Looking in the Cultural Mirror

How understanding race and culture helps us answer the question: "Who am I?"


Are Latinos a race? The census and American culture disagree.

When I was in the first grade in Manhattan-could it really have been in the late 1940s?-I had a playmate named Mariano. His parents came from Puerto Rico and spoke little English, which was just fine with my mother, who had been a Spanish major. Back then, most Spanish speakers in New York were Puerto Rican, and Puerto Rican was the generic racial term used to refer to all Latin Americans. Both whites and blacks might-with no sense of irony or incongruity--utter a sentence like "He's a Puerto Rican from Mexico." Later, perhaps because increasing numbers of immigrants from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and other Latin American countries made the term untenable, Hispanic became the new word to refer to the same vaguely defined range of people.

I have a problem with the term Hispanic. I lived in Brazil for a couple of years-a transformative experience-and I return there periodically. I consider Brazil my second culture. I have close friends there, including, sadly, a few who have died-bringing home the meaning of "lower life expectancy in the Third World." Brazil has more than half the population of South America and occupies more than half its land mass. Nearly everyone there speaks Portuguese. If I may be permitted a bit of Brazilian ethnocentrism, I would point out that South America is a predominantly Portuguese speaking continent-especially since tens of millions of people in the rest of the continent speak Quechua, Aymara, Guarani, and other indigenous languages as their first, primary, or only language. Hispanic suggests Spanish speaking, and when Brazilian friends come to visit, they complain of interactions like the following:

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"Where are you from?"


"How interesting. My son is taking Spanish in high school."

So Latino feels much better to me, because it includes Brazilians. In addition to language, however, there is also the question of race.

In American folk terms, whites, blacks and Latinos are three races, as in "He's not black, he's a Latino," or "She's not white, she's a Latina." And most Americans would agree that discrimination against Latinos is racial discrimination. A century ago, Italians came to the US, and now their descendants are white. At the same time, other Italians went to Brazil, and when their branco descendants visit me they are Latinos-not quite as white as Italian Americans.

The 2010 census says that Latinos can be any race-creating the hierarchical paradox that Latinos are a race that can be any race. Most Mexicans have more New World ancestry than most Native Americans-but Mexican Americans can't say they are Native Americans because their ancestors weren't born in the US. This is just one of the reasons that "Other" has been the most rapidly growing census category.

Given all the complications that language, ethnic classification, and racial classification create for Latinos in the US, I sometimes wonder what cultural identity Mariano developed as he grew into adulthood.


Image Source: Diogo Dubiella (Carnival, Marquês de Sapucaí, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil) http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kellykey.jpg


Check out my most recent book, The Myth of Race, which debunks common misconceptions, as well as my other books athttp://amazon.com/Jefferson-M.-Fish/e/B001H6NFUI

The Myth of Race is available on Amazon http://amzn.to/10ykaRU and Barnes & Noble http://bit.ly/XPbB6E

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Jefferson M. Fish, Ph.D., a Professor Emeritus of Psychology at St. John's University, has authored and edited 12 books, including The Myth of Race.


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