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Guest Voz: Researcher finds Latinos are creating a new “Americanized” identity

By Dr. Anthony Daniel Perez

LatinaLista — Dr. Anthony Daniel Perez is a post-doctoral research associate at the Center for Studies in Demography and Ecology and the department of sociology at the University of Washington. Dr. Perez’ research interests include race, ethnicity and social demography.
As a result, he analyzes data from various sources to test hypothesis regarding race and ethnic identity, with a particular focus on Latino identity. He has published papers in the Journal of Black Studies and in Health, Education, and Behavior, and has several more under review, including one entitled “Hispanic Today, Gone Tomorrow: Locating Ethnic Identity among Latino/a Youth.”
His latest paper, co-authored with Dr. Charles Hirschman, is The Changing Racial and Ethnic Composition of the US Population: Emerging American Identities.
Within this paper, Dr. Perez examines Hispanics as one of two new immigrant groups and how its identity is evolving. In response to a special request from Latina Lista, Dr. Perez expands his thoughts and analysis on Latino identity and what it means for the future of the United States.

Terms like Hispanic/Latino have always occupied an ambivalent space in my mind. At one turn seemingly meaningless labels imposed on dozens of diverse national, regional, and cultural groups—and yet powerful tools for coalition building and political mobilization.
Doubtless most of us are aware that these pan-ethnic terms (like those used for other groups) refer to “Americanized” social categories rather than “real” populations like Salvadorians, Dominicans, and Columbians. But how many of us are aware that self-identified “Hispanics” now outnumber all of those groups combined, and might further signal a process of integration, or even acculturation, among 3rd and later generation Latinos?
In the last complete count of the Latino/a population, the 2000 Census finds more than a dozen Spanish-origin populations numbering 100,000 or more. While Mexicans comprise the lion’s share of all Latinos, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and every Central and South American origin group are dwarfed by the 5.5 million Hispanics who claim what could be considered a new “Americanized” identity.
That is, some 16 percent of Latinos identify simply as “Hispanic/Spanish/Latino” and do not claim a specific national or regional origin. Second only to Mexicans in size, this large, pan-ethnic group outnumbers Latinos from every South and Central American nation combined.
But who are these self-proclaimed “Hispanics”?

We know only a few things with certainty. The first is that most of them are not immigrants. More than 70% of those who claim to be simply “Hispanic” on the 2000 Census are native born, compared to just 40% of other Latinos, the vast majority of whom are recent immigrants.
In related research on Latino/a youth, I find that only a small number of vague “Hispanic” identifiers speak Spanish at home or live in a co-ethnic neighborhood, and many are the children of interracial unions.
Not all of these persons are 2nd, 3rd, and later generation Latinos, however. An untold fraction were never immigrants, and were never even technically Latino/a, per se.
My wife’s family, e.g., is Tejana—the border crossed them—as she often reminds me. Certainly there is a sizable, if unknown, population of mixed Spanish/indigenous descent that lived in Texas and the American Southwest long before these areas were annexed by the United States.
Still other self-described “Hispanics” do have specific, albeit much older (on the family tree) Latin American origins, but choose to identify with pan-ethnic categories like “Hispanic/Latino” instead.
To the extent that the loss of language and concrete identities signals a weakening of ethnic ties for many long-resident Latinos, could this evidence signal a process of intergenerational incorporation similar to that experienced by former “white ethnics” from Southern and Eastern Europe in the 20th century?
After all, many of these groups were racialzed and stigmatized as non-white “others” and further subjected to xenophobia, restrictive immigration policies, and worse. Yet today, the particulars of whites’ Ancestries, be they Jewish, Italian, or Irish, have little bearing on life outcomes.
These identities are largely elective, highly symbolic, and can often be claimed or ignored at will. Tellingly, evidence suggests that “Hispanic” youth who no longer identify in detailed ethnic terms (Mexican, Cuban, e.g.) are far less likely to consistently identify as Latino. Similar work by Brian Duncan and Steve Trejo finds that some 3rd and later generation Hispanics may no longer identify Hispanic origins (vague or otherwise) at all.
It’s been half a century since Milton Gordon observed that ethnicity cannot survive assimilation. Scores of immigrants have come to the U.S. over the centuries, settled in neighborhoods with their compatriots, and retained their ethnic roots. But within a generation, they or their children typically learn English, intermarry with other Americans of different backgrounds, and ancestral ties begin to fade.
With several more generations, most Americans begin to lose track of their complex family trees, and what was once “ethnic culture” becomes the new American mainstream. With the recent surge of new immigrants in recent decades, and the current climate of anti-Latino xenophobia and intolerance (epitomized by the viscous hate crimes in New York and Pennsylvania last year), talk of a reincarnated ethnic “melting-pot” might ring hollow.
But then again, today’s immigrants will bear tomorrow’s native born. If past is truly prologue, the “browning of America” may be a generation (or two) away.

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  • Karen
    April 10, 2009 at 12:19 pm

    An American identity is only new for recent immigrants. The rest of us already know we’re Americans despite the stupid activists who insist otherwise.
    As for this study, the census forms from which he gathers his data limit our choices to categories pre-selected by the government. Plus we’re told that if you don’t mark their boxes, you won’t be counted.
    Personally, I have never felt comfortable with the words “Latino/Chicano,” etc. but I have marked them before because the only other choice was not to be counted.

  • Irma
    April 11, 2009 at 4:10 pm

    Unlike the white “ethnics” of the past who basically lost most of their cultural ties to Europe including language , food etc – most Hispanics like African Americans cannot drop the color of their skin. This is in part why African Americans have complained (and rightly so) that they have always been outsiders. The same will be true for Hispanics who have dark skin.
    Personally, it is my hope that Hispanic
    Americans figure out ways to retain the
    cultural heritage of their ancestors.
    Monolingualism is not something that
    should be preferred to mulitlingualism.
    The best example of this, would I think be the Jewish people. Despite not having a country of their own until recently, they survived as a people ,
    spread out over multiple countries by retaining their language , culture and
    in some cases their reiligion. American Jews have shown that is possible to adhere and value the best of the country they live in and the
    rich heritage of their past.
    Hispanics and all new immigants can do the same and REMAIN Americans.

  • Sandra
    April 12, 2009 at 7:47 am

    I just have one question to ask. What are “restrictive” immigration policies? We take in millions of legal immigrants every year from different ethnic groups. As for Latinos, they are alotted the second highest percentages only by a few points lower than Asians. Where is this so-called “restrictionist” policy?

  • Irma
    April 13, 2009 at 1:13 pm

    I too am not really comfortable with calling myself a Latina/Chicana. I am an American citizen of 100% Mexican heritage so I call myself Mexican-American.
    It fits, Thanksgiving day for me always meant turkey, stuffing , pie AND beans, rice and tortillas………..

  • Anthony Daniel Perez
    April 21, 2009 at 8:51 pm

    Karen–Just a few clarifications on the Census. While you are right that the questionnaire lists only a limited number of categories, there are multiple sections for open-ended responses (American Indian Tribes, Asian nations, Pacific Islands, South and Central American countries, etc), and these responses ARE retained (This is why we are able to obtain counts for Colombians, Chippewas, and Laotians, even though none of these categories are listed). Census workers log thousands of hours coding responses to various open-ended sections of the form. The only responses they cannot (by law) retain are religious write-ins. Incidentally, our largest federal surveys use the same system of classification, though it’s certainly the case that smaller agencies and organizations often provide smaller lists on their forms, as many lack the space to include every conceivable category (the census codes more than 1,000!), and few have the manpower to hand code write-ins. Also, the Census Bureau and other government agencies don’t set the policies on race/ethnic measurement and classification. These are determined by the White House Office of Management and Budget, which requires only six minimum categories (White, Black, AIAN, Asian, NHOPI, and Hispanic).

  • Anthony Daniel Perez
    April 21, 2009 at 9:18 pm

    Your point about skin color is well taken, but by no means does it apply to “most” Hispanics. More Hispanics identify racially as white than with any other racial category, and in research that compares self-reported identities with 3rd person appraisals (based on yearbook photos), I find that fewer than half of all Hispanics look Hispanic to a random sample of observers. Ask yourself the following: Would you consider Martin Sheen, Cameron Diaz, or Christina Aguilera Hispanic if you didn’t know them and bumped into them on the street? Admittedly none of these persons share the “brown” look stereotypically associated with Hispanics, and they are certainly not alone, at least from a demographic standpoint. We are, after all, a “raza” of mixed European, indigenous, and African descent. If we know ourselves to come in many shades and colors, we should find little surprise in learning that others may perceive us the same way.
    Still, for Latinos that do fit the the dominant stereotype, there may be, as you note, little hope of simply “blending in.”

  • Karen
    April 25, 2009 at 2:12 pm

    Re: “none of these persons share the “brown” look stereotypically associated with Hispanics, and they are certainly not alone…”
    It’s not a stereotype. The majority of Latinos in the US are of Mexican descent and of Indian or Indian/European ancestry, with brown/olive skin. That’s a fact. I wish they had a category for us, but it’s not politically correct.
    That’s why this Latino/Hispanic category doesn’t work for me. It takes too many people of different backgrounds and tries to lump them together as one ethnic group. It’s fake.
    And I don’t believe that most Latinos identify as white. I have marked white on the cesnsus in the past, only because there is no racial category on the census that describes me.

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