By Miriam Jordan (Wall Street Journal)
Nearly four decades after the U.S. government assigned the pan-ethnic terms “Hispanic” or “Latino” to classify and count U.S. residents who trace their origin to Spanish-speaking countries, the majority of people who make up the diverse group still don’t embrace the label, according to a new national survey.
Only 24% of Hispanic adults said they most often identified themselves as Hispanic or Latino, according to a survey released Wednesday by the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan think tank. About half said they identified themselves most frequently by their family’s national origin, saying they were Mexican, Cuban or Salvadoran, for example. An additional 21% said they called themselves American most often, a figure that climbed to 40% among those born in the U.S.
“Hispanic” and “Latino” have become embedded in the American mosaic, appearing in Census forms, newspapers and political polling since the U.S. government in 1976 passed a law requiring federal agencies to collect data on people who trace their ancestry to Spanish-speaking countries by aggregating them in one group. The classification is based on common language, culture and heritage.
But people placed in that category aren’t a homogeneous lot: While the majority of them have roots in Mexico, they also include Puerto Ricans, Argentines, Colombians, Cubans and Spaniards, among others.
Indeed, when asked whether Latinos in the U.S. had a common culture, just 29% of Hispanics agreed, according to the Pew survey. The lion’s share, almost 70%, said Latinos had many different cultures.
“That catch-all [Hispanic] label has a particular meaning only in the U.S. context in which it was constructed and is applied, and where its meaning continues to evolve,” said Ruben Rumbaut, a sociologist at the University of California, Irvine, who has written about the topic.
In the last decade or so, U.S. residents classified as Hispanic have emerged as the second-largest population group in the country, after whites, and the largest minority group, having surpassed African-Americans. Latinos now number about 50 million and account for 16% of the U.S. population. By 2050 they will number about 128 million and equal 29% of the national total, according to projections by Pew demographer Jeffrey Passel.
Today, “Hispanics” appear in official forms as an ethnic category that can be any race. The 2010 U.S. Census form had two identity questions. The first asked if a person was “of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin.” Next, it asked the person’s race, providing 15 possible boxes to check. For example, a Cuban immigrant or an individual of Cuban ancestry might choose Hispanic and then black, if that is his or her race.
On the Census form, 53% of Hispanics picked their race as white; 37% selected “some other race.” In the Pew survey, a third called themselves white, a quarter said they were “some other race” and another quarter volunteered that they were “Hispanic or Latino” despite the fact the U.S. government treats the term as an ethnicity rather than racial category.
Hispanics become more likely to embrace the term Hispanic or Latino as they become more assimilated, the study suggests. Among immigrant Hispanics, more than six in 10 say they use their family’s country of origin to describe themselves. Among the second generation, the share using their family’s country of origin drops to 43%. And among third-generation Hispanics, the grandchildren of immigrants, the share is only 28%, the survey found.
Marisol Hernandez, 35, who was born and raised in California, says she describes herself as a Latina. But her mother, who immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico decades ago, “has never called herself Latina or Hispanic,” says Ms. Hernandez. “She will always consider herself a Mexicana.”
U.S.-born Latinos now make up 48% of all Hispanic adults in the country. Overall, Hispanics born in the U.S. now outnumber those who are immigrants.
Hispanic adults are divided over how much in common they share with other Americans. About half in the survey said they considered themselves to be a “typical American.” And another half said they were “very different” from a typical American.
The more affluent, English-dominant and American-born, the more likely Hispanics are to call themselves typical Americans.
The use of “American” to describe oneself was used by just 8% of immigrants, compared with 35% of second-generation Hispanics, their children, and 48% of third-generation Hispanics, the survey found.
Two decades after settling in the U.S., Hermelinda Emerita says in Spanish that “I am Mexican and that’s what I call myself, not Hispanic.” Her 9-year-old son, Marcos, who was born in the U.S., also eschews the term. “I am American. From the U.S. of A,” he says.
Write to Miriam Jordan at firstname.lastname@example.org