Interview: Hispanic or Latino?

Marc L. Nash

1. How important is membership in that group to the person?

The membership I will refer to in this interview will be Colombian-American. At age 12 I was adopted to a single middle-age, white American woman who was a college professor. I grew up in small town USA near Ann Arbor, Michigan. I was the only “brown” skin person in town. I have been in the USA since December 1980, that’s 33 years without much contact with any Colombians or Hispanics. I even stopped speaking Spanish for nearly 10 years because there was not a single soul to practice my Spanish skills with. In this context, I lost my Colombian roots and tried to assimilate. It was in my college years in the 90s that I decided to become a Spanish teacher and revive my Colombian heritage. As a Spanish teacher, being Colombian has become very important. When meeting other Hispanics, I say I’m Colombian with a huge sense of pride; even though to Colombians living in Colombia I’m just a pseudo-Colombian or gringo.

2. What in particular is important?

To be Colombian became important to explain to others my origins, my skin hue, my place of birth and my accent, as well as to contrast myself from the other Hispanics. I’m of mixed race, Chibcha/Muisca (Indigenous) and of Spanish blood, which would make me a Mestizo. The terminology of the time in the USA was “Latin” and “Hispanic” but I couldn’t relate to it, nor did I understand it, so I took more pride in the specificity of my nationality. The only other Hispanics around at the time were mainly of Mexican ancestry, and I made sure to remind Anglosthat we were not the same people, that being a Colombian did not make me Mexican as many would label me even in jest. These two countries are in different continents and the only thing in common is the Spanish language and that both were part of the Spanish Empire.

3. What is a source of pride/positive about being in this group?

Later I learned that many value Colombian Spanish for its clarity, formality and for preserving the “purest” Spanish. Colombia, in particular Bogotá, has been dubbed as the “New Athens”—Land of philosophers and poets. Colombia also has a high literacy rate, 94%, which is high when compared to other Latin American countries. It is home to the legend of El Dorado, the illusive and mythical city of gold and the obsession of the Conquistadors and European explorers. In fact, half of Colombia’s flag is golden in reference to all the gold it had in the past.It’s also known for its emeralds, diamonds, coffee, flowers, fruits, flora and fauna. The pride of Colombia is its hard-working, thinking and educated people full of life known to be some of the happiest people under the sun. Colombia is known to be a true microcosm of Latin America for its geographical location: it’s Caribbean, Atlantic, Pacific, Equatorial, Andean, Amazonian, and the doorway to South and North America. Internationally renowned Colombian music is the Cumbia and the Vallenato. Colombia has managed to maintain one of the longest-standing democracies in Latin America. We take great pride in Gabriel García Márquez, Nobel of

Literature, artists Botero and Obregón, singers such as Shakira, Juanes, Carlos Vives, and scientist Manuel Elkin Patarroyo who is the first biochemist to develop the world’s first malaria vaccine. And of course Juan Valdez, the fictitious character who has appeared in advertisements for the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia since 1958, representing the “Finest Coffee” and the Colombian farmer.

4. What is less-desirable/negative of the group’s culture to this membership?

Colombia is still recovering from the social class revolts of the 50s-90s that are still in progress to lesser degrees. Unfortunately Colombia has a very inflexible cast system based on race, social class, and illustrious last names connected to the Spanish nobility of the colonial era -- the have and have nots -- the ruling aristocracy class against the masses, or vice versa. The masses, about 85% of the population, revolted against the oligarchy, which resulted in a terrible 50 years of civil war with no end, though things are more peaceful nowadays.Then to complicate matters, Colombia was the scapegoat and focus of Reagan’s and Bush’s Sr.presidencies with their “War on Drugs” policies. I recognize that Colombia had become a Narco-democracy and Narco-culture in the 70s-90s. There was a “cold war” between the USA and Colombia for nearly 25 years. The US put heavy embargos, decertification's, and revoked the visas of political leaders. Colombia became stereotyped with drug trafficking, cartels, powerful mafias, and the violence of the civil war. Pablo Escobar was the epitome of the many drug barons of the time.

5. How does that group membership affect:

a. Social life? Being able to converse with others Hispanics in Spanish is a plus. Being part of a broaderumbrella heritage term of Latin/Latino/Hispanic has its pros and cons. I have joined the ULP (United Latino Professionals), NYC Latino Professionals, and Sociedad Latina, among other Hispanic and Colombian affinity groups. In NYC, nearly 30% of the population is Hispanic, naturally this helps when socializing with these many people of such diverse cultures whose sole connection is the Spanish language, which makes us "Hispanic" (Spanish-speaking).

b. Career? Being a native Spanish speaker from Colombia has helped me when applying for Spanish teaching positions. Self-identifying as Hispanic/Latino/Latin has had some benefits when it came to diversity when seeking employment, or fulfilling some affirmative action quota might also have served to my advantage. I’m an active member of the People of Color Conference, so it has its perks to be a brown Mestizo or ethnic looking Colombian.

c. Housing/geographical locations? The diaspora of Colombians is everywhere, but mainly in the East coast of the USA, from Vermont all the way down to Florida, in particular NY and NJ. Chicago and the Southwest also have big pockets of Colombians.

d. Influence on movement in society, in larger community, or political activity? Colombian-Americans have joined grudgingly and at the same time embraced the more generic terms of Hispanic and Latino because there’s power in numbers. As Latinos in the US, we have become the biggest minority group with 18% of the US population, or nearly 60 million. Now politicians cater to us in Spanish.

Business, government and organizations recognize the power of the Hispanic market when instructions or advertisements are now provided in Spanish, as well as phone prompts.I heard that in the summer of 2013, the Spanish television network of Univision beat Fox in ratings, and is consistently ranked as the 4th most watched network in the United States. The competing Spanish network of Telemundo is giving Univision a fight for viewership in Spanish in the USA.

The fact that Spanish is the second language of the USA and that many Hispanics survive just fine without speaking English is a source of concern to our Anglo counterparts who are concerned with the “browning” of the United States. I have noticed a systematic trend by prominent Hispanic and Latino (Latin) educational organizations in promoting the advancement of Hispanic knowledge, and advocating bilingual education as a worthy cause. Many of these organizations recognize the need for Hispanic Americans to be taught in their parents’ native tongue as an appreciation of their culture, and teaching the whole student with a higher goal in mind—their future. Bilingual and bicultural is the future of the United States whether we like it or not, and Hispanics are very much involved in these movements and political activities. In 2012, 74% of Latinos voted for Obama.

6. What would that person like human services professionals to know about the group and its members?

That we rather be called by our country of origin since it’s more specific, in my case Colombian. Hispanic is the next heritage term of choice since the word takes pride in the Spanish language as Latino does not. Some Latinos have assimilated so well that they deny their Hispanicity, or don’t even care to speak Spanish after the second generation. The words “Hispanic” and“Latino” are not used much in the Spanish-speaking countries. To find Hispanics/Latinos, one has to come to the USA. They are inventions of the United States for governmental statistical purposes. In the Eastern US, Hispanic is preferred, and in the Southwest, Latino is preferred. Latino was imposed by the Chicanos though the media and Hollywood.

The LA Times started the term in the 90s because the blue collar “Chicano” had become too negative and soundly rejected by most Mexican Americans. Also, the majority of Hispanics in the USA are Native American (Indigenous), especially the 8 States of the Southwest that once belonged to Mexico. The US government does not want these "Latinos" to recognize their Native American race, another reason why the term Latino was imposed, as to separate them from the Native Americans of the United States. The Indian Reparations does not apply to Latinos.

Mexican Americans and Chicanos (of Mexican ancestry born in USA) compose 68% of the Hispanic population in the USA. It’s a term imposed by Hollywood in the Southwest as a replacement of Chicano. Latino from Chicano is the crisis of the Mexican American identity. Latino is a misleading and confusing term of identity of politics. What the majority wants, they get. In the census of 2000, the word Latino was used for the first time, alongside with Hispanic.

There’s a name dispute between Hispanic and Latino going on currently. I would recommend a human service worker to do a Wikipedia search of “Hispanic and Latino,” to see how these terms are loaded with variety of political meaning, depending on geography and history. Both Hispanic and Latino have nothing to do with race but heritage. Hispanics can be of any race. When I think of “Latino”, I thought it was Americans trying to turn the traditional word “Latin” into Spanish by adding the “o” at the end of an English word, similar to “no problemo.” Compare these two: Latin Lover vs. Latino Lover. Here we can see the words have different connotations.

Latino American Studies is not the same as Latin American Studies. Latino emphasizes the wanting to be part of the US by assimilation and disappearing in the melting pot,thus rejecting the Spanish language, nationality, race, origins, and becoming an American Latino by assimilation. Hispanics tend to embrace the Spanish language and feel connected to Latin America. Latino is loaded with negative connotations when used by non-Latino in the USA. To them, Latino implies a brown minority group, poor and coming from the Barrio or ghetto. Someone less educated, someone struggling within the USA society, a marginalized person wanting to be accepted and getting a part of the American pie through exploitation of cheap labor and low-end jobs.

I personally find Hispanic/Latino labeling or branding too generic, arbitrary and a simplistic way of tagging a group as diverse as Latin America. I feel these broad terms promote negative stereotypes. It cheapens the various national identities with one generic umbrella term. There are 24 Spanish speaking countries and the only thing we have in common is the language and that we were part of the Spanish Empire. The best comparison is when we call all the peoples from all the nations who were part of the British Empire as Anglos or Anglo-Saxons, and Hispanic being its counterpart for the Spanish Empire.

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