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

More on Latinos and race: The rise of the Latino 'American Indian'

Car sticker seen on an L.A. freeway, February 2011
Car sticker seen on an L.A. freeway, February 2011
Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

A recent post highlighted a Migration Policy Institute article that explored the origin of the “Hispanic, Latino or Spanish Origin” category on census forms, and in the 40 years that Latinos have been asked to identify in terms of Spanish origin, the varying ways in which they have also come to identify in terms of race.

The "Hispanic or Latino" category is an ethnic category, not a racial one. In the 2000 census, slightly under half of the 35.2 million Latinos counted reported their race as white. The rest of the racial categories they can choose from may or may not apply. Not surprisingly perhaps, 43 percent of Latinos in 2000 identified themselves as “other race.”

But a fascinating piece in the New York Times this weekend reported a rise in the number of Latinos identifying themselves as "American Indian" in the 2010 census. From the story:

Seventy percent of the 57,000 American Indians living in New York City are of Hispanic origin, according to census figures. That is 40,000 American Indians from Latin America — up 70 percent from a decade ago.

The trend is part of a demographic growth taking place nationwide of Hispanics using “American Indian” to identify their race. The number of Amerindians — a blanket term for indigenous people of the Americas, North and South — who also identify themselves as Hispanic has tripled since 2000, to 1.2 million from 400,000.

A professor of Latin American history interviewed attributed this in part to shifting migration trends, with more recent immigrants having come from regions of Latin America with large indigenous populations, such as southern Mexico and Central America.

But the census shift, if slight, is significant not only in terms of who has settled here, but how Latinos who are already here perceive and identify themselves. A second-generation Mexican American woman, Nancy Perez, explained that her family decided to go with "American Indian" because "if you go back far enough, we are indigenous:”

“We felt that there were very limited options to identify with,” Ms. Perez, 32, said. “So out of the options available, that was the best one.”