Shut up, you stupid Mexican!
The words spewed from the mouth of a pale, freckle-faced boy, taunting me on our school playground. More than three decades later, I remember only my reply. Stupid Peruvian, I pointed out, wagging my finger.
My family had emigrated from Lima to Northern California a few years earlier, so my nationality was a point of fact (whereas my stupidity remains a matter of opinion). The response so confused my classmate that my first encounter with prejudice ended as quickly as it started. Recess resumed.
Today, my grade-school preoccupation with nationality feels quaint. Peruvian or Mexican – does it even matter? Were all Hispanics now.
And dont call us stupid. Ever since the 2012 election, when the Hispanic vote helped propel President Barack Obama (71 percent) over Mitt Romney (27 percent), Hispanics have become coveted, exciting, DREAMy. When politicians ride Hispanic ancestry to presidential short lists and convention keynote slots, when a stalemated Congress has a shot at immigration reform because Democrats need to keep us and Republicans need to woo us, and when Univision beats NBC in prime-time ratings, you know that Americas 51 million Hispanics are officially marketable, clickable, unignorable.
The attention is nice, I admit. But theres an odd twist: Its not evident what being Hispanic truly means, and most Hispanics, it turns out, dont even identify with the term.
Is being Hispanic a matter of geography, as simple as where you or your ancestors came from? Is it the language you speak or how well you speak it? Is it some common culture? Or is it just a vaguely brown complexion and a last name ending in a, o or z? Politicians build Hispanic-voter outreach operations, businesses launch marketing campaigns to attract Hispanic super-consumers, yet depending on whom you ask – politicians, academics, journalists, activists, researchers or pollsters – contradictory definitions and interpretations emerge.
If all ethnic identities are created, imagined or negotiated to some degree, American Hispanics provide an especially stark example. As part of an effort in the 1970s to better measure who was using what kind of social services, the federal government established the word Hispanic to denote anyone with ancestry traced to Spain or Latin America.
The term is a U.S. invention, explains Mark Hugo Lopez, associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center. If you go to El Salvador or the Dominican Republic, you wont necessarily hear people say they are Latino or Hispanic.
According to a 2012 Pew survey, only about a quarter of Hispanic adults say they identify themselves most often as Hispanic. About half say they prefer to cite their familys country of origin, while one-fifth say they use American.
The Office of Management and Budget defines a Hispanic as a person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race – about as specific as calling someone European.
There is no coherence to the term, says Marta Tienda, a sociologist and director of Latino studies at Princeton University. For instance, even though its officially supposed to connote ethnicity and nationality rather than race – after all, Hispanics can be black, white or any other race – the term has become a racialized category in the United States, Tienda says. Latinos have become a race by default, just by usage of the category.
Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza, listed its basic elements: Culturally, were bound by language, a common affection for Spanish – even though we learn English. Strong faith, strong family, strong sense of community. These are values we hold in common.
Sergio Bendixen, a Miami-based strategy consultant on Hispanic politics and media, agrees that a culture exists but defines it entirely differently. Its not really language or the Catholic Church, or that we come from this country or that, he said. It is a culture that gives tremendous weight to human relationships and the celebration of life; you are free to show your emotion, more than suppress your emotion. That is what really unites all Hispanics.
If most Hispanics are united in something, though, its a belief that they dont share a common culture. The Pew Hispanic Center finds that nearly seven in 10 Hispanics say they comprise many different cultures rather than a single one. But when journalists, researchers or the federal government talk about Hispanics, Lopez acknowledges, they talk about a single group.
Even the Spanish language is losing some of its power as a cultural marker. About 80 percent of U.S. Hispanics say they read or speak Spanish very well or pretty well, according to Pew, but only 38 percent claim it as their primary language.
If language or race or a common culture arent enough to define or unite us, perhaps politics can help.
A stark vision of a Hispanic political identity emerged from former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who suggested to ABC News that Sen. Ted Cruz, a Cuban American and conservative Republican from Texas, should not be defined as a Hispanic because he doesnt support immigration reform.
(Soon afterward, Richardson told Fox News it was a misunderstanding.)
Yes, the notion of a political litmus test for Hispanic identity seems bizarre. But Richardson made clear how, in the political world, that identity has evolved from a broad ethnic and cultural category to include an implied liberal sensibility.
A 2012 Pew survey found that immigration reform was not the key issue for registered Hispanic voters.
When asked what subjects they considered extremely important, Hispanics rated education, the economy, health care and even the budget deficit before immigration.
Not that different from the rest of America.
There is one moment when assuming the Hispanic label feels right, even urgent: when the political debates over immigration turn ugly, when talk of self-deportation and racial-profiling laws and anchor babies permeates campaigns, distinctions and nuances seem to dissipate.
When one of us is under attack, we identify, we come together, Murguia says. When one of us is singled out because of their accent, their skin color, our people come together out of a sense of justice. People say, That can be me.
This is why the anti-Hispanic sentiment that has emerged in some quarters of American politics is self-defeating. It fosters unity among otherwise disparate peoples. It strengthens, even creates, the very identity it seeks to dislodge.