Saturday, May 30, 2009

Latino or Hispanic?

Sonia Sotomayor - President’s Obama nominee to the Supreme Court - (in case you have lived in a cave in the last 2 weeks) has been accused of racism by some conservative pundits - Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh to name the most famous ones - for saying:

"I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life,".

As expected the Republican party is divided between its most extreme wing and its more pragmatic members who understand quite well that the GOP needs the Hispanic vote.. well, excuse my French, the Latino vote…. Well, actually which one is it?

Obviously, Sotomayor refers to herself as “Latina” and while the L.A.Times talks about the “Latino populationthe New-York Times uses the word “Hispanic”. What to make of it? Slate had an enlightening article (Is Hispanic the Same Thing as Latina ?)on this topic :

Hispanic is an English word that originally referred to people from Spain and eventually expanded to include the populations of its colonies in South and Central America. Latino is a Spanish word—hence the feminine form Latina—that refers to people with roots in Latin America and generally excludes the Iberian Peninsula.

While both terms are accepted, they seem to carry different connotations for different people. For some, “Hispanic” is too “Euro-centric”, while for others “Latino, Latina” is not gender-neutral enough.
Well, it gets even more complicated, if you start digging into the history of labeling the Latino/Hispanic population in the U.S.:

In the 1970 U.S. census, for example, people were asked whether they were Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American, or "other Spanish." (The question caused much confusion because many Americans from the middle or southern regions of the United States identified themselves as "Central or South American.")
The word Hispanic was not used until the 1980 census, after the Office of Management and Budget imposed rules standardizing ethnicity statistics. (The change came after a federal committee on minority education complained about the lack of useful data.)
In 1997, the OMB changed its classification to "Hispanic or Latino," explaining that "Hispanic is commonly used in the eastern portion of the United States, whereas Latino is commonly used in the western portion.".
Today the U.S. Census Bureau makes no distinction between the two terms and defines Hispanics and Latinos as “persons who trace their origin or descent to Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Spanish speaking Central and South America countries, and other Spanish cultures.".

Now of course, as Slate pointed out, what about if you’re from Brazil? You are from South America but not Spanish-speaking…. Ideally, they should be called Luso-Americans and evenhough they may be referred to as “Latinos” they are certainly not “Hispanics”.
In the end, classifying people only makes sense as much as it is about how people perceive themselves or are perceived by others.

It is one problem that the French certainly do not have since in France it is illegal for the state to categorize people according to their alleged ethnic origins or their religious membership. The idea is to avoid possible discrimination but it is also is in line with the non-essentialist French Republican ideal based on the right of the soil and not on affiliation (or bllod right) as in Germany.
This egalitarian approach may be great on paper but it has not stopped racism, and in fact, it may qomewhat make matters worse as it has made it harder for the French to face the reality of racism in France (particularly for people of Arab or African descent). Getting rid of the thermometer has never cured a disease.
Recently, the French government has considered changing the law but that has created so much controversy in France that I don’t think it’s going to happen soon. Old taboos die hard….


At 21:29, Blogger bartleby said...

Ethnic labelling is such a tricky business: I remember my modestly-achieving cousins in Los Angeles campaigning hard to get some equal opportunity benefits on their side to ensure acceptance in UCLA. Having a Spanish grandmother, they had to battle with the State of California, who tried to deny them this privilege on the grounds of a wildly imaginative distinction between "Hispanic" (read: of Latin American ancestry and therefore deserving of help, regardless of actual income or scholastic merit) and "Spanic" (Come again? i.e. of SPANISH origin and therefore deserving no particular privileges). Affirmative action spawns such wacko situations, with the best of intentions. In the end, the State backed down, getting no support from dictionaries on their "Spanic" trip, and my cousins got into college and actually did pretty well.


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