Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

How the Latino/Hispanic label still fails to stick

Spotted on a car window in L.A., February 2011
Spotted on a car window in L.A., February 2011
Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

It's been approximately four decades since the origin of the "Hispanic" ethnic identity category on census forms, later updated to "Hispanic, Latino or of Spanish Origin." And it's been argued that in the years since, while Hispanic/Latino is not a racial category, the term itself has forced a racialization of Latinos in spite of their being so culturally and racially diverse, they defy a cohesive definition.

It's the latter point that's driven home in a new Pew Hispanic Center report. As it turns out, all these years later, a majority of Latinos still prefer to buck a one-size-fits-all label, tending instead to identify by country of origin.

According to the Pew study, 51 percent of those surveyed said they most often identify themselves by their family's country of origin, while only 24 percent prefer to use a pan-ethnic label. And more than two-thirds described Latinos as having "different cultures rather than a common culture," according to a report summary.

For Latinos/Hispanics/lo que sea (which translates loosely to "whatever), this isn't a news flash. Even back when Geraldo Rivera was going on about how "the only difference among us Hispanics is the color of our beans," it was common knowledge that Mexicans have about as much in common with Dominicans as Cubans have with Argentines. Who eat pasta, by the way.

That said, residents and former residents of Latin America, and their descendants elsewhere, share common bonds that go far beyond their shared colonial history, religious history and language. On the language front, 82 percent of the respondents in the Pew study said they spoke Spanish, and most (95 percent) said it was important for future generations to do the same.

Some highlights from the report:

  • Latinos prefer their family’s country of origin over pan-ethnic terms.Half (51%) say that most often they use their family’s country of origin to describe their identity. That includes such terms as “Mexican” or “Cuban” or “Dominican,” for example. Just one-quarter (24%) say they use the terms “Hispanic” or “Latino” to most often to describe their identity. And 21% say they use the term “American” most often.

  • “Hispanic” or “Latino”? Most don’t care—but among those who do, “Hispanic” is preferred. Half (51%) say they have no preference for either term. When a preference is expressed, “Hispanic” is preferred over “Latino” by more than a two-to-one margin—33% versus 14%.

  • Most Hispanics do not see a shared common culture among U.S. Hispanics. Nearly seven-in-ten (69%) say Hispanics in the U.S. have many different cultures, while 29% say Hispanics in the U.S. share a common culture.

  • Most Hispanics don’t see themselves fitting into the standard racial categories used by the U.S. Census Bureau. When it comes to race, according to the Pew Hispanic survey, half (51%) of Latinos identify their race as “some other race” or volunteer “Hispanic/Latino.” Meanwhile, 36% identify their race as white, and 3% say their race is black.

Respondents were also split on whether they see themselves as "typical Americans." Forty-seven percent said they did, while the same number (which included a greater share of foreign-born Latinos) said they didn't. And while most who are immigrants said they would come to the U.S. all over again, more respondents said that family ties are stronger in Latin America.

The entire report can be downloaded here.