LOST IN THE STARS:
CHICANOS AND THE LATINO GALAXY
A dozen years ago I wrote:
Ideologically, Mexican American Chicanos say the term Hispanic [now Latino] diminishes their demo-graphic priority when “lumped” with other American Hispanic groups (all of which are considerably smaller than the Mexican American group). Those Mexican American Chicanos contend that this lumping suggests all U.S. Hispanic groups are equal in size and have passed through the same historical process in the United States, a suggestion not supported by the facts. Not all U.S. Hispanic groups have passed through the same historical process as Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans. The historical process of these two groups has been distinctive, not shared by “other” American Hispanic groups in the United States. A sizable number of Mexican Americans and all Puerto Ricans are American territorial minorities by virtue of conquest. For this reason, shrill groups of Mexican American Chicanos and Puerto Ricans have resented across the board applications of legal remedies (affirmative action, for one) for all U.S. Hispanics for historical discrimination they have not endured nor suffered. Militant members of these groups say that hiring a U.S. Hispanic of Peruvian descent, say, to head a major federal program intended to remedy discrimination against territorial Hispanics does not remedy discrimination suffered by Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans at the hands of Anglo-Americans–inasmuch as their conquest and for whom these legal remedies were originally enacted–if such remedies are applied across the board for all Hispanics since they are not members of the aggrieved groups.
–Hispanic Vista.com, October 24, 2003.
This concern looms larger now with the label “Latino” since the term also encompasses Brazilian Americans in terms of geography rather than just in terms of language—though demographically the Census Bureau does not include Brazilian Americans as Latinos. Nevertheless, the demographic group now identified as Latinos is reaching significant numbers.
Historically, the initial core of Hispanics in the U.S. population came from the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, later renamed New York after the British acquired it in 1664. Later the Hispanic Jews (Sephardim) who came with the Dutch colony contributed significantly to the colonial revolutionary efforts of 1776 and to the later prosperity of the country. In 1804 the Louisiana Purchase added a significant number of Hispanics to the American population. As did the acquisition of Florida in 1819. Later in the 19th century, in two swift “gains” within 50 years of each other, the United States “acquired” a sizable chunk of its Hispanic population.
Despite these acquisitions of Hispanics by the United States, the first “gain” was as a con-sequence of the U.S. war against Mexico (1846-1848) out of which came the Mexican Americans of California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming. No one is sure of the numbers of ”Mexicans” who came with the dismembered territory (almost half of Mexico’s domain) but figures range from 150,000 on the low side to as many as 3.5 million (including Hispanicized Indians).
The second “gain” of Hispanics occurred as a result of the U.S. war with Spain (1898) out of which came the Puerto Ricans, Filipinos, Guamanians, Virgin Islanders, and the first wave of Cubans (though Cubans had been emigrating to the American colonies first then the United States since the 17th century. In 1917 Cuba was cut loose by the United States. The figures for these groups range variously as well. But the point is that American His-panics have been part of the United States historically since its beginning.
In both the U.S. war with Mexico and the U.S. war with Spain, the United States “came” to the Hispanics, the Hispanics did not come to the United States. They were already on their land which the United States appropriated from them as spoils of war. In both cases, Hispanics who came with the conquered territories were chattels of war. Unfortunately, Americans have tended to think of Hispanics in the United States as newly arrived and to confuse them with Hispanic Americans, the 400 million who populate the Spanish-language countries of the American hemisphere.
Current Hispanic population of the United States
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the total population of the United States in 2015 is about 325 million. The count for the Hispanic population of the United States is roughly 55 million, not counting the almost 5 million Puerto Ricans on the island. That would bring the Hispanic population of the U.S. to almost 60 million. Per the possibility of an under-count, some Hispanic demographers suggest that the total Hispanic population—not counting undocumented Hispanic workers—would be closer to 65 million. That’s a population of significant proportion—about 20% of the American population. The figures vary depending on who’s doing the math. But the result is that about 1 out of 5 Americans is Hispanic.
Per the U.S. Census Count of 2010 the Mexican origin population grew by 54% and ac-counts for about two-thirds of U.S. Hispanics (66%), from 32 to 40 million. This means that two out of three U.S. Hispanics are Mexican Americans. Not counting Puerto Rico, Puerto Ricans make up almost 14% of U.S. Hispanics with almost 4 million of them in the continental U.S. and almost 4 million of them on the is¬land of Puerto Rico. Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans (counting Puerto Rico) make up almost 80% of the U.S. Hispanic population. In other words, 4 out 5 U.S. Hispanics are Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans. The almost 2.5 million Cuban Americans in the United States, most of them in Florida, make up 5% of U.S. Hispanics for a total of 85% (Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Cuban Americans).
Latinos, about 9 million of them with roots in Latin America make up the balance of U.S. Hispanics—15%. In other words, 1 out of 4 U.S. Hispanics is Latino (more or less), that is, from countries other than Mexico, Puerto Rico, or Cuba. There are other U.S. Hispanic groups, statistically not significantly as large as Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Cuban Americans, groups from the Caribbean, Central and South America, and groups like Sephardic Americans (Hispanic Jews), Pacific Islanders like Guamanians with Hispanic roots, and American Filipinos who are not counted as Latinos but should be since Spain had a longer presence in the Philippines than in Mexico. They are numerous in the aggregate but not as individual groups like Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans. Some of those groups (like Salvadorans and Dominicans) are reaching the size of Cuban Americans and deserve the attention that demographic size deserves.
Essentially, American Hispanics may be sorted into five groups: (1) Mexican Americans, many of whom identify themselves as Chicanos, an ideological designation that identifies their generation, (2) Puerto Ricans, some of whom identify themselves as Boricuas, (3) there are U.S. Hispanics who identify themselves as Hispanos (found mostly in New Mexico many of whom identify themselves as Manitos and are counted as Mexican Americans; in Texas a vast number if not most Mexican Americans refer to themselves as Tejanos; and in California, many Hispanic Californians who are descendants of the founding families in both Baja and Northern California refer to themselves as Californianos rather than Mexicans, (4) Cuban Americans, and (5) Latinos–-Hispanics from coun¬tries other than Mexico, Cuba, Spain, and Puerto Rico.
A recent PEW Hispanic Center Report, When Labels Don’t Fit, explained that “only about one-quarter (24%) of Hispanic adults say they most often identity themselves by “Hispanic” or “Latino,“ adding that “about half (51%) say they identify themselves most often by their family’s country or place of origin—using such terms as Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Salvadoran of Dominican.”
Origin of the term “Hispanic”
What is the term “Hispanic”? What does it mean? Where does it come from? Why is it used to identify particular peoples of the Americas? Is the term “Hispanic” the same as “Latino”? Both the terms “Hispanic” and “Latino” have been used for some time. More recently, however, the revivified term “Latino” has resonated with contemporary American Hispanics, many of whom perceive the term “His¬panic” as a label imposed on them by the bureaucracy of the U.S. Census Bureau. Actually, the term “Hispanic” cropped up in the early Spanish colonial period to designate persons with a biological tie to a Spaniard. In Spanish the term was “Hispano.” Later, the term evolved into “Hispano- American¬o” to emphasize that Hispanos were also Americans since they were of the Americas. Historically, the Uni-ted States appropriated that term for its own identity so that few Americans realize that all the populations of the Americas are Americans.
The word “Hispanic” is one of those large rubrics like the word Catholic or Protestant. By itself, the word refers to all Hispanics (persons whose heritage derive from historical origins in Hispania– Roman name for Spain), attesting to a common denominator, conveying information that the individual is an off-spring or descendant of a cultural, political or ethnic blending which included in the beginning at least one Spanish root either biological or linguistic or cultural. That means a Mexican Indian with no Spanish “blood” (as we understand that term) in him or her, but who speaks Spanish and has amalgamated, internalized, or assimilated the evolutionized Spanish culture of Mexico is considered an Hispanic just as an Indian of the United States who speaks English and has amalgamated, internalized, or assimilated the evolutionized Anglo culture of the United States is considered to be an American though in the case of American Indians they are Americans both by priority (they were here first) and by fiat (the United States made them Americans by colonization and later by law).
Talking about people in terms of labels can be misleading. For example, a person may be an Hispanic in terms of cultural, national or ethnic roots. Nationally Colon (Columbus) was a Spaniard though born in Genoa when it was part of the Spanish empire. Werner Von Braun (father of the American space program) was born in Germany and became an American citizen after his relocation to the United States from Nazi Ger¬many. In Argentina there are Hispanics who have no “Spanish blood” but who, nevertheless consider them-selves Hispanics, speak Argentine Spanish and are fluent in Italian or German, the languages of their immigrant fore¬bears to that country.
Put another way, the term “Hispanic” is comparable to the term Jew which describes the religious orientation of people who may be ethnically Russian, Polish, German, Italian, English, etc. There are Chinese Jews, Ethiopian (Falashan) Jews, Indian Jews, et al.
So too the term “Hispanic” describes people by linguistic orientation (Spanish speakers from countries whose principal or national language is Spanish). In the Americas there are more speakers of Spanish than English. These may be Mexicans, Nicaraguans, Cubans, Venezuelans, Chileans, Argentines, et al. Additionally, there are blended Hispanics often identified as Indo-Hispanics and Afro-Hispanics, Asian-Hispanics (including Filipinos) and a congeries of other mixtures.
There are Hispanics who identify themselves as Black and many who identify themselves as White. There is an array of Chinese Hispanics, Lebanese Hispanics, Pakistan Hispanics, Hindu Hispanics, Jewish Hispanics (Sephards) et al.
This all points to the fact that Hispanics are far from a homogeneous group. In the main, though, their common characteristics are language (Spanish or a derivative version of Spanish as well as a distinctively derivative version of English oftentimes called Spanglish (see Ortego “On Spanglish” in Language: A Reader for Writers by the author, Oxford University Press, 2013) and religion (most are Catholic), though there is a growing number of Hispanic Protestants). There are other lesser characteristics as well.
The point of this commentary is that no one term can adequately identify or encompass the
group I’ve described herein. At best, we can agree on a term in keeping with the realities of the group. The term Latino doesn’t fit all the realities of the group. An important reality (and perhaps the most significant) is that Mexican Americans/Chicanos comprise two-thirds of American Latinos. When lumped into that apperceptive mass of Latinos, awareness about the population size of Mexican Americans/Chicanos diminishes. Oddly, then, Mexican Americans/Chicanos become just another Latino group with the 21 other Latino groups in the American hemisphere. In this case, size matters.
More importantly, though, is the historical presence of Mexican Americans/Chicanos in the United States. With Puerto Ricans, Mexican Americans are an aggrieved group whose ancestors became Americans as a vanquished and subjugated people—the Conquest Generation. This is not the case with the remaining Latino groups. They did not endure at the slings and arrows conquest and its apodictic strictures; they did not subsequently endure historic apartheid, public vehemence, and judicial discrimination as did Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans.
This is not a diminution of the American experience of the American Latinos. Current racial and discriminatory manifestations against Latinos today in the United States may bear similar characteristics to the racial and discriminatory manifestations endured by Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans of yore, but the historical experience of conquest and diaspora is not theirs. This is why I eschew the term “Latino” in favor of the term “Hispanic” though I favor the term “Mexican American” or “Chicano.”
Copyright 2015 by Felipe de Ortego y Gasca
Scholar in Residence (Cultural Studies, Critical Theory, Public Policy), Western New Mexico University. Book cover images used under “fair use” proviso of copyright law. Street scene and population chart copyrighted by Barrio Dog Productions Inc. All other photos in the public domain.