By Grace Flores-Hughes
It’s that time of the year when celebrations are held throughout the country to herald the accomplishments of Hispanic Americans.
But, it’s also the time of the year when persons of Hispanic origin revisit the frequently asked question of whether they prefer to be identified by the term Latino or Hispanic.
Last week when I attended the signing of the book Latino Americans by Ray Suarez at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., one of the attendees, a young Peruvian woman, asked that very question of the author.
Since Suarez didn’t address the question of “Latino or Hispanic?” in his much talked about book, he turned the microphone over to me. I’ve been cast as the person that coined the term Hispanic for the federal government ever since the Washington Post interviewed me on the subject in 2003.
Since then, I’ve received numerous comments from people all over the country about their feelings one way or another so needless to say I am a most enlightened individual on the subject matter.
After explaining my position on choosing the term Hispanic over Latino, I was surrounded by several Hispanics wanting to learn more. I will do the same in this article and hopefully put to rest many of the questions frequently asked about the subject.
Latino or Hispanic? It’s Hispanic for the Federal Government
First, let me be clear that I didn’t invent the word, “Hispanic,” that word has been in existence for centuries. But I do take credit for helping coin the term, Hispanic for the federal government.
It all started with an education report on Native Americans and Hispanics that was released in the early 1970’s by the then Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW).
Rather than focus on the recommendations, the report’s advisory group instead focused on the terms used to describe the two minority groups, which they deemed unacceptable.
The Native Americans, for example, were called Indians and fearing confusion with those of East Asian Indian background rejected the term outright, not to mention they referred to themselves as the first Native Americans.
Hispanics were referred to as Chicano, Mexican-American, Cuban and Borinquen/Puerto Rican. The Hispanic advisors demanded that a more universal term that encompassed all Hispanic subgroups, including Central and South Americans, be adopted.
Back in the 1970s, no entity, be it public or private sector, had a uniform way of collecting data on its population, thus the timing of the complaints from the Native Americans and Hispanics was fortuitous at best.
Since funding for the education report came from HEW, it fell upon its Secretary Caspar G. Weinberger to establish an interdepartmental Ad Hoc Committee to develop racial and ethnic definitions to help in the department’s data collection activities.
The Ad Hoc Committee was divided into task forces made up of Asian, Caucasian/White, Black, Hispanic and Native American civil servants.
I was the only Mexican-American on the Hispanic Task Force but was joined by two colleagues of Puerto Rican and Cuban descent.
Six months of discussions on ‘Latino or Hispanic?’
Since it appeared that our recommendations could impact other data gathering activities throughout the federal government, the Ad Hoc Committee membership was expanded to include representatives from the Census Bureau and the Office of Management & Budget.
Incidentally, the Ad Hoc Committee’s racial/ethnic categories were adopted by the Census Bureau and with slight modifications, are still used by the federal government and the private sector.
The Hispanic Task Force met for almost six months, entertaining terms such as Spanish-speaking, Spanish-surnamed, Latin American, Latino and Hispanic. I became focused on those persons of Spanish origin that were historically discriminated against.
For years I witnessed as these persons were denied their voting and their housing rights, and their educational and job opportunities pulled away in favor of others.
The only way to ensure that these people weren’t continued to be forgotten and dismissed was to show statistics that proved their low standing in America’s social strata.
To this end, the term Hispanic seemed the one that would be inclusive of all persons of Spanish descent and which in turn would count this population group accurately. To complicate matters, there were those jumping on the “Hispanic bandwagon, “ that should have known better.
For example, in the job market, there were those with Spanish surnames or were born in Latin America but weren’t of Hispanic origin getting hired over those that were historically discriminated against.
Since data was scarce, those that did the hiring didn’t know whether the person they were bringing on board was actually of Hispanic origin. Thus, to ward against this type of folks taking away from the ones that deservedly needed help, the term Hispanic again seemed the logical choice.
I felt then and still do, that Latino only serves to askew data because if taken literally, the term includes Italians and other Europeans that consider themselves to be of Latin origin.
Never mind that the term doesn’t help to identify and protect those historically discriminated in this country due to their Spanish origin.
Let’s face it, the people in America of Spanish origin have been discriminated against because of the color of their skin and their Spanish sounding names, nothing can change that except laws but laws unfortunately don’t necessarily change hearts and minds.
So in order for people of Spanish origin to better share in the American dream, we should have in place an accurate accounting of their needs and accomplishments, and the only way to account for this, is to trace their origin beginning with the Spanish influence that has long been a blessing and a curse, to their rightful place in America.