Sunday, November 9, 2008

What's in a Name? The Evolution from Hispanic to Latino

On election night I did a brief commentary for a Boston radio station. They wanted to know how the "latino" vote would go in New Mexico. Happy to accommodate, I used the term "latino," and rattled off my stats, instead of using the more locally used term "hispanic."

In my lifetime, the terms used to designate people of Spanish-speaking heritage have evolved. In the 1950s people from northern New Mexico called themselves "Spanish Americans" or "hispanos." In some areas of the north the term is still popular today, but not exclusive. But chicanos from the South came in two major varieties: there were "Mexicans," and "Mexican nationals." Mexican nationals were braceros, who came on short contracts to do agricultural labor. The term "Mexican" referred not to nationality but to ethnic background,although it suggested stronger attachment to a nation than usually was the case, and the term suggested poverty and low status. Highly educated people in those days frequently used the term "Mexican American" as a signal of inclusion into the All-American melting pot, and as a signal they did not share prejudicial attitudes toward the group.

By the late 1960s and early 1970s there was a strong movement, particularly among the young, to switch to the term "chicano," a self-conscious effort for internal unity behind a single term, and one which carried a political message of ethnic pride and political struggle to overcome prejudice. After a long period of tension between people of Hispanic heritage (is that the right term?)the term "chicano" came into the mainstream, adopted by Anglos as well as (choose one of the following: mexicans, mexican americans, chicanos, hispanics, latinos).

Then in 1980, for political reasons, the Census Bureau adopted the term Hispanic, precisely as a way of statistically unifying people of Hispanic heritage (which by now included many Puerto Ricans, Cuban-Americans, and people from south of Mexico, as well as people who preferred terms like "chicano" or "Mexican American") behind one relatively value-neutral, socially acceptable term. Gradually the term "Hispanic" gained steam and was the overwhelming choice of just about everyone by the 1990s, as the term chicano began to fall out of favor.

But by this time the term "latino" began creeping into the vocabulary of Californians, and it gradually spread East. The advantage of the term "latino" appears to be that it carries the flavor of culture, and even of various distinct cultures, while still being politically neutral, in comparison with the more abstract, bureaucratic-sounding "Hispanic." Moreover, it harks back to the term "Latin America," which is more specific and which includes the millions of people who came to the U.S. from South of Mexico, while remaining neutral about nationality.

When Boston radio guys start using the term "latino" can we in New Mexico be far behind?

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