For the last few years, #HispanicHeritageMonth and #LatinxHeritageMonth have been used interchangeably on social media to mark the time of year where brands take notice of the segment of the community that’s been part of this nation for generations. The use of both hashtags points to the ongoing dilemma about what label to use for our community.
Many Latinx folks have distanced themselves from the term “Hispanic,” including the renowned Mexican-American writer, Sandra Cisneros, who uses the identifier “Latina.” Reflecting on the term, Cisneros says “‘Hispanic’ is English for a person of Latino origin who wants to be accepted by the white status quo.”
As a matter of preference, I also join Latinas like Cisneros in refusing to use the term, but I gained a new perspective after learning about the work of G.Cristina Mora, a sociologist at UC Berkeley and the author of Making Hispanics: How Activists, Bureaucrats, and Media Constructed a New America.
I like to use Latinx when speaking about us as a whole, Latina when I want to build community with women, and Mexican when I want to get specific. I use Mexican over Mexican-American because I am an immigrant who came to the country as a small child. I like Latinx as a political statement that declares my intent to be inclusive of all genders.
Yet, Mora’s work did let me view the term ‘Hispanic” with less vitriol. Mora writes how in the late ’60s, Mexican-American organizers in the Southwest and Puerto Rican activists in the Northeast lobbied the federal government to add a new category to the U.S. Census so that discrimination impacting their respective communities could be better measured and addressed. Terms like Brown, Latino, and Hispanic were all considered, but after some negotiating, the U.S. Census decided to go with “Hispanic Origin” and it was used for the first time in the 1970s Census. While Hispanic was not preferred by everyone, the activists largely viewed the addition of the category as a win and it was an important step to have the Federal government better understand the unique needs and challenges the community was facing, at a national scale.
“Hispanic connoted a national minority. East Coast and West Coast. When you now say that Hispanics are a 50 million population, that’s power,” Mora says about her research. “Striving towards one national image, while it gives you power, you also run the risk of homogenizing incredibly important differences.”
And it is perhaps these incredibly important differences within our community that are at the root of the countless think-pieces and reflections on labels when it comes to us.
My diminishing disdain for the term Hispanic also emerged from my time working for a national civil rights organization that used both Hispanic and Latino, recognizing regional differences with the use of the terms, and even different views about what each term means. Julia Dowling, a sociologist at the University of Illinois, and the author of Mexican Americans and the Question of Race, told NPR, “In Texas, the term that’s most commonly used is not Latino, it’s Hispanic. When I interviewed people, and asked ‘Who is Hispanic?’ the most common response that I got was: ’It’s someone of Mexican origin who was born here.’”
The first Hispanic Heritage week celebration started around the same time that the U.S. Census added the category, and the regional preferences for the term could be why #HispanicHeritageMonth lives on, even while #LatinxHeritageMonth continues to break through. To make matters more complicated, Hispanic/Latino is not a race. During the 2020 Census, the NALEO Education Fund created a breakdown just to help folks fill out what they called the “confusing” Hispanic origin and race questions. In the guide, NALEO writes “Hispanic origin and race are two different concepts, and everyone should answer both, even though many Latinos consider their Hispanic background to be their ‘race.” (Notice their use of both Latino and Hispanic).
When I filled out the Census in 2020, I had the same existential crisis that was mocked by TikTok videos. Growing up, I heard the term ‘mestiza’ in reference to what most people of Mexican descent are: a mixture of Indigenous and Spanish ancestry. I also came to celebrate terms like “Chicana” and the centering of the Indigenous part of our ancestry and how Mexican-Americans born in the U.S. embraced the term, taking back the power of what was once an insult hurled on them. As a Mexican immigrant, it did not feel like the right label for me.
“The terms Hispanic and Latino are insulting to Chicanos and Mexicanos because these words deny us our great Native Mexican heritage,” writes Leo Guerra Tezcatlipoca in this 1993 L.A.Times op-ed. We’ve been debating these terms for decades!
Living in a society still largely shaped by white supremacy, I recognize the unearned privilege I carry navigating this world as a white Latina. Yet, the term “white” feels so unfitting because it connotes more than physical traits in our society. It is associated with terms like ‘WASP’ and not associated with terms like “immigrant.”
Centuries of colonization and erasure have made it impossible for me to trace my Indigenous roots, yet they manifest in the bronze tone of my skin and how my nose is shaped. So, when it came time to complete the 2020 Census, what felt true to me at the time was to select two races: white and American-Indian/Alaska Native, where Mayan and Aztec were listed as examples of what could fall under that category. I joined a growing number of people of Hispanic-origin that selected a race other than white alone when completing the census. 2020 Census data suggests that the share of the population that is white is shrinking and that is, in part, due to how Hispanic people answered the race question on the Census.
Yet, my decision to include two races rather than selecting white leaves me uneasy. I ask myself if selecting anything other than white is a form of appropriation. Reflections on race and white supremacy is why I avoid using terms like, “women of color,” or don’t see myself in the term BIPOC. These are reasons why Latina or Mexican feels most accurate, though we know these are labels about ethnicity and nationality, not race. Feeling confused yet?
What is not confusing is that there is still much work to do to address the disparities that the advocates Mora talks about were aiming to fix when they called for the new Census category. A clear example is the approaching Latina Equal Pay Day which is on Oct. 20 and marks the date that the average pay of Latinas matches the average of what white males earned in 2020. So whether you use #HispanicHeritageMonth or #LatinxHeritageMonth, what matters is that we continue to build parity for our community in all segments of society even after October 15 like Dr. Ana-Christina Ramón so clearly put on Twitter.
Just to be clear, we don’t lose our culture or ethnic identity on October 16. We don’t disappear when #LatinxHeritageMonth is over. We are here and deserve the same attention from all these companies AFTER the 15th. Pay, promote, & market to us ALL year long. PERIOD.
— Ana-Christina Ramón, PhD (@DrAnaChristina) October 13, 2021