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Mon November 26, 2012
Within the Latino Community, Identities in Flux
We’re a nation that likes to check identity boxes — boxes like white, black, or Latino. But what happens when, as often occurs in the Latino community, you see yourself as having more than one identity? “For Latinos, it’s really a much deeper conversation,” says Maria Hinojosa, host of NPR’s Latino USA. “A recent poll [focused] on how Latinos like to self-identify — whether they call themselves Hispanic, Latino, or by country or origin.” Not to mention that in the 2010 Census, Hinojosa says, over half of Latinos identified solely as white.
Self-identification is only the beginning of the conversation. As Hinojosa points out, part of Latino identity comes from the way they are seen by others. “For many on the outside, we’re often just seen as Latinos, or as this bland kind of overall Hispanic,” she says. “And sometimes, from the outside, we’re even perceived by others as foreigners.”
Hinojosa is quick to point out that you cannot make generalizations about how Latinos view their identity. For some, their identity is a complex, emotionally charged equation. For others, the subject rarely comes up. For many, the question of identity is closely aligned with that of nationality — Hinojosa notes that Puerto Ricans, who are born American citizens, often face the dreaded task of explaining which country rules their identity.
PBS Senior Anchor Ray Suarez remembers one such conversation about his Puerto Rican identity. When chatting with an acquaintance, he recalls, “She [said], ‘Are you Puerto Rican?’ And I said yes — and she said, ‘From where?’ And I said Brooklyn. And she said, ‘Then you’re not Puerto Rican.’ It was a dismaying, upsetting kind of conversation, since growing up in Brooklyn I had plenty of people telling me, ‘You’re not American, you’re Puerto Rican.’ So I felt suspended somewhere over the Caribbean in that moment.”
Some families try to better understand their complex identities by creating their own unique terms. Roxanne Kaufman, a mother whose sons are half- Mexican, says that her children refer to themselves as “white Mexican.” Kaufman says she supports the name because she “[wants] them to know they have the best of both worlds.” Hinojosa’s own children, who are Dominican and Mexican, also use a hybrid term to explain their identity, calling themselves “DominiMex.”
So how can we better understand Latino identity? Hinojosa says that we need to have an ongoing, nationwide conversation about how members of the Latino community form their own identity. We also need to break down barriers. “Don’t be afraid to say to be people, ‘What do you call yourself? How do you identify?’” Hinojosa advises. “It’s a fluid conversation on identity, and everyone who lives in this country should certainly be a part of it.”