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

Self-identification v. what the Census wants to call Latinos

Or should it be
Or should it be "Hispanics for Obama?" A sign posted at a South Los Angeles campaign office before the November 2012 election.
Alice Walton/KPCC

Last August, the U.S. Census Bureau announced it had been experimenting with its questionnaires to create a better way of counting the people it asks  to identify on census forms as being of "Hispanic, Latino or Spanish Origin."

This could involve creating a mutually exclusive group or a category that combines race and ethnicity on census forms for 2020. The process has picked up steam as the bureau gathers public comment. But it's still a challenge to categorize such a diverse group of Americans. 

When the Pew Hispanic Center released a thought-provoking report last spring about the ways Latinos and/or Hispanics identify themselves, the resulting coverage sparked a national conversation about ethnic labels. The report pointed out that most survey respondents bucked pan-ethnic labels like "Latino" and "Hispanic," and preferred instead to identify by their families' countries of origin.

That means no picnic ahead for  the agency charged with counting and categorizing these individuals. The U.S. Census Bureau began using "Hispanic" in 1970 as an ethnic category by which people could self-identify. Eventually it morphed into "Hispanic, Latino or Spanish Origin.” But that's produced uneven results. Because it's an ethnic - not a racial - category,  people who check it must still say whether they are white, black, Native American, Asian, or any number of choices, including "some other race."

The process can be confusing, especially in the decades since 1970, as Latino/Hispanic has become an increasingly racialized category. Some people check "some other race" for lack of a better option; a growing number who identify ethnically as Latino/Hispanic have also been identifying on census forms as Native American.

Last year we asked readers and listeners how they identified, and it's a conversation worth continuing. KPCC's Take Two resumed it on the airwaves this morning.

We've also asked our audience to weigh in via our Public Insight Network. This time the questions are a little different, going beyond the preference for either "Latino" or Hispanic" and delving into how people describe their ethnic identity in more detail, or how their parents do so. For example: 

If you met someone on the street, how would you describe your ethnic or racial background to him or her?

Here are just a few of the audience responses to that one:

LatinoAmeriGringa, a word I came up with which describes the many people like myself. 

My father is from El Salvador; my mother is from Mexico.

Mexican American, Chicano or Tejano.

Mexican and white. I am in fact Mexican/4 types Native American/German/Spanish/and Scottish.


My parents are from Puerto Rico; my siblings and I were born in Ohio.



I'd say that I'm adopted from Colombia.

I often joke that "I'm the whitest Mexican you know" because I'm fair skinned and light eyed.

I wouldn't unless it came up in conversation. Usually people can't get past the tall thing. 

I would not feel that I had to.

A difficult group to categorize, you might say?  

On that note, several respondents added further comments. Radio personality and occasional contributor Wendy Carrillo, who identified herself as "Latino/Chicana/Salvadoran-American," wrote about how she feels current census forms need improvement:

Question 9, which asked on RACE was problematic. It only offered, White, Black / African American / Negro, types of Asian, American Indian / Alaskan Native and Other as write in. Even for "black Latinos" this was an issue as they are not "African American." I don't think I fall under ANY of these categories.

Poignant observations emerged from people who questioned the questions, especially as they apply to successive generations. Mary Jurovcik (who wrote "I often joke that 'I'm the whitest Mexican you know' because I'm fair skinned and light eyed) added this:

Within our multi-cultural nation, it is becoming more and more difficult to define our backgrounds. My children, for example, will still technically be Hispanic, though they will have little contact with my mother's native land.  And, does that history really have much influence on them so many generations down the line?  At what point does it no longer matter what our origin is?

The Census Bureau has a big job on its hands. Listen to the related Take Two segment here.