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Voices: How We Became Hispanic

Why Hispanic or Latino is so common today goes back to what was happening in our communities over 50 years ago, says scholar G. Cristina Mora.
Sociology professor G. Cristina Mora with her family.  Mora is the author of "Making Hispanics: How Activists, Bureaucrats and Media Constructed A New American."
Sociology professor G. Cristina Mora with her family. Mora is the author of "Making Hispanics: How Activists, Bureaucrats and Media Constructed A New American." Courtesy G. Cristina Mora

BERKELEY, CA -- My daughter, a half-Mexican half-Cuban bundle of laughter, was born last year and her birth certificate says “Hispanic.” Her school forms will also all likely say Latino/Hispanic, and when she goes to college she will likely join Latino/Hispanic clubs and perhaps – if she is so lucky – she might benefit from Latino scholarships. Her drivers’ license will say Hispanic, and she will likely identify herself as Hispanic/Latino on all of her census forms. Indeed, she will grow up in an era that takes the idea of Latinidad for granted.

Now that “Hispanic” Heritage Month is upon us this month it might be useful to reflect on just how the term came about.

Sociology professor and author G. Cristina Mora's daughter. Like many U.S. Latinos, her parents are from different nationalities; her father is Cuban and her mother is Mexican-American.Courtesy G. Cristina Mora

In my recently published book, Making Hispanics: How Activists, Bureaucrats, and Media Constructed a New American, I show that the idea of Hispanic/Latino panethnicity was carefully developed. In the late 1960s Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and Cubans in the U.S. for the most part inhabited different worlds and tended to have different political interests and cultural institutions. Many even resisted the idea of coming together. This changed slowly as Mexicans and Puerto Ricans realized that their common fights for social equality ultimately hinged on the availability of data.

At the time Chicano and Puerto Rican activists were busy organizing and bringing attention to issues of urban poverty, discrimination, and bilingual education. They both realized, however, that they couldn’t access government anti-poverty grants because they lacked the data to substantiate their claims. At the time the US Census Bureau categorized these groups mainly as white and lumped their data together with that of Irish- and Italian-Americans. So census reports on poverty, for example, were mainly about black and white differences and the conditions of Latinos were obscured.

It was only after getting Congressional and White House support that Mexican and Puerto Ricans together pressured the Bureau to change its practices. After much negotiation the Bureau came up with an umbrella “Hispanic” category. Labels like “Latin” “Latin American” and “Raza” were considered, but officials settled on the “Hispanic” term because it was seen as attached to a more American identity rather than a foreign one.

It's been over 50 years since Mexican and Puerto Rican groups in the U.S. realized their common fights for social equality ultimately hinged on the availability of data and worked to get Congressional and White House support to obtain it.

The Census Hispanic data was a boon for activists and media alike. Today's Spanish-language network Univision was able to grow by using Census figures and developing some of the nation’s first Hispanic marketing and consumer reports. Moreover, Univision began working with activists and Census officials to help popularize the new category. In 1980 the network even developed a telethon where they invited celebrities and activists on stage to tell people about the importance of marking oneself as “Hispanic” on the census.

Over time more state, civic, and media organizations began adopting the label. In rural areas and states like Texas and New Mexico, the term “Hispanic” was used, but in more urban areas the term “Latino” caught on much quicker. Academics began debating the political meanings of these terms, with some arguing that “Hispanic” was more conservatively tied to Spain and that the term “Latino” was a more progressive signal of Latin American commonality. Over time, however, both of these terms became virtually synonymous as organizations and government agencies began using both interchangeably.

The growth and diversification of Latin American migration also helped to increase the popularity of the “Hispanic/Latino” terms. As places like “Little Havana” welcomed Nicaraguans, and “Spanish Harlem” became home to Dominicans, people began using the Hispanic/Latino terms to describe the new diverse nature of these communities.

These areas witnessed the growth of a new mixed, Latino population. As groups began to intermarry, the children of these unions began to more strongly identify as simply “Latino.”

As my daughter grows up and grapples with both the benefits and hardships of being a Latina in this country I hope she will keep the story of her community in mind. See, even though the idea of Latinos seems to be everywhere and a growing number of institutions are now after the Latino consumer and the Latino voter, I hope that she will remember that Latinidad is more than simply about dancing salsa, speaking Spanish, and eating spicy food.

I hope that my daughter will be conscious that the idea of Latino/Hispanic was actually rooted in an effort to work for social justice and political inclusion. Though we are a diverse community, many still grapple with disadvantage, discrimination and underrepresentation. All in all, I hope my daughter will embrace her Latinidad by being conscious of its roots in social justice and by continuing the cause of civil rights and political participation in America.

G. Cristina Mora is a an assistant professor of sociology at UC-Berkeley and the author of "Making Hispanics: How Activists, Bureaucrats and Media Constructed A New American."