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Hispanic Heritage Month – A Time to Question Labels

In an ideal world, human classifications would not exist. Unfortunately, we do not live in that world. In the minds of most Americans, the population of the United States is divided into four major categories: White, Black, Asian and Hispanic. This view is continually reinforced by news reports, the entertainment media, academic and medical studies, and many government documents. But when we examine the basis for these classifications, they quickly become very dubious. 

Take the term “White” for example. This group includes people with common phenotypes originating from a large number of nations, most of which speak different languages. What’s more, the classification has changed over time. In the past, Italians, Jews and Irish were excluded from the group in the United States. 

The same paradigm is applied to those labeled Black and Asian. We group these people hailing from a variety of nations speaking different languages into a single group based on their physical characteristics. 

And then we have Hispanics. In this instance, people from over 20 nations speaking a single language are lumped into one group, regardless of their physical appearance. 

How did we arrive at such confusing classifications?

Little known to most Americans, the term “Hispanic” (or Latino, for that matter) did not exist until the last thirty-odd years. Although its origins remain unclear, it’s widely believed the term first came into official use during the 1970s by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in an effort to aid a collection of disadvantaged Spanish-speaking communities across Texas and California along with pockets of urban poverty in New York City and Chicago. The communities in Texas and California were primarily of Mexican origin while those in New York and Chicago were predominantly Puerto Rican. This well-meaning attempt to aid a group of disadvantaged "Hispanic communities" has morphed into a de facto racial label that has come to encompass all Spanish surnamed people in the United States. 

Despite being riddled with inconsistencies, why do these U.S. ethnic/racial classifications persist? “Time makes more converts than reason,” explained provocateur for American independence Thomas Paine. Fact is, through constant use over the last four decades we’ve come to accept the current U.S. ethnic/racial classifications as universal and timeless. They are neither. Hispanic and Latino are terms that exist only within the borders of the United States. Moreover, some demographers predict labels like White, Black, Asian and Hispanic will one day appear as dated as the now-discredited racial classifications from the past such as Mulatto, Quadroon, Teutonic, Alpine, and Brunet. 

Personally, I feel a bond with other Latinos and take great pride in my heritage. At the same time, shoehorning everyone with a Spanish surname into a single group with the assumption that we think, vote, eat, dress and look alike demeans all of us. The same can be said about those labeled White, Black and Asian as well. A wise person once said: Race is an illusion, but racism is real. 

Hispanic Heritage Month is a good time to remind ourselves that the assumptions we make about other people – and sometimes even ourselves – are often influenced more by preconceptions than by facts.