News and views from the award-winning author of the novels The Skinny Years, America Libre, House Divided and Pancho Land

Friday, September 28, 2007

Hispanic Heritage Month—An Identity in Question

If you’re a Hispanic voter, Democratic presidential candidate Bill Richardson has something personal he wants to share with you: He’s Hispanic, too. Don’t let his Anglo name fool you, the Governor of New Mexico insists. His mother is Mexican. And that, Richardson believes, makes him Hispanic. Or does it? With Hispanic Heritage Month upon us, it’s worthwhile to consider just what “Hispanic” really means.

Like Governor Richardson, some argue that being Hispanic is something passed along in your genes—even by one parent. Groups like the National Council of La Raza reinforce this attitude. (In Spanish, “La Raza” means The Race.) So it’s not surprising that Hispanics would be considered a separate race in many U.S. circles.

However, when you consider the extensive racial diversity of Spanish-speaking countries, it’s clear Hispanics do not fit into a tidy racial bucket. Like the United States, the nations of Latin America are composed of immigrants from all over the world, former slaves, and indigenous populations. It’s hard to fathom how anyone could lump Afro-Cuban salsa legend Celia Cruz, Salma Hayek, and Cameron Diaz into a single race. In fact, the U.S. Census Bureau clearly states that Hispanics may be “persons of any race.” Despite these obvious facts, the widespread misconception of a “Hispanic race” is still prevalent among many Americans—many of them Hispanic.

So if Hispanic is not a race, it’s a language group, right? Well, not exactly. According to the Pew Research Center, Spanish is the predominant language of most first-generation U.S. immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries. For second-generation Hispanic immigrants, who make up over 30% of today’s Hispanic population, English is their primary language and they use Spanish only at home. Among third-generation Hispanics, only 17% speak any Spanish at all. Yet the commonly-accepted definition of “Hispanic” includes anyone in the U.S. with ancestral roots in a Spanish-speaking nation, regardless of primary language.

OK, if we’ve ruled out race and language, then what does it mean to be Hispanic? We need to start by recognizing that “Hispanic” is an identity that exists only within the borders of the United States. Sadly, many of the world’s Spanish-speaking nations share a long history of conflict, animosity and disdain. Peru and Ecuador have fought three wars. Columbia and Venezuela have a long standing border feud. Mexicans look down on Guatemalans. Costa Ricans dislike Nicaraguans. The legendary hubris of Cubans and Argentines is widely resented. And Spaniards feel superior to all Latin Americans. However, these rifts vanish within the borders of the United States. Why? The short answer is ignorance.

In the minds of most mainstream Americans, people from Spanish-speaking countries are automatically relegated to second-class status as a “disadvantaged minority.” All vestiges of a unique national identity dissolve once they step on U.S. soil. Their economic background is assumed to be impoverished. Genetic differences magically disappear. Their ancestors may be from equatorial Africa, or from Europe, or the indigenous people of the Americas. It matters not. They are cast into a monolithic group of sub-standard “others” known as Hispanics. The oppressive weight of this fallacy eventually outweighs all former differences and forges a bond of solidarity among people who might not have otherwise been united. In truth, the Hispanic identity was conceived by the colossal misconception that all people from Spanish-speaking countries are the same. Not surprisingly, many people labeled Hispanic have come to embrace this identity.

So for me, Hispanic Heritage Month is a bittersweet event. Like the oft-neglected history of African Americans, the deeds of people from Spanish-speaking nations have frequently been obscured by the glare of chauvinism in the United States. The achievements of Spanish-surnamed Americans deserve our recognition. The history of Spanish-speaking countries merits our attention. Nonetheless it’s disturbing that even as we finally acknowledge this neglected heritage, we continue to perpetuate a myth of homogeneity about the richly diverse nations south of our borders that comprise the majority of the people in our hemisphere.

Raul Ramos y Sanchez