts resident Anne Hernández, 46, a Black Dominican, recalled a recent conversation with her son, a high school junior who is half Haitian, about where he was thinking of applying to college.
There were “so many states” where he didn’t want to be, he told her, on account of his color. “It was so painful to hear him say that,” she said. “He belongs wherever he wants to be, but people are going to make him feel like he doesn’t.”
As much as she warns her son about the difficulties he may encounter, Hernández, who said she has “never had a problem with being Black,” said she strives to be an example, instilling racial and cultural pride in her family.
When her son is asked about his background, he doesn’t say just “American,” even though he was born in the U.S., Hernández said. “He says Dominican and Haitian. I love that he does that.”
There are about 6 million Afro Latinos in the U.S., about 12% of the adult Latino population.
There are more people of African descent in Latin America and the Caribbean than in the U.S., about 200 million compared to 47 million, “and people are still asking if we’re Black,” said Yvette Modestin, a Black Panamanian who founded the organization Encuentro Diaspora Afro in Boston 25 years ago.
Zapata, the genealogist from Alabama, said he got backlash from people who refused to acknowledge Latinos’ Black heritage after he posted about his 52 African ancestors on TikTok. Some followers were offended and even accused him of being incorrect, Zapata said.
Speaking of the terms "Latinidad" and "Afro Latino," Modestin said: “We have to acknowledge that Latinidad in this country leans into whiteness. As long as that continues to happen, then we will constantly be in a struggle to bring these two terms together.”
Norma Duckworth, who is Mexican American, is married to an African American man. She and her family recently had to move to a different suburb in Wisconsin after a traumatic incident with a “hatefully racist” neighbor, who called her son a racial slur.
“People do look at you differently,” said Duckworth, “because you married somebody that's out of your own ethnic background.”
From making tamales during the holidays to celebrating her daughter’s quinceañera, she and her husband have been adamant about passing their respective cultures down to their children.
But that doesn’t stop others, said Duckworth’s daughter Aliah, 18, from pressuring mixed-race people like her to pick a side.
“I never understood why. If you are two things, why do you have to pick one?” said Aliah, who considers herself biracial.
The term "Afro Latino" resonates with her, Aliah said, because it mixes “both of the terms of what I am.”
For later generations of Latinos and those who are mixed, claiming “their Latino identity will be an active choice they make,” said Krogstad of the Pew Research Center. “Expressing their Latino identity will require a certain amount of work and a certain amount of pride in their background.”
Richard Abraham Rugnao, who is half Mexican American and half Filipino, started making that “active choice” at age 23 when he began working for the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Los Angeles. Growing up, “being Latino” wasn’t celebrated, he said.
The job “really lit a fire in me — it began to shift my perspective around my own heritage,” said Rugnao, 51. It also helped him better understand why his Mexican mother, who lived in a migrant camp in California as a child, marched with César Chávez in the 1960s.
In Arizona, Julianna Schrader, 18, embraces her mixed Brazilian German background, despite being perceived as only white. Brazil, colonized by the Portuguese, isn’t a Spanish-speaking country, but it is in Latin America.
“I equally identify as Latino and white,” said Schrader, a freshman at the University of Arizona, who credits her first-generation Brazilian mother for sharing her culture at home. Schrader often finds herself needing to help people “talk more accurately about me.”
People’s shifting racial and ethnic experiences have been defying the terms and categorizations long used to describe Latinos – so much so that Karin Orvis, the U.S. chief statistician, a position at the Office of Management and Budget, is revising race and ethnicity standards federal agencies, including the Census Bureau, use to describe people.
That is particularly crucial for Latinos, an ethnic group that has found “a certain comfort” in navigating their identity in a fluid way, Krogstad said.
“It's not that unusual, especially here in the United States,” Krogstad said. “That fluidity is a very American feature.”
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