Being Latina has nothing to do with race

There has been a shift in the way the Latino community is being seen here in the United States. It’s like all of a sudden, everyone woke up and realized, “Hey, wait a second, maybe Latinos aren’t all one homogeneous group!” Part of me wants to be excited for this to sweep across America, and part of me is frustrated that it took this damn long. As a dark-skinned Latina it’s hard for me not to notice that, for the most part, depictions of us in the mainstream media tend to skew to certain stereotypes. Contrary to telenovelas and Hollywood films, we’re not all fair-skinned, brunette “firecrackers”--sorry about that! We are a seriously diverse group.

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For those of us who self-identify as Latino or Hispanic, the terms encompass notions of cultural identity (i.e. language, traditions, customs, food, etc.)  much more than it does race. Anyone who has ever visited Latin America can tell you we come in all shapes, sizes and colors. In Puerto Rico (where I’m from) there are three distinct cultures that make up the majority of our population; Native American (specifically Taino), African and Spanish. So, I can’t say I was all that shocked when census data was recently released saying that most Latinos in the U.S. opt to check the “Other” box rather than pigeon-holing themselves into racial definitions that are likely not applicable.

I can tell you that every time I have filled out the census form, I have checked “Other” and then written in the three cultures above. Census officials seem frustrated by this trend and are struggling with ways to get Latinos to actually choose a race. Census and government authority say that the reluctance of Latinos to pick a specific race out of those provided on the forms (white, black, American Indian, Alaska native, native Hawaiian, and a handful of Asian and Pacific Island identifications) winds up hurting our communities in the end because it is harder to determine what services are needed if the race question is not answered.

I find it really hard to swallow that logic for a variety of reasons. Why should racial makeup determine anything in so far as services are concerned? Race is such an arbitrary designation and there is absolutely no scientific reason to divide human populations by this difference. If it was easy to define what constitutes a “race,” then why haven’t the scientific minds behind the census (a survey that has been collected for hundreds of year) been able to create a question surrounding it that actually makes sense? For example, when did nationalities like Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese become “races”? Though every single one of the those countries speaks a unique language, aren’t they mostly generalized as Asian Americans once they move to the United States, just as we are generalized as Latinos?

It gets even stickier for those who do choose to pick a race and identify as Black. Many times it also has more to do with notions of exclusion rather than inclusion. Latinos are now self-identifying as “Afro-Latino” because they want to raise awareness of institutionalized racism while empowering their African heritage. As Miriam Jimenez Roman, 60, a scholar on race and ethnicity recently told the NY Times, “When you sit on the subway, you just see a black person, and that’s really what determines the treatment.”

It’s a harsh reality, but it is the truth. No one has ever, and will probably ever, say it better than Martin Luther King Jr. did back in 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

 Image via Ministerio da Cultura/Flickr