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'Latino' is only part of the story

OPINION

  • Daniela Garcia
Daniela Garcia (RedEye )
April 19, 2012|By Daniela Garcia, For RedEye

Can you guess my ethnicity?

Go ahead and cheat: Take a look at my picture next to this column. My name also should serve as a clue. My mom is fair-skinned and originally from central Mexico, while my dad is a dark-skinned native Texan. I grew up on the border of two countries and speak both English and Spanish.

So I'll ask again: What am I?

If you said Latina, you'd be mostly right. If you said Hispanic, you'd be mostly wrong. These are two terms that have been used to describe someone of my ethnicity in an interchangeable manner for as long as I can remember. Both are as similar as they are different, depending on whom you ask. And if you ask me, I prefer Latina.

Here's the deeper question: Are those labels outdated?

According to the results of a recent Pew Research Center study of native and foreign-born Latinos—here defined as people who trace their roots to Spanish-speaking countries—51 percent said they most often identify themselves by their family's country of origin. Only 24 percent said they prefer pan-ethnic labels such as Latino or Hispanic. In addition, 69 percent also went on to say that all Latinos living in the U.S. have various different cultures rather than a common culture.

And why wouldn't we? Even though the Spanish language is the primary foundation that unites Latinos, we're all from different countries and thus different cultures that should each be individually represented. You don't see the English speakers in Ireland firing up their barbecues for the Fourth of July, do you?

I'll use myself as an example—a U.S.-born woman with a culturally Mexican background and childhood who now has the lifestyle and POV of a liberal American. Growing up the way I did allowed me to be equal parts Mexican and American, so I've always identified with both. When I'm not describing myself as Latina, I'll say I'm Mexican-American. My culture is a significant part of who I am and how I see myself not just as a minority in the U.S., but on a day-to-day basis.

I've definitely used the terms "Latino" and "Hispanic" in the past when trying to group together anyone of Spanish or Latin American descent. Accepting the term Hispanic—either alongside Latino or in lieu of it—has let me participate in national organizations and won me scholarships. So there are certain advantages to accepting either word.

But the thing is, neither one is really a "one size fits all" label for the country's biggest minority group. While I won't exactly be offended if someone assumes I'm Mexican, I have friends and co-workers who are discouraged to claim their status as Latino or Hispanic because it often leads people to assume the same of them, when they're actually from Cuba or Ecuador.

I can't say that both Latinos and non-Latinos will stop using these terms anytime soon or even that they should. The labels are helpful tools, but it's important to remember how significant national and cultural pride is for all Latinos.

You might have made assumptions about my ethnicity at the beginning of this column. All I ask is that you do the opposite of that: Assume nothing about Latinos and where their families are from. Instead, ask questions. The answers you get probably will surprise you.

DANIELA GARCIA IS A REDEYE SPECIAL CONTRIBUTOR.

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